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The One-Legged Stool
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The One-Legged Stool

A final farewell to traditional conservatism in 2024.

(Photos from Getty Images.)

When did Reaganism die?

“2016,” you say? Nah. Like Westley in The Princess Bride, it was only mostly dead then.

Nearly every Trump alternative in that year’s GOP’s enormous primary field ran as a Reaganite. (Yes, even John Kasich. Less so Rand Paul.) Trump’s most formidable opponents, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, tailored their politics to the traditional right-wing coalition that Reagan famously described as a three-legged stool. One leg is fiscal conservatives, the next is social conservatives, the last is defense hawks. On the strength of those three legs depend the GOP’s chances at victory, the Gipper claimed. Cruz and Rubio conducted themselves accordingly.

Trump prevailed but did so with comparatively modest pluralities in the early going as the conservative majority splintered among Reaganites. That fall he eked past a widely despised Democrat to win the presidency with a smaller share of the popular vote than Mitt Romney received in 2012 running on a vintage “three-legged stool” program against charismatic incumbent Barack Obama.

Reaganism was only mostly dead in 2016.

Next year is the year it truly dies.

There will still be recognizably Reaganite candidates onstage at the coming debates. For instance, this video from Nikki Haley’s nascent campaign is encouraging inasmuch as it identifies Vladimir Putin as a “foe” of the United States, a hint that she intends to confront the right’s authoritarian useful idiots.

The two Mikes, Pence and Pompeo, can also be trusted to run familiar three-legged-stool campaigns that evince bitter contempt for Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine. Pence is so invested in returning to traditional conservatism, in fact, that he’s taken to chattering about privatizing Social Security.

The difference between 2016 and 2024 isn’t that there’ll be no Reaganites in the field next time. The difference is that the Reaganites will stand no chance of winning.

The two guys who do stand a chance will aim to form a coalition that looks quite different from the three-legged stool. By the time Trump and DeSantis are done, that stool could have one leg. And even that leg might be wobbly.

As further evidence that Reaganism didn’t quite die in 2016, consider some of Trump’s positions on the campaign trail and during his first year as president.

He broke sharply with the fiscal priorities of Paul-Ryan-ism as a candidate when he vowed to protect entitlements. But he also worried enough about securing the first leg of the proverbial stool that he felt obliged to promise, absurdly, that he’d eliminate the national debt if given eight years as president.

After taking office, he dashed populist fantasies of a Republican redistribution program for the working class by signing tax cuts that created the biggest windfall for the highest earners, spearheaded by Ryan himself. By no means were those cuts fiscally conservative in substance given their effect on the deficit. But in the degraded sense of what “fiscal conservatism” means in Republican politics—tax cuts, period—it kept the first leg sturdy.

How about the second leg? It’s true that Trump was unusually sanguine about gay rights, including gay marriage, for a Republican candidate. But he tacked right in a number of ways to try to appease social conservatives, starting with his choice of a pious evangelical as a running mate over the Trumpier Chris Christie.

The idea that a louche billionaire playboy from Manhattan might adamantly oppose abortion has always been absurd but that’s the image Trump cultivated as he tried to keep the second leg from going wobbly. In 1999 he called himself “very pro-choice,” opposing even partial-birth abortion. By 2016, as a Republican candidate, he was pledging to overturn Roe v. Wade and calling for pregnant women—not just their doctors but the women themselves—to be punished if they terminated their pregnancies. Informed that that view was too hardline even for most conservatives, he quickly abandoned it. Then he tacked left by suggesting that abortion laws, i.e. Roe, should remain unchanged. Then he walked that back too.

That kind of incoherence is what happens when you speak pro-life as a second or even third language. Trump obviously didn’t care deeply about banning abortion. But he knew that Reagan’s stool wouldn’t stand without its second leg so he said what he had to say to social conservatives to make them believe that he did.

The third leg of the stool represented Trump’s sharpest break with Reaganite orthodoxy. He criticized the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, questioned whether the U.S. should defend Europe if Russia attacked, and made admiring noises about Putin’s leadership. The bit in the Haley video about America being a force for good and its domestic detractors straining to blame the country for the world’s ills is an obvious shot at Trump’s brand of nationalist isolationism.

But his isolationism isn’t the same as, say, Ron Paul’s. Trump repeatedly sought to assure conservative hawks in 2016 that he’d demonstrate “strength” as president despite his skepticism of foreign interventions. He endorsed using torture against outfits like ISIS in order to “beat the savages.” He suggested bombing terrorists’ families to deter terrorism and, when told that it would be illegal, boasted that the military would obey his orders anyway. Less than three months after being sworn in, he bombed Syria to punish Assad for a chemical weapons attack on his own people. Later that year, he threatened to nuke North Korea. And of course, through it all, he boasted that he’d break with his predecessors and get tough on Chy-nah.

