The catastrophic Congressional elections left the GOP feeling divided, dispirited, desperate and whipped. Strategists worried about the party’s long-term association with a bitterly polarizing President, who continued to inspire profound hatred from big segments of the electorate. With resurgent Democrats showing discipline and determination to regain the White House after two terms in the wilderness, the Republican rank-and-file felt uncertain and apathetic about the GOP’s most likely standard bearers.
Sound familiar? If so, that’s because this description applies not only to the Republican identity crisis of 2007 but to the situation which Ronald Reagan faced when he decided to make his first serious run for the White House in 1976 (eight years earlier he had made a half-hearted, last minute bid on the eve of the national convention).
If anything, conservatives in that earlier era faced even more daunting obstacles in trying to maintain their hold on the White House and to take control from the Democratic majorities in Congress. In 1975-75, Republicans held only 143 seats in the House of Representatives (compared to 202 today) and only 41 seats in the Senate (compared to 49 today). George W. Bush may be deeply unpopular with much of the public, but Richard Nixon had been driven from office by an indignant electorate for his apparent involvement in shabby criminal activity. In 2008, with Bush ineligible to run for re-election, the Republicans inevitably will present some fresh face to the public but in 1976, the GOP establishment tried to rally around the unelected, incumbent Gerald Ford (who looked vastly more formidable after his death than he ever did during his Presidency).
In short, Ronald Reagan’s historic success in rebuilding and reinvigorating his shattered and demoralized party should encourage us to replicate the transformation in the next two years. As we approach the birthday celebration (on February 6th) for this greatest Republican of our time, we should revisit the crucial victory lessons from President Reagan.
In all his campaigns for the California governorship and for the Presidency, Reagan demonstrated the timeless value of three essential political characteristics: clarity, cheerfulness and unity. If Republicans manage to emphasize and exemplify these traits they will win in 2008 and beyond and re-enforce their status as the nation’s majority party.
1. CLARITY. Throughout his public career, Reagan associated himself with a handful of simple but profound ideas: government isn’t the solution, it’s the problem; the people deserve lower taxes and less regulation; Communism must be defeated, not accommodated. In his public pronouncements he never varied from these core principles and he never worried about repeating himself, confident in the knowledge that the truth always sounds fresh and appropriate.
By contrast, today’s Republicans too often look uncertain and confused. Though President Bush and the GOP Congressional leadership deserve credit for holding firm to conservative values on taxes, their disappointing performance regarding government spending (particularly when it comes to earmarks and pork) helped cost them control of both Houses of Congress. If the people see both parties as equally willing to raid the federal treasury and to squander the public’s money, they will naturally prefer that party that at least promises that they’re only performing that raid on behalf of “the little guy.” If, on the other hand, Republicans recapture their status as honest advocates for smaller government, as leaders who seek to spend less, not just spend differently, they can win most arguments with high budget, big bureaucracy Democrats.
In this regard, the next GOP Presidential candidate must go well beyond Reagan’s generalized calls for shrinking government and cleaning up the mess in Washington. Unfortunately, the performance of the Republican Congress in recent years has produced intense skepticism regarding any discussion of spending cuts, so conservatives must reach new levels of specificity about what to cut, and how. To achieve Reaganesque clarity in this cynical environment, candidates should indicate whole Cabinet departments that must disappear (Commerce? Education ? Housing and Urban Development? Health and Human Services? Agriculture?) and watch the bureaucrats howl. Republicans should also promote a “Fresh Start” approach to government programs: “zeroing out” every department and agency and then starting from scratch to authorize those that perform essential and appropriate public purposes, and to dispense with those many that do not.
On the war on terror, clarity also represents the one indispensable element in the public debate – with an unflinching focus on contrasting the evil nature of our adversaries and the essential decency and goodness of the United States of America. Reagan drew a derisive response from “enlightened” opinion when he characterized the Soviet Union as “the Evil Empire,” but most Americans and freedom-lovers around the world appreciated his clarity. They deserve similarly unambiguous precision in defining the stakes, and describing the combatants, in the current War on Terror. Republicans should be able to declare that Islamo-Nazi terror must be defeated and destroyed, not understood, not appeased, and not just negotiated to a standstill.
Above all, the modern GOP should follow Reagan’s example and concentrate on a few over-arching issues, rather than dissipating energy and destroying focus with laundry lists of new programmatic proposals on special interest issues of less universal importance.
President Reagan earned the nickname of “The Great Communicator.” The next Republican nominee will follow his victorious example if – and only if- he wins a comparable reputation as “The Great Clarifier.”
2. CHEERFULNESS. President Reagan’s amiable, optimistic, sunny personality played an indispensable role in his appeal. In 1980, his opponent Jimmy Carter tried to scare people with the prospect that the former California governor would dismantle social security and blow up the world in a nuclear war, but Reagan could defuse those fears with his famous “there he goes again” comeback in their televised debate.
Above all, Reagan understood the crucial difference between toughness and meanness: his critics might ridicule him as a doddering, out-of-touch old fool but they never managed to characterize him as nasty, cruel, angry or gloomy.
Reagan’s obvious kindness and warmth represent especially important attributes for a Republican candidate, because of long-standing assumptions (tirelessly encouraged by the media) that conservatives are cold-hearted, stingy, arrogant and unpleasant. Any Republican contender who seems to live up to those negative stereotypes (like Bob Dole, whatever his countervailing virtues) stands no chance of winning the Presidency.
