Reagan Legacy Still Strong for GOP Hopefuls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 4, 1999; Page C1
He was genial, he was ideologically righteous, and he had the common touch to die for. Hold his picture aloft and every diocese in the Republican Party still sets to fingering its rosary beads. And even now, Republican presidential candidates daily incant his name.
So who's the man who restored the Republican writ?
Eleven years after he departed the White House stage, Ronald Reagan has an iron grip on his party's imagination. The Old Man may be lost now in the shadows of his shining house on the hill, but all Republican presidential candidates are eager to proclaim themselves the next Reagan.
I am his true and faithful heir, each shouts. To listen is to imagine children gamboling at the Gipper's knee.
"I'm working hard to re-energize the Reagan coalition," says Steve Forbes.
"I'm a lieutenant in Reagan's army," insists Elizabeth Dole.
"The most eloquent, visionary and steadfast apostle of freedom," pipes Sen. John McCain.
We must follow "the Reagan Way," chimes New York governor and VP wannabe George Pataki.
"President Reagan is still my president!" exclaims Alan Keyes.
You get the picture.
He is their sun, their moon. They name an airport and a hugely expensive federal office building after him. They scramble to claim his advisers as campaign sachems. Provide chisel and crampons, and they'd take to carving his face into Mount Rushmore.
He is the Republican Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a man whose influence on his party is so great as to force a succeeding generation of politicians to define themselves in relationship to him. To Republicans, he is the man who ended the Cold War and broke the back of a liberal judiciary, a man in whose hands the American view of government transmutes from benign to malign.
"Reagan is to Republicans as FDR was to Democrats: a seminal force," says Marshall Wittmann, who served in the Department of Health and Human Services during the Bush administration and now works at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "Reagan pulled us out of the wilderness, and everyone is looking for his successor.
"There's not a conservative in Washington who isn't one of his political children."
But chasing a legend is tricky business. For one thing, you never catch him. What's worse, nostalgia for a man-become-myth all but ensures that his flesh-and-blood successors will be found wanting.
The search for a pretender to the Reagan throne already fires secession talk on the GOP's right flank, where the factions long ago lost count of their resentments. Make enough compromises with the Great Helmsman's legacy, they warn, embrace too many mushy moderates, and we'll quit the party, the better to pursue the Reaganite agenda.
Sen. Bob Smith is the first right-winger overboard. The New Hampshire lawmaker commanded the Senate floor a few weeks ago to tear off his party epaulets and proclaim an independent run for the presidency. And he allows himself a big crooked smile as he invokes Reagan and the day when . . .
"Idealists ruled; those who stood up for the right to life, a strong national defense, the Second Amendment, less spending, less taxes, less government. It was exciting because Reagan was there. . . .
"Principles in, pragmatism out."
Such revolutionary fever! But mainstream conservative Republican candidates sing of Reagan in an only somewhat less rapturous voice. They are, without exception, opposed to abortion, and favor increased defense spending and tax cuts. Not a Rockefeller Republican among them.
But they glean a different lesson from the Gipper than their hard-right cousins. He did not talk endlessly about that which was most divisive. He stirred an electoral elixir comprising economics and optimism, and his children would be foolish to do otherwise.
It sounds so sensibly reverential. A former Republican staffer chuckles.
"The Democrats have Camelot, and the Republicans have the golden house on a hill," says Jack Pitney, a Claremont McKenna College professor who served the Republican minority in Congress during the Reagan Imperium. "The Democrats aren't going to Camelot, and no Republican is ever going to reach that house on the hill.
"It's an impossible ideal."
That's another problem: Icons often are not as they appear. Reagan is cast as the great unifier now. But as late as 1976, the Republican establishment saw Reagan as the pathogen of their party's doom.
He had rumbled out of California to challenge Gerald Ford. The chairman of his state party disavowed him, and there was chatter about a third-party candidacy.
"Every Republican governor signed a letter in 1976 demanding that Reagan drop out of the primaries," recalls Gary Bauer, a presidential candidate on the Republican right wing who recalls sitting transfixed as a teenager as Reagan perorated for Goldwater at the 1964 convention. "More than once in the past six months, I've taken comfort by recalling how the Republican establishment treated Reagan in the 1970s."
