Would Reagan vote for Sarah Palin?
Sarah Palin invokes him. Mitt Romney glorifies him. The "tea party" movement hopes to recapture him. And the Republican Party still can't get over him.
Six years after his death, and almost a century since his birth, conservatives are more transfixed than ever by Ronald Reagan, so much so that I fully expect a Gipper anxiety disorder to appear in the next edition of the psychiatrists' diagnostic manual.
"What would Reagan Do?" is a leading motto for the right. You can get the slogan -- or its WWRD acronym -- on a bumper sticker, a T-shirt, a coffee mug, a thong. There's even an iReagan app for your phone. And having renamed Washington National Airport for Reagan in the 1990s, last week congressional Republicans started agitating to have the Gipper replace poor Ulysses S. Grant on the $50 bill.
Such obsessions are not unique to the right: Writing three years after the death of Franklin Roosevelt, historian Richard Hofstadter noted that FDR so thoroughly monopolized the liberal imagination that his passing "left American liberalism demoralized and all but helpless." But today, conservatives are the helpless ones.
Reagan was the most popular and successful Republican president of the past century, so it makes sense that he would be the shining model for conservatives, just as FDR has been the gold standard for liberals. (No small irony, since Reagan voted for FDR four times and modeled his statecraft after the Democrat's.) But as the current occupant of the White House could warn, measuring yourself against historical icons is a recipe for disappointment. These days, President Obama is more likely to draw comparisons to Jimmy Carter than to Lincoln or FDR.
Yet ambitious conservatives are undeterred. Palin kicked off her recent keynote address to the National Tea Party Convention -- on the 99th anniversary of Reagan's birth -- with a transparent play for Reagan glow, gushing: "I am so proud to be American. Thank you. Gosh. Thank you. Happy birthday, Ronald Reagan." In his new book, "No Apology: The Case for American Greatness," Romney lauds Reagan as "a great leader -- a person of uncommon vision, political courage, statesmanship, and persuasiveness."
Others have been less subtle. During his drive for the 1996 GOP presidential nomination, Bob Dole plaintively assured conservative voters that "I'm willing to be another Ronald Reagan, if that's what you want." As a Senate leader in the 1980s, Dole had actively sought to undermine Reagan's agenda, so his later efforts to channel the Gipper were either insincere or clueless.
And that's the real lesson for Reagan's would-be heirs. Their invocations of the 40th president, while sure to generate nice applause, are too often ritualistic and unserious. Eventually, voters will catch on, if they haven't already. Indeed, for Palin, Romney, Mike Huckabee and the rest, the risk of superficiality grows with the passage of time and Reagan's continuing elevation as an American icon.
You can't assume the Reagan mantle simply by repeating his name ad nauseum or by bickering with primary opponents over who is more like him. (Romney and Huckabee duked it out in the 2008 campaign, engaging in a Reaganer-than-thou exchange memorable for its inanity -- lots of good it did them.) That said, there are two largely unrecognized elements of Reagan's statecraft that his imitators should recognize and study if they truly want to emulate him.
The first is the deliberate but unseen crafting of Reagan's public profile. As we have come to learn with the opening over the past decade of Reagan's personal papers, his public style was a product of enormous discipline, hard work and calculation. Long before Palin was ridiculed for writing reminders on her hand, Reagan was derided as the 3-by-5 note card candidate (actually, he used 4-by-6 cards) -- but his cards were his means of staying succinctly on point and delivering his message in a compelling way. Reagan's speeches, including his State of the Union addresses, were typically much shorter than average. He knew from show business the power of leaving your audience wanting more. Is there a politician today who you wish gave longer speeches?
The second underappreciated aspect of Reagan's statecraft is his idiosyncratic ideology -- entirely a product of his self-study, much of which he concealed. Some of it was orthodox, small-government conservatism (he once stated that "the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism"), but it was leavened with an older liberalism, part of which he inherited from FDR.
Conservative columnist George Will complained in 1985 that Reagan "is painfully fond of the least conservative sentiment conceivable, a statement from an anti-conservative, Thomas Paine: 'We have it in our power to begin the world over again.' " Will objected: "Any time, any place, that is nonsense." Will's voice is that of traditional, Edmund Burke-style conservatism, but that was not the idiom of Reagan; his belief in America's dynamism was at the core of his optimism, and that dynamism can have profoundly un-conservative effects.