“You and I are told increasingly we have to choose between a left or right. Well, I’d like to suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There’s only an up or down: up to man’s old-aged dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order, or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism.” This was the decision Ronald Reagan presented to his audience in his famous “Time for Choosing” speech in October 1964: between free-market economics and a centrally planned society. When he delivered those words, the former movie star was at the vanguard of a conservative movement that would eventually transform the Republican Party and American politics. The speech helped launch Reagan’s political career—to the governorship of California and then the presidency.

Almost 60 years later, former vice president Mike Pence has given his own “time for choosing” speech, at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics. Pence has far more gray hair than Reagan did in 1964, and he also speaks in a different context, when the legacy of twentieth-century movement conservatism has been challenged by an insurgent populism. Whereas Reagan offered a choice between Republican Barry Goldwater and Democrat Lyndon Johnson, Pence said Republicans faced a choice between conservatism and “the siren song of populism.” Pence’s speech offers a window into the tensions within the current Republican coalition.

Pence’s brief against populism is that it is an echo of political progressivism, not a real alternative to it. He called for the GOP to remain true to its heritage as a party of “strong national defense, limited government, and traditional values.” He argued that many populists want to withdraw from the world stage and were too comfortable with the exercise of centralized government power.

Pence’s speech drew some red lines. He denounced Donald Trump’s 2022 call for the “termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution” in order either to install himself in the Oval Office or to have a new election. It’s a sign of the unpopularity of terminating the Constitution within the Republican electorate that most of Trump’s political allies pointedly have not endorsed that 2022 statement, and that Trump immediately retreated from it.

However, other parts of Pence’s speech might indicate areas of flexibility. He argued that the record of the Trump-Pence administration was a “conservative” one. His speech contained telling admissions. He noted that the grievances motivating populism were real. “Government institutions have failed us and broken our trust,” globalization and economic disruption have accentuated inequality, many places have been “left behind,” and the “epidemic of addiction” has ravaged the nation. Also, we live “in a very different time” from Reagan’s day, when the Cold War dominated global politics and the People’s Republic of China was much poorer. Pence rejected the idea that conservatives should “replicate every Reagan policy”; instead, they should “emulate” his guiding principles.

The challenge and the opportunity for Pence’s project is putting meat on the bones of how to emulate Reagan to address contemporary dissatisfactions. Ironically, while his speech relied upon sharp theoretical distinctions between populists and conservatives, certain policies might speak to the aims of both camps.

While Pence criticized Ron DeSantis for his battle with Disney, DeSantis’s economic platform also calls for the rolling back of regulations—something Pence himself pledges to do. Marco Rubio is one of the leading members of the informal “realignment” caucus in the Senate, and, for Labor Day, his office released an in-depth report on the economic challenges facing American men. The report has won plaudits from more populist-sympathetic commentators, and many of its recommendations—from expanding vocational education to eliminating tax penalties for marriage—seem compatible with the “Reaganite” vision that Pence champions. Like Rubio, Pence has argued that U.S. manufacturing should be reinforced. Pence laments “red tape, taxes, logistics, and permitting” as drags on American manufacturing; Rubio says that Congress should “start by rolling back or reforming the burdensome regulations that make the United States an uncompetitive destination for industry.” Potential affinities exist here. So do possible tensions: it’s unclear, for instance, whether Pence would agree with some of the more proactive industrial-strategy elements Rubio recommends.

True to his reputation as a fiscal hawk when he served in the House, Pence said that “maybe worst of all” is the populist refusal to control spending. Here again, the dynamics get complicated for Republicans. A recent Pew poll found that 72 percent of Republicans worry about the size of the federal deficit, set to double to $2 trillion this year. The federal debt has a frightening trajectory. At the same time, polling also indicates that Republicans are split on federal entitlements (a major driver of spending), with a plurality—if not a majority—opposing entitlement cuts. This suggests drawbacks in using economic austerity as the leading message for an anti-populist effort.

Ron DeSantis’s economic platform has attempted to fuse elements of traditional Republican economics with “realignment” policy imperatives. While Pence has branded himself as trying to restore or preserve the Reagan legacy, his project will probably have to acknowledge the forces that have prompted an appetite for political disruption within the Republican Party. Defenders of market-oriented economics will need to show how their programs can rise to the challenge of discontent at home and a changed global situation.

Pence is one of the most disciplined figures on the national stage. During his years as vice president, a mask of reserve hardened on his face as he navigated the controversies of the Trump term and the unique challenges of serving as Trump’s point man. In his New Hampshire speech, by contrast, he grew warm when talking about meeting Ronald Reagan in the Blue Room at the White House as a 29-year-old. But while Reagan could speak stirringly about principle, he was also a wily operator—weaving together tax cuts and tax hikes, market economics and import quotas, and confrontation and conciliation with the Soviets. Those seeking to claim his mantle might have to show a similar nimbleness.

Photo by JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images


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