Political Scientist Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute argues that the most effective candidates will always be “Nice Republicans” or “Tough Democrats.” Voters automatically assume that Democrats are kind and generous (look at all the federal money they want to hand out in ambitious new programs) but these liberals have to somehow prove that they’re also tough. Look at Bill Clinton’s tireless efforts in this regard in 1992 (emphasizing his tough-on-crime credentials, presiding over an execution in the midst of the campaign, standing up to Afro-Centric rapper Sister Soulja, calling for a more hawkish foreign policy on the Balkans and China), and take note of Hillary’s similar poses today.
When it comes to Republicans, on the other hand, the public assumes that their candidates are tough – pro-defense, anti-crime, supportive of traditional values – but the successful conservatives need to demonstrate that they’re simultaneously “nice.” In this context, the branding of George W. Bush as a “compassionate conservative” represented a political masterstroke.
Reagan managed to project as a “Nice Republican” through the sheer force of his personality, but he also went to great lengths to demonstrate his empathy for hard-working ordinary Americans crushed by Jimmy Carter’s “stag-flation,” or the billions of suffering victims under Communism. He also conveyed his warmth and kindness through optimism – with his “Morning in America”/”Shining City on a Hill” ebullience that ultimately altered the mood of the country.
Unfortunately, too many current Republican leaders and right wing commentators come across as angry, gloomy, apocalyptic and perpetually outraged about even trivial irritants (remember how poorly public condemnation of TeleTubbies or Sponge Bob served the conservative cause). In selecting a Presidential nominee, Republicans should seek the candidate who most closely resembles Reagan’s cheerfulness and decency and avoid at all costs those who seem to revel in indignation, bitterness or desperation.
3. UNITY. Ronald Reagan became famous for his “Eleventh Commandment” (“Thou shalt not speak ill of your fellow Republican”) and his career demonstrated a consistent determination to work closely with moderates and even liberals in his own party. Unlike some of the bitter little men who claim to be his heirs, the Gipper never railed against “RINO’s” (“Republicans In Name Only) or tried to purge anyone from his party. He frequently repeated the self-evident assertion that “someone who agrees with me 70% of the time doesn’t count as my enemy.” Reagan would have been appalled at the recent, publicly announced, utterly self-destructive desire among some conservatives to “knock off” the moderate-to-liberal Republican Senator from Rhode Island, Lincoln Chafee. When purists got their wish, and Chafee went down to defeat to liberal Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, that race served to turn over the Senate (with all its crucial committee chairmanships) to the Dems. Had Republicans managed to unite (as most did, finally, at the end of the campaign) to re-elect either Chafee (or else saved Mike DeWine of Ohio, another endangered so-called “RINO”), they could have maintained control of the Senate.
Reagan understood that coalition building and ultimate victory deserved priority over ideological purity. His commitment to that outlook becomes obvious in light of his three choices for Vice President – each of them showing his willingness – his eagerness, even – to collaborate with leaders of the moderate wing of the party.
In 1976, in the titanic nomination struggle with Gerald Ford, Governor Reagan made a daring move just before the GOP convention. In a bid to win a few extra delegates to tip the scales in his direction, the Gipper announced his choice for a running mate before Republicans even voted on the nomination: selecting Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania, despite a voting record that identified him as one of the most liberal Republicans in the U.S. Senate (he later appointed Schweiker his Secretary of Health and Human Services). Four years later, when Reagan actually won the nomination, he turned first to Gerald Ford as his running mate (for the cause of party unity) but at the last minute couldn’t agree to Ford’s demands for a virtual co-presidency. Ultimately, he selected George H. W. Bush, his chief rival for the nomination, part of the “Ford wing” of the party, and the favorite among GOP moderates.
Reagan, in other words, broke consistently and definitively broke from the sad example of Barry Goldwater who, in 1964, helped seal his landslide defeat by ignoring well-known party moderates as his running mate and selecting instead William J. Miller, a shockingly obscure right-winger from upstate New York. Unlike Reagan, Goldwater refused to reach to his left to balance his ticket and made no efforts to incorporate the GOP’s disgruntled “Eastern Establishment” in his campaign. The results speak for themselves: Goldwater lost to Johnson by 16 million votes (and a shocking 23 percentage points) while Reagan trounced Carter by 8 million votes.
To follow Reagan’s triumphant example, today’s conservatives should invite moderates and even patriotic liberals (Joe Lieberman, anyone?) to join them in the party, rather than trying to drive them away; we should concentrate on fighting Democrats rather than one another. Ideological litmus tests played no role in Ronald Reagan’s party leadership and they serve no useful purpose today. One of the least constructive tendencies in the early stages of the current campaign involves the misguided impulse by some conservatives to rule out one candidate or another and to announce in advance that “Even if he wins the nomination, I could never support him.” We’ve all heard these declarations—“I could never support Giuliani because he’s wrong on gay rights and abortion”; “I can’t support Romney because he’s a Mormon and I dislike his Massachusetts health plan”; “I won’t back McCain if he’s the candidate because we disagree on campaign finance reform and immigration.”
Such pledges of non-support not only count as pre-mature; they’re immature. If Ronald Reagan, the most effective conservative in modern history, could reach out to liberal Richard Schweiker as his running mate in order to win, then we lesser conservatives must be willing to work with anyone and everyone to achieve the party unity that offers the only path to victory.
When Republicans gather everywhere to celebrate Ronald Reagan’s birthday six days from today, we’ll rightly recount his great achievements in cutting taxes, renewing American confidence, and speeding the Evil Empire toward its destruction.
At the same time, we should feel thankful for his strictly partisan contributions in showing the Grand Old Party how to win --- again.