One of the pleasant byproducts of writing books on Ronald Reagan including about his historic campaigns of 1976 and 1980 (with 1968 and 1984 forthcoming) is you often get asked “Who is the next Reagan?” or “What should conservatives do?” when it comes to 2016.
First, none of us can peer into the future. Only a few saw Reagan’s potential for greatness in the 1960’s and 1970’s and even after the election of 1980, many in the political classes thought he would be just another failed president following LBJ, Nixon and Jimmy Carter.
Indeed, the only man uniformly thought would be a great president before he became president was George Washington. Only a handful thought Lincoln, FDR, or Reagan would be great presidents before they were great presidents.
Having said that, I doubt there is “another Reagan” in the GOP field for 2016. There is scant evidence that many really think about things. Most are following their consultants’ scripts to run personality campaigns rather than idea campaigns. Gingrich tried running an idea campaign in 2012 and look at what Romney’s consultants did to him in Iowa.
That’s the bad news. The good news is the problems of the country don’t require a great president, just someone to clean up the messes created by President Obama and his ilk. America could use a Jefferson but can make do with a janitor.
Many in the Tea Party and the conservative movement have advocated getting behind one candidate now, fearful of a Jeb Bush or another Establishment candidate winning the 2016 nomination, as in the case of Mitt Romney, John McCain and Bush’s brother and father, and then leaving the party and conservatism for dead.
It’s fine in theory but there are a number of problems with this approach including being taken advantage of by the consultants around said candidate. If all conservative leaders decided to get behind Candidate A before the primaries, the first thing their consultants will do is move their candidate and his campaign “to the middle,” following the wrongful advice of Richard Nixon.
Just ask President McCain and President Romney about “moving to the middle” in general elections.
In fact, it would be advantageous for the 2016 GOP nominee to continue to run as a conservative populist outsider and reformer, just as Reagan did in 1980. The majority of the country remains right of center and the many failures of Obama and American collectivism can make 2016 a great teachable moment on why liberalism may be a crime and is certainly failure—by design.
The same principles of conservatism which work in primaries are no different than those which can work in a general election, if properly explained and properly understood.
On the eve of the national election of 1980, Reagan went on television to give a half hour address, rich with American conservative thought, centered on the individual. “Since her beginning America has held fast to this hope of divine providence…It is true that world peace is jeopardized by those who view man not as a noble being, but as an accident of nature, without soul, and important only to the extent he can serve an all-powerful state.”
This is the fundamental basis of American conservatism: a God-inspired free individual. Reagan was using primary campaign language in a general election, something thought impossible.
It is because of these principles that no candidate right now is worthy of uniform conservative support. There are some good people running but they haven’t earned it. Conservatives should act as a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. They should applaud and admonish as the need calls for it. Those candidates who probably can never earn broad conservative support are Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush. Chris Christie is on the bubble for many on the right. The others must be made to come to conservatives.
Conservatives should date all the candidates but not commit to one. Go to the dance, go to dinner, let them walk you to the door stoop, but don’t invite them in for a drink and certainly don’t go to bed with them. Conservatives should be willing to slap their suitors across the face and tell them to go home and sober up. Don’t play they insiders game; that’s the game played by the corporatists and consultants and Big Media. Play the outsiders game, one beyond the reach (and comprehension) of the mainstream media and the Washington Establishment.
More importantly, conservatives should use their power and authority to both applaud and attack when any of the candidates say or do the right thing---and the wrong thing.
At some point, a conservative or conservatives will emerge as the main challenger to the Establishment candidate and then a decision will be needed. But for the time being, conservatives should remember it is they and their ideas which are ultimately more important to the country than any one candidate seeking their support.