But those on the right who nurse that memory often elide the coda: Reagan didn't walk out of that convention. He supported Ford and emerged the good prince.
Reagan was not one to impale himself on a point of orthodoxy. He trimmed his New Deal leanings to better serve as a wandering orator for General Electric in the 1950s. (It was his political genius, however, to retain FDR's expansively optimistic rhetorical style.) And his presidential budgets and deficits expanded at a rate that would have appalled Reagan the candidate.
This was, after a fashion, his charm: In no way did facts intrude on his cheerfulness or ideological certitudes. His skill was to charm the moral right while not losing touch with those Americans who cared more about taxes and crime than abortion and prayer.
"He increased spending, he didn't really move on abortion, and he wasn't tough enough when the Russians shot down KAL Flight 007, but he had this gift so that none of it mattered," says Paul Weyrich, a founding father of the New Right. "I know because I tried to dissent from his policies, and what happened?
"I became unpopular."
And, in fact, Reagan had a profound effect, on his party and on the nation. If he can claim no victory quite so tangible as Roosevelt's New Deal (historians are, at best, divided on whether Reagan deserves much credit for the fall of an already doddering Soviet Union), Reagan wrested control of the nation's dialogue dial and turned it to the right.
Where it remains to this day.
"When a Democratic president like Bill Clinton feels compelled to announce in a speech that the era of big government is over," says Ed Meese, Reagan's attorney general and longtime confidant, "you know that Reagan has moved the parameters of debate."
The point's not lost on our changeling Democratic president, Bill Clinton, who owes not a few stylistic moves to Reagan. The rueful shake of the head, the private smile on the podium, the "our conservative friends sometimes forget . . . " palaver: It's the homage one Grade B actor pays another.
Clinton's policy triangulation, too, amounts to a hand slipped halfway into Reagan's pocket.
"Reagan got a lot of mileage out of things--tax cutting, welfare reform and crime--that have been preempted by Bill Clinton and the New Democrats," says Will Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank. "Clinton learned to appear genial in public, that people prefer someone who is not openly vengeful."
It's worth remembering that, until Clinton took office in 1992, the Democratic Party was as polluted with bad blood as the Republican Party is today, as its myriad factions sought to claim the party's post-FDR legacy.
Which brings us to the only Republican who doesn't mention Reagan all that often, George W. Bush. You scour Bush's speeches and find just fleeting nods to Reagan. He retails a rubbery conservatism without edges ("I'll be guided by conservative principles," he says vaguely); and his dad, the former president, never ate enough red meat to satisfy the right's true believers.
And yet he's the Republican field's consensus front-runner.
But that isn't to suggest he didn't log his class time at Reagan U. Because Bush--fellow students Pataki, McCain and Dole show glimmers of this as well--understands what those on the right tend to forget: that the grooviest Gipper move was to cloak all that conservative toughness in infectious optimism.
It's the classic Reagan dance step, and his conservative adepts acknowledge that the lesson often eludes them. Darkness doesn't sell.
"Reagan used to drive the need for optimism into our heads, but a lot has happened since 1988," Bauer says. "A lot of conservatives wonder whether social decay is advancing so fast that you can't pull it back."
Bush doesn't crowd his head with such doubts. He knows he's got to bow toward the Old Man. So he surrounds himself with Reagan's economic and foreign policy experts--among them Richard Perle, the former assistant secretary of defense, and Martin Feldstein, former chief economic adviser. They're the right angels who can buy you grace with the true believers.
"He's getting advice from some of the most conservative people in the country," says Meese, who harbors an avuncular regard toward Bush. "But he's like Reagan, he knows you can't take the all-or-nothing attitude shown by some Republican candidates."
The phone line falls silent a second. Meese thinks of the pious many who clamor to inherit his old boss's mantle even as they complain that the callow Bush isn't yet sporting a real conservative beard. They don't get it.
"Reagan knew that the average American wasn't much interested in issues. So the optics of politics becomes very important. Bush gets that."
This is Going Right with a twinkle in the eye and an aw-shucks smile: the art of the Reagan sell.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company