May 2, 2013
In a play on one of the Gipper’s greatest lines, the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin urges us to “Tear Down this Icon.” The highly touted “From the Right” columnist urges conservatives and Republicans to get over the Reagan legacy.
By the recent showings of the party’s presidential nominees, one would think the GOP has certainly gotten over Ronald Reagan. When was the last time the Beltway campaign consultants, those high-priced hirelings, even attempted to win the whole country? Besotted by Red State/Blue State calculations, and armed with their white boards, the big domes never have come close to Reagan’s generous inclusiveness. Reagan thought of all the states as Red, White & Blue. He wanted to win them all, and twice nearly did.
Can anyone seriously claim that Bush, McCain, or Romney ran Reagan-style campaigns? Let’s start with the way the nominees got their gold rings. Ronald Reagan refused to attack his fellow Republicans. He invoked the Eleventh Commandment. What? Yes, he said: “Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.” No one had ever heard of that before. No one has heard of it since.
But Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment worked brilliantly. By not attacking his GOP rivals, he could genially ignore them. Thus, their backers never got mad at Reagan. And he never had to get into that tit-for-tat ugliness that independent voters abhor. Even more ingenious: By not getting into the gutter with his Republican opponents, Reagan let millions of Democrats overlook the fact that he was a Republican.
By these methods, Reagan won 96% of Republicans and 24% of Democrats. The Reagan Democrats have been left without a political home since he left the scene. Where are the Dole/Bush/McCain/Romney Democrats? There are none.
For that matter, where are the Dole/Bush/McCain/Romney Republicans? Not one of those candidates who sought national office in the Republican Party in 2008 or 2012 wanted to claim the mantle of any of recent Republican nominees. They were all Reagan wannabes. Not one was a Reagan might-a-been.
It’s certainly reasonable for Rubin to suggest we examine the Republican performance and offer ideas for improvement. One nice thing we can say for the McCain and Romney campaigns—they left plenty of room for improvement.
Rubin cites Reince Priebus, who recently attracted notice by conducting an “autopsy” on his own shaky tenure:
“We’re winning everything imaginable in off-years,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus told me recently. “The governors are still going strong. We’re winning the war in issue-driven races.” However, he conceded that Republicans have lost their ability to connect with average Americans in the wider electorate: “We are not relating to people at an emotional level.”
So, Jennifer Rubin’s advice to us would be ditch the one great Republican in our lifetime who never failed to relate to people at an emotional level? What Chairman Priebus is saying in this tribute to the Republicans’ off-year performance is that his party is doing fine so long as not too many people show up to vote.
Republican leaders today behave, in Lincoln’s fine phrase, “like a duck hit on the head.” They find it incomprehensible that voters could shun a wonderful candidate who regarded 47% of Americans as irretrievable slackers, who thought of himself as “severely conservative,” and who wanted to involve us in Syriaas soon as he could figure out “who are friends are there.” (Hint, Governor: our only friends in Syria are the Christians. You weren’t thinking of arming them were you?)
Ronald Reagan gained some fame by speaking of an Evil Empire. But he never said it was Russia. He let Pravda howl in rage, thereby admitting it. In speaking truth fearlessly, Reagan inspired those in the Gulag and helped mightily to loosen the shackles of hundreds of millions in the Captive Nations.
Mitt Romney stumbled badly by naming Russia as “our number one strategic enemy.” Thus, he showed himself not a credible alternative to the failed policies of Barack Obama. Chris Matthews called the Republicans the “Daddy Party,” but today’s post-Reagan Republicans cannot convince a majority of Americans that Father Knows Best.
Thanks to Ronald Reagan, foreign policy was the Republicans’ strong suit for a generation. And Reagan brought us victory in the Cold War without invading any Communist country. Or at least, no country larger than that dot-on-the—map, Grenada. And that was over in a blink.
The GOP has yet to live down George W. Bush’s failed attempt to bring democracy to Muslim-majority countries where 84% of the people think anyone who leaves Islam should be murdered. Such countries are not democracies. Nor was Germany a democracy when Germans voted 89% to make Hitler their Fuhrer. Purple fingers can vote, but they can also slit throats and place bombs in churches.
There’s a lot to learn from Ronald Reagan. His common-sense conservatism and his uncommon ability to touch the hearts of the American people are nothing to be ashamed of. They are something to strive for.
Millions of our fellow Americans remember him with love and respect. So do their kids. Pollsters tell us even today, he would beat Obama 58% to 42% in an imaginary match-up.
We don’t need to idolize Ronald Reagan, or make an icon of him. But, it wouldn’t hurt to study how he built his winning coalition.