John McCain memorably called himself “a foot soldier in the Reagan revolution.” I count myself as a foot soldier, too. I have walked precincts in every election, save one, since 1968. And, as an historical researcher, I have studied every presidential election since 1788. In the last six months of this election year, I logged some 13,341 miles on the Family Research Council-Heritage Foundation’s “Values Bus” to some 40 cities and towns in eight states. Campaigning at the grassroots level, you learn stuff.
Many people today are saying conservatives must give up their core beliefs if they want to win elections in the new demographic reality of America. They say we must try to beat the liberals at their own game of ethnic identity.
They say that “even Ronald Reagan could not have won in today’s electorate.” I campaigned for Ronald Reagan and served in his administration. I disagree.
Ronald Reagan studied the American people with the greatest care. He knew how to talk to Americans. He was called “the Great Communicator,” but as he himself said: He had been given the honor of communicating great ideas.
Ronald Reagan spoke to the future in the accents of the past, wrote columnist George Will. He quoted the Founding Fathers more than any of the four presidents who preceded him – and more than any of the four presidents who succeeded him.
One thing notable about the campaign just mercifully concluded: None of the candidates – Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan – spoke of America’s past. It was as if we had all been born yesterday. (I’m not counting Joe Biden’s oafish reference to “puttin’ y’all back in chains.” He seems to have forgotten that it was the Republicans who broke those shackles.) Reagan enlisted America’s past achievements to show how the future would not be colder, darker, poorer.
Ronald Reagan would never have spoken of “47 percent” of his fellow Americans with scorn. Nor did he engage in dangerous Blue State/Red State divisiveness. He considered all states red-white-and-blue. He wanted to win them all and very nearly did. Asked once why the American people liked him, he responded with clarity: “I like them.” He did. They did. Even the 47 percent.
Ronald Reagan never attacked fellow Republicans. He called it his Eleventh Commandment. No one ever heard of that “commandment” before Reagan, and no one has observed it since. But in invoking that as a principle, he avoided the ugly back-and-forth that we saw too much of in the GOP debates and in their TV ads savaging one another. Many of those who didn’t show up at all in the 2012 election were doubtless people who had been turned off by the fratricidal conflicts of last spring.