Internationalist hawks were dismayed by his soft line on Russia but less doctrinaire right-wingers could feel reassured that a figure as obsessed with toughness as Trump wouldn’t be a pushover for any enemies. The third leg held.

I don’t know if the three legs will hold in 2024. The dynamics of a Trump/DeSantis death match portend a race to the nationalist bottom.

Take the first leg. How fiscally conservative do we expect Trump and his surrogates to be in the coming primary?

If MAGA Republicans booing Joe Biden for claiming that they want to sunset entitlements wasn’t enough of a clue, consider what Trump posted last month about the coming debt ceiling standoff. “Cut waste, fraud and abuse everywhere that we can find it and there is plenty, there’s plenty of it,” he advised House Republicans. But then a caveat: “Under no circumstances should Republicans vote to cut a single penny from Medicare or Social Security. … Do not cut the benefits our seniors worked for and paid for their entire lives. Save Social Security, don’t destroy it.”

There was more to that demand than met the eye. It was, in fact, a shot across the bow at DeSantis.

Read Josh Barro’s analysis of what Biden was up to strategically with his State of the Union speech. Stealing Republicans’ “populist thunder” by demagoging them on entitlements wasn’t designed to hurt Trump, it was designed to hurt DeSantis. The governor is glaringly exposed on Social Security and Medicare from his days as a backbencher in the House a decade ago, Barro notes.

Gov. DeSantis, who at this point is edging toward being their presumptive nominee, voted repeatedly as a member of Congress for budget proposals built around slashing Social Security and Medicare. In 2013 and 2014, he voted to replace then-Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s budget-cutting proposals with more radical budget-cutting proposals. The 2013 proposal would have raised the retirement ages for both Social Security and Medicare to 70, cut the growth rate of Social Security benefits, and changed Medicare from a program that guarantees access to health insurance into one that would have provided a stipend payment that would not, over time, have necessarily kept pace with the actual cost to buy health insurance.

Last night’s speech was a preview of the likely Biden attacks on DeSantis in a 2024 campaign: These guys say they won’t touch your Social Security or Medicare, but some of them want to, their Senate campaign chair put out a plan that would cause the program to expire after five years, and the guy they want to make president voted over and over again when he was in Congress to slash these programs you care about. By the way, they all keep voting to gut Medicaid — that’s not even controversial in the Republican Party. Democrats are the only party you can trust to protect these programs.

Trump, who’s begun posting old videos of DeSantis comparing himself to Paul Ryan, will make a substantially similar argument against the governor in the primary.

And when he does, DeSantis will inevitably disavow his votes as a congressman and swear that as president they’ll have to carry him out of the Oval Office before he signs a bill reforming Medicare or Social Security.

He’s a panderer, after all. His trajectory from 2013 to 2023 reveals him to be a politician with a single M.O.: He chases whatever ideological fad the populists in his party happen to be chasing at a given moment and then tries to be 20 percent “extra” about it. Paul Ryan wants to trim entitlements? Rep. DeSantis will take a chainsaw to entitlements. Donald Trump wants to own the libs by building a wall? Gov. DeSantis will spend Florida taxpayers’ money to dump migrants in the libs’ backyards.

With Tea Party conservatism no longer in vogue among populists, DeSantis will surely remain true to form by not just renouncing his prior interest in dismantling the welfare state but pledging to expand it if elected president. He and Trump might end up in a competition to see who can condemn entitlement reform more emphatically and persuasively. A party that began walking away from its pretensions to responsible budgeting in 2016 will begin sprinting.

The most we’ll get on fiscal responsibility from the leading contenders in 2024 is their support for the kabuki theater of this summer’s debt ceiling fight, which is 100 percent about sticking it to Democrats and zero percent about meaningfully addressing the debt. What’s left of the first leg of the stool?

Things look even grimmer for the next leg, foreign-policy hawks.

Trump hasn’t said publicly which side he’s supporting in the Ukraine war. We can all guess, but one thing he hates worse than the Western liberal order is associating himself with “weakness” and losers. So he’s kept the weak losers in Moscow at arm’s length. So far.

Lately, however, he’s begun to play to the authoritarians in his base by pleading for an immediate end to the conflict. A demand like that doesn’t favor either side in the abstract, but in practice it’s a call for Ukrainian surrender. Ukraine depends on America’s largesse for its defense, after all. By proposing near-term peace at all costs, Trump is signaling that he’d cut Kyiv off as president.

The soundbite below is also instructive. It takes a special cretin to hand-wave away Putin’s fantasies about reconstituting Russia’s empire at the barrel of a gun by blaming Joe Biden for having somehow goaded him into attacking.

As with entitlements, Trump’s position on Ukraine is partly a gambit aimed at DeSantis’ previous life as a doctrinaire Reaganite Republican. “Trump is the peace president and he’s the first president in two generations to not start a war, whereas if you look at DeSantis’ congressional record, he’s voted for more engagement and more military engagement overseas,” a person close to his campaign warned Politico.

