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Defeat is an Orphan: A Foot Soldier’s After Action Report

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

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.

By not attacking other Republicans, Reagan was able to ignore them – and thus avoided offending their supporters. In this way, he got 96 percent of Republicans’ votes each time he ran.

Also by not attacking his fellow Republicans, Reagan was able to let Democrats – especially blue collar Democrats – forget he was a Republican. Reagan got 24 percent of their votes. (By the way, he never spoke of the Democrat Party. That grates. He said he didn’t leave the Democratic Party; they left him.)

Many of those Reagan Democrats were union members. Now, Reagan was the toughest president on unions since Grover Cleveland. (President Cleveland, a Democrat, ordered soldiers to use bayonets if necessary to stop union laborers from impeding the U.S. Mail in the Pullman Strike.)

Still, Ronald Reagan never said a word against unions. He repeated over and over that he was the only union president ever to be elected President of the U.S. That was true.


He would never have talked about “union goons, union thugs, union bosses” the way the Romney team routinely did. That’s because he wanted the union members – the rank-and-file lunch bucket crowd – to vote for him.

Reagan carried Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan twice. How did the union-bashing rhetoric work out for Team Romney?

Reagan was a wealthy man when he ran for president in 1980. But he was careful about his image. His campaign photos showed him in cowboy hat and jeans. Not phony. That was his regular attire working on his California ranch. He never had his picture taken horseback riding with his regular English saddle, wearing jodhpurs. That would have looked too much like a devotee of Virginia’s aristocratic horse country.

Reagan’s ranch was worth millions, but the stunning impression you get when visiting it is how simple it truly is. It’s less than 2,000 square feet. There is only one bathroom, with a tiny shower. The heating is provided by a fireplace. And there are two single beds lashed together for the president and his lady.

Reagan would never have had a $12 million beach house built on the California coast – a house with elevators for his cars, no less – in the very year he was asking American voters to put him in public housing.

When Ronald Reagan spoke of New Americans, he welcomed them. He was the biggest cheerleader for the re-furbishing of the Statue of Liberty. In his Farewell Address, he spoke movingly of an overcrowded vessel filled with Vietnamese fleeing from Communism. One of those boat people hailed a sailor from the U.S.S. Midway: “Hey, American sailor! Hey, Freedom Man!”


Ronald Reagan would never have told anyone to “self deport.” If you were coming here to work, to raise your family, to fight for freedom, Ronald Reagan was your friend.

Reagan never ducked issues. But he took great care how he spoke about them. For example, Reagan knew from constant public opinion polling that Americans don’t like defense spending. That may be unfortunate, but it’s true.

So Reagan never advocated hiking defense spending. Instead, he spoke to Americans about the need for America’s military strength to be “second to none” and for our all-volunteer service men and women to have “the best equipment we can provide.” He had poll-tested those responses. He let Caspar Weinberger go up to Capitol Hill and bang his tin cup for the money. It was Cap who got all the cartoons showing him with the $600 toilet seat around his neck. Reagan knew that Cap didn’t have to run for re-election.

Reagan was known as a staunch advocate of the right to life. He never spoke of “overturning Roe v. Wade,” however, because he knew Americans are not in favor of overturning anything. He never attacked anyone else’s position. He certainly never condemned anyone who had had an abortion. He knew that he had signed a terrible liberalized abortion bill as California governor (but only when convinced that the legislature would override his veto and enact an even worse one).

Reagan was the first national politician to proclaim himself “pro-life.” The rest were all “anti-abortion.” Since he was a candidate for president, the media had a hard time censoring is words. “Pro-life” became a big positive for him.


Reagan as president favored exceptions to the law for rape and incest, and for life of the mother. Because he was so open and candid, he didn’t get the kinds of “gotcha” questions the media gleefully prepares for inexperienced, reluctant or insincere pro-lifers.

When Eric Fehrnstrom, Mitt Romney’s spokesman, was asked about the Governor’s commitment to protecting unborn children, he quickly dismissed the matter: “A Romney administration will be a pro-life administration, but we’re not going to be distracted by any shiny objects.”

“Shiny objects,” of course, are what distract chimps, or perhaps natives in Papua New Guinea. If you are already having trouble convincing people you are sincere in your change of heart about a critical issue, sending out a spokesman so obviously insincere, who speaks with such curdling cynicism is no way to remedy your conviction problem.

If you dread being asked about abortion for rape, you might take courage from the example of the late Pennsylvania Gov. Bob Casey’s 1990 run for re-election. Attacked by his pro-abortion Republican opponent in a debate, Gov. Casey argued that rape and incest are heinous crimes. Gov. Casey said he’d prosecuted rapists. He urged his fellow Pennsylvanians to do everything to prevent rape and to offer compassionate care for the victims of rape. But, he answered firmly that he had never believed that an unborn child should be killed for the crime of her father. Gov. Casey was easily re-elected that year.


If you are unwilling to say that, you might ask Julie Makimaa, Ryan Bomberger, or Michael Homula to speak for you. All three of these young Americans were conceived in rape. Their stories are powerful and can move hearts. Julie’s joyful reunion with her birth mother is a story all Americans should know.

After the 2010 elections, conservative pundits raced to proclaim as truth the idea the Social Security is no longer “the third rail” in American politics. They hailed Sen. Marco Rubio’s victory in Florida – “with all those seniors down there.” But they failed to note how the young Cuban-American spoke about Social Security. He prefaced ever statement with the story of his aged mother, his “mom who relied on Social Security and Medicare.”

Instead, the Social Security reformers plunged headlong into the fray – and got their clocks cleaned by liberals.

My fellow conservatives: Please consider this troubling fact. In every election since 1935 in which Social Security was a salient issue, the Republican Party has lost. 2012 was no exception to the rule.

Ronald Reagan was not only a good and great man; he was a shrewd and capable politician. He understood that we cannot elect a new people. He never wanted to. He formed a lasting bond with this people. It’s something none of his successors in the GOP have done.

John F. Kennedy was right: Victory has a thousand fathers; defeat is an orphan. But we can adopt this defeat and learn from it. We don’t have to repeat it.


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