What Would Reagan Do?

October 17, 2013 Topic: The Presidency Blog Brand: Jacob Heilbrunn

What Would Reagan Do?

The late president's lessons for the modern GOP.

The GOP is not in trouble. It is in crisis. At a moment when Grover Norquist is assailing Ted Cruz and others—“It’d be a good idea if they stopped referring to other Republicans as Hitler appeasers because they opposed the strategy they put forward which failed. I think if you make a mistake as big as what they did, you owe your fellow senators and congressmen a big apology—and your constituents, as well, because nothing they did advanced the cause of repealing or dismantling Obamacare.”—when House speaker John Boehner is barely allowed to speak for himself, when moderates are denouncing conservatives even as conservatives denounce moderation, when Republicans are performing autopsies on their own party, it is time to look back at the one president who was able not only to unite the GOP but also create a new governing coalition. That would be Ronald Wilson Reagan.

Reagan's political odyssey offers a number of lessons for Republicans. The first lesson is to remember that Reagan himself was a Johnny-come-lately to the GOP. He was a defector from the Democratic party of Franklin Roosevelt. Reagan may have turned against the welfare state, but he never lost the sense of optimism that FDR embodied. Reagan may have decried what he called "welfare queens," but he never lost his belief that America could, and would, do better, that self-initiative and enterprise were the keys to American prosperity. Contrast that with the current fixation with the deficit. The Republican party has become the party of Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover economics. Where is the manifesto outlining how to restore economic growth? Which, by the way, is the least painful way to reduce the federal budget deficit.

Another lesson that Reagan offers is a basic political one: mock but don't shout at your opponents. Reagan commanded the art of litotes. His most devastating line against Jimmy Carter in the 1979 presidential debates came when he just sadly shook his head and said, "There you go again." You could almost audibly hear the air leak out of Carter's presidential balloon. And think about Reagan's most famous speech—the one known as "The Speech," among conservatives. It came in October 1964 when Reagan spoke on behalf of Barry Goldwater's doomed candidacy for the Oval office. Goldwater had made a number of strident statements about the elderly and social security during the campaign that played right into Lyndon B. Johnson's hands. Reagan, by contrast, was both playful and earnest. In his address, he joked, "The problem with out liberal friends isn’t that they are ignorant; it’s just that they know so much that isn’t so.”

At the same time, Reagan made it clear that he saw a brighter American future ahead. He wasn't a grumpy conservative, complaining about the decadence and decline of western civilization. Instead, he was something of a revolutionary. He told Americans they had a choice and that what they chose would matter. He announced, "You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We’ll preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.” Needless to say, it took Reagan almost two decades to achieve his vision, but today few doubt his achievements.

As president, Reagan accomplished a lot. He was firm at the outset—firing the air traffic controllers—but he could also be conciliatory in dealing with Congress and the Soviet Union. As Chris Matthews shows in his new book, Tip and the Gipper, the two Irishmen, House speaker Tip O'Neill and Reagan, overcame their differences to hammer out deals. Of course there was a different wrinkle. Reagan wanted to work closely with Congress, a trait that President Obama has not demonstrated. No, Reagan was not perfect—he pursued the Iran-Contra initiative, which sought to perform an end-run around Congress, and, in essence, contradicted his claim that he would never negotiate with terrorists (though his dealings suggest a greater penchant for realpolitik than some of his neoconservative admirers are wont to admit). It was also the case that Reagan showed great wisdom in abandoning his Cold War rhetoric and reaching an accommodation with Mikhail Gorbachev to end the standoff between the two superpowers even as he was denounced for pursuing appeasement policies by the neoconservatives and hard right.

Who in the GOP might be poised to take up the Reagan mantle? The most likely candidate is Senator Rand Paul. Like Reagan, Paul has been displaying shrewd political instincts. He said little during the recent debt crisis, leaving it to Senator Ted Cruz to go on the political hustings and cater to the faithful. Paul, by contrast, kept his powder dry. He wants to appear as a reasonable presidential aspirant—conservative but possessed of sound judgment. Paul also has the ability to forge a new coalition between libertarians and the GOP. Like Reagan, he could broaden the base of the GOP without crippling it. In addition, Paul has been hewing to a realist foreign policy, much as did Reagan. He is repudiating isolationism and neoconservatism, as his February speech at the Heritage Foundation indicated. Finally, Paul, like Reagan, is often underestimated by his political adversaries. Paul's prudence suggests that he, more than anyone else, could help ensure that the obituaries being written for the once-powerful GOP forged by Reagan turn out to be premature.