Trump should find populist voters receptive to that point. Last month a YouGov poll found for the first time that a narrow majority of Republicans want their representative in Congress to oppose further funding for the Ukrainian effort. He’s probably also seen clips like this, in which a pre-gubernatorial DeSantis scoffs at the idea of restraining Putin through diplomacy.

Because the governor is an incorrigible chaser of populist fads, he’s destined to chase the pro-Russia fad among Trump’s voters once he’s in the race and starts offering his views about Ukraine. Here again we’re destined to see the big two compete with each other to prove which is more eager to pander to nationalists, this time by selling out Zelensky to Putin. And not just Zelensky: Remember that, per John Bolton, Trump mused about quitting NATO altogether in a second term as president. Can DeSantis match that show of isolationist bravado? I bet he’ll try.

So that’s two legs of the stool that are likely to go wobbly.

The third, social conservatism, is the one that should remain firm. Trump’s legacy as a pro-life warrior was forever secured once he became the president whose Supreme Court appointees overturned Roe, however much that might discomfit him. DeSantis, meanwhile, has waged culture war repeatedly over LGBT issues in Florida, from the so-called “don’t say gay” bill to treatments for trans people at state universities to liquor licenses for nonprofits that hosted drag shows attended by kids. It’s a cinch that he and the Republican state legislature will tighten Florida’s 15-week abortion ban before the current legislative session ends as well.

Nationalism is a program of isolationism, welfare-state liberalism, and cultural conservatism. The third of those three is the only one that also functions as a leg of Reagan’s three-legged stool, and because it does, it should remain sturdy in 2024. Especially if the candidates end up trying to one-up each other by proposing new federal legislation to restrict abortion.

Then again, Trump is nothing if not unpredictable. I suppose pro-lifers could also find themselves disappointed next year.

What’s a disgruntled Reaganite to do?

In assessing whether the three-legged stool is likely to lose one or more of its legs, we should recognize that conservative voters will inevitably compare Trump’s and DeSantis’ positions to the liberal alternative. For most, it won’t matter much to their vote that the eventual Republican nominee is far more nationalist than conservative in outlook. If you’re a Reaganite voter trapped in a two-party system, the relevant question will be: Which of the two parties is closer to Reaganism?

That’s not as easy to answer as it seems.

It’s easy on social issues. If you’re a moderate Republican, the post-Dobbs push in red states toward strict abortion bans may have given you something to think about. But if you’re a traditional socially conservative Republican “values voter,” the GOP remains the only game in town. Democrats are radically pro-choice and terrified of contradicting progressive dogma about transgenderism. They’re offering you nothing.

The picture gets hazier on fiscal issues. Unlike Democrats, Republicans still make a pretense of wanting to cut spending. Doesn’t that make them more Reaganite by comparison?

I don’t know. Does it? What is a pretense worth if the party never actually gets around to cutting spending and increasingly aligns with Democratic spending priorities? Libertarian Veronique de Rugy has a post today at National Review congratulating Biden for having proved in his State of the Union speech that there’s functionally no difference anymore between the liberal and MAGA agendas. “Subsidies for favored manufacturing, industrial policies, protectionism, anti-big-tech policies, and more” are all points in common, she notes, as of course is the devout belief that unsustainable entitlements must remain sacrosanct.

One could argue that the deficit gets worse faster when Democrats hold the national purse strings, but that isn’t always true either. When the left spends, it at least aims to cover the cost with tax hikes. When Republicans spend, they usually stick the next generation of taxpayers with the bill.

With respect to the third leg of the stool, hawkishness, a case can be made at this point that Democrats, not Republicans, are the more Reaganite party. That would change if Haley or Pence ended up as the GOP’s nominee. But Haley and Pence aren’t going to end up as the GOP’s nominee.

Democrats aren’t looking to pull out of NATO. They’re not aiming to make the world safe for authoritarianism by letting Russia conquer Ukraine. They’re not going to pull U.S. troops out of South Korea or have a back-slapping session with Kim Jong-un at the DMZ. They’re not soft on Chinese commies either: Biden has warned repeatedly that we’ll defend Taiwan and, as if to prove the point, Nancy Pelosi defied China’s objections by visiting the island last year. And they will, on occasion, liquidate a bad guy or two.

Their populist base is deeply suspect on foreign policy, no doubt. But so is ours. Have you watched Tucker lately, man?

Add all of that up and it seems we have a three-legged stool with one functioning leg and no strong reason to think Ron DeSantis will start making repairs if he prevails in the primary. If you’re a traditional conservative, that makes the choice in the 2024 general election more complicated than it should be—especially given the populist tendency toward paranoia and anti-intellectualism on subjects that shouldn’t divide easily along left/right lines but increasingly do. It’s one thing to support a reliably conservative movement designed by and for conspiratorial morons. Whom do you support when that movement isn’t reliably conservative anymore?

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.