The Republicans have boasted of replacing the Democrats as the party of change, but in this regard the Democrats have changed more dramatically than the Republicans.
By 1960, the Democrats had advanced nearly completely beyond FDR. Their nominee that year, Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, was the son of a Roosevelt skeptic-turned-antagonist, and he spoke of a “new generation of leadership” as a way of moving beyond the New Deal.
There were few allusions to FDR in the JFK lexicon. His speech was an idiom all its own, the rhythms and accent pointedly New England and not New York, forward-looking, obsessed with the future, with themes (space, racial justice, anti-communism) that had no roots whatsoever in Roosevelt or the New Deal. Kennedy, born in 1917, had a worldview that may have been shaped by the World War II stewardship of Roosevelt, born in 1882, but the nation JFK led from 1961 to 1963 bore almost no resemblance to the one FDR departed in 1945.
A mere 15 years separated the New Deal from the New Frontier. Fifteen years after Reagan left, the White House placed the Republicans right in the middle of the George W. Bush era, with a president who in some ways personified the Reagan ethos. The younger Bush’s emphasis on tax cuts, his inclination toward privatization and his determination not to negotiate with terrorists (a Reagan precept Reagan didn’t always honor) were pages torn from the Reagan playbook.
Now, as the GOP looks ahead to the 2016 presidential election — 40 years after Reagan’s nearly successful challenge to President Gerald R. Ford for the party’s nomination in 1976 — the tone and timbre of the Republicans bear astonishing similarity to those of Reagan.
But in recent months, as the GOP struggled to regain its sea legs after two losses to Barack Obama, Republicans have begun to ask whether they need to move beyond the Reagan model.