The ghost of Ronald Reagan hung heavily over the Republican presidential candidates as they faced off in their suddenly narrowed field Wednesday at the Reagan Library. Surely every Republican old enough to remember the revered president couldn't help but compare those sitting beneath the wing of Reagan's Air Force One with the man who once rode in it.
For me, the memory was especially poignant, since I served in President Reagan's administration in a number of positions, including White House director of public liaison. None of the GOP candidates is another Reagan. His combination of personal gifts alone -- affability, intelligence, good looks and communication skills -- are rare enough to set a standard few can achieve.
But Reagan coupled those attributes with two even more important qualities: vision and conviction. And it is here that I think most Republicans will look to measure the candidates against the Reagan yardstick.
Reagan knew where he wanted to lead this nation, and he knew how he was going to get there. He wanted to rebuild America's defenses, which had grown weak under four disastrous years of Jimmy Carter. He wanted to halt the Soviet Union's dangerous expansion of influence, which had claimed territory in Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America in the preceding decade. And he wanted to reign in the size and scope of the federal government, which had been expanding since the New Deal.
His ideas were far from universally popular. His decision to place Pershing missiles in Europe sparked huge demonstrations at home and abroad. His commitment to a domestic anti-missile defense system, the Strategic Defense Initiative, stirred bitter opposition and derision among Democrats and the media. When he called the Soviet Union the Evil Empire, he evoked sneers and snickers among elites. And his commitment to cutting domestic spending and reducing taxes brought howls of protest from liberal interest groups, who painted him as a reverse Robin Hood stealing from the poor to benefit the wealthy.
But Reagan persevered -- and led this country back from malaise and self-doubt to confidence and greatness.
Who among the current crop of GOP presidential aspirants comes closest in an ability to do the same? Ron Paul would have us retreat from the world, diminish our expectations and shrink behind literal and figurative walls. Mike Huckabee's vision stretches no farther than his debate promise to build a new highway across whatever happens to be the next primary state.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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