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.
Mitt Romney says some of the right things, but you're always left wondering whether he really means it. How can a man change his position on so many issues in such a short time and be counted on to stick to what he says today? I'd give Romney more credit if he ran as the moderate he governed as in Massachusetts. At least then I could trust his word, even if I didn't agree with him on every issue.
Which brings me to why I believe John McCain comes closest to the Reagan standard. There is no question that McCain has vision. He sees the danger the United States faces and doesn't flinch. When Romney was weighing whether to endorse a surge in U.S. troops in Iraq or pressure the Iraqi government into adopting "timetables," McCain said it was more important to him that we win the war in Iraq than that he win the Republican nomination. With McCain, conviction trumps ambition every time.
There are some issues with which I disagree with McCain. I think McCain-Feingold is bad law, and I'm confident that some of the anti-free speech elements in it will be struck down by the Supreme Court. But on the most important issue, the security of this nation, McCain has no equal.
And on most domestic and social issues, he's more often right than wrong, including immigration. No matter who wins the nomination and, ultimately, the presidency, I predict we'll get immigration reform in the next few years closer to what McCain proposed than anything his rivals are trumpeting now. In fact, what is most troubling about Huckabee and Romney's current positions is that they appear to be pandering to win votes -- and it hasn't worked well as McCain's wins in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida demonstrate.
John McCain is the only candidate who comes close to embodying Ronald Reagan's spirit.