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.
Reagan typically described conservatism in populist terms rather than formal ones. In his "Time for Choosing" speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater during the 1964 presidential campaign, he sounded almost exactly like Glenn Beck does today. "This is the issue of this election," Reagan warned: "Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that an intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves."
This populist undercurrent is why I am certain that Reagan would have been an enthusiastic supporter of the tea party movement. While the tea partiers confuse the media and annoy the establishments of both political parties, Reagan would have seen them as reviving the embers of what he called the "prairie fire" of populist resistance against centralized big government--resistance that helped touch off the tax revolt of the 1970s. That movement was often dismissed as a tantrum, but when The Washington Post called California's 1978 antitax Proposition 13 "a skirmish," Reagan replied that if so, then the Chicago fire was a backyard barbecue.
And who might be able to tap into the potent brew of the tea party? Right now the leading candidate is undoubtedly Palin, whom Reagan would probably have cheered on and surely would have had no problem voting for should she secure the GOP presidential nomination. Like Reagan, she has enormous charisma and a populist style. At her best, such as on the "Tonight" show last week, she shares his self-assurance and ease in front of a crowd. Like Reagan, she hails from outside the political establishment and does not crave the approval of the elite; rather, she seems to thrive on their disapproval.
Like Reagan, Palin consciously speaks in ways appealing more to principle than to party. And like Reagan, she divides people across the political spectrum. Her "death panels" broadside against Obama may have seemed like cheap demagoguery, but it resembled Reagan's attack against the Panama Canal treaties in 1978: "We built it, we paid for it, it's ours, and we're keeping it!"
Virtually all the criticisms of Palin--calling her an anti-intellectual lightweight who can't name a magazine she reads or a founding father she admires--were lobbed at Reagan before and during his time in the White House, and the critics hailed from both sides of the aisle. The GOP establishment was very uncomfortable with Reagan, even after he'd won two presidential elections in landslides--and who can forget Clark Clifford's "amiable dunce" label?
Reagan would probably recognize, and approve of, these aspects of Palin's political persona. He knew the power of being an outsider and how it plays well with the people even if it gets bad reviews with the East Coast news media.
But while the parallels between them are evident, it is far from clear that Palin appreciates Reagan's discipline and substantive grand strategy. In many of her speeches and media appearances she tends to ramble on, with none of the crispness and rhetorical force of Reagan's formulas. With the partial exception of energy, she has yet to identify a set of signature issues that can carry her particular stamp, as Reagan did in the late 1970s with his relentless attacks on detente and his championing of supply-side economics. (Even on energy, she needs something more substantial than "drill, baby, drill.") And while her reasons for resigning early from Alaska's governorship are plausible, they deprive her of one of Reagan's greatest assets--an extensive executive record.
Overcoming this will require more than trading on her personality. Palin has as much as admitted that she needs to acquire more depth, especially on foreign policy, but such an effort risks appearing inauthentic, a contrived attempt to land a punch in her next go-round with Katie Couric. Like Reagan did, she might do well to conceal any strenuous efforts at self-education and then see if circumstances unfold in her favor in 2012 or 2016. In this regard, her gig as a Fox News commentator may not help. In 1974, Reagan turned down an invitation for a regular commentary on the "CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite"--a slot most politicians would have killed for--because he thought he'd be overexposed on television. Again, leave them wanting more.
Palin and the tea partiers might do themselves the most good, however, if they considered Reagan's failures and shortcomings, and his reflections about them, rather than his successes. Would-be GOP presidential contenders love invoking "tear down this wall" and "there you go again," but they should also ask themselves: Why didn't the Reagan revolution succeed in erecting lasting barriers to the government gigantism we are seeing today? Reagan, though usually remembered as a sunny optimist, also sounded a more ominous note: "Freedom is a fragile thing and is never more than one generation away from extinction," he said in a 1967 speech. "It is not ours by inheritance; it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation."
Frustrated with his inability to control a sprawling government and anticipating a climate such as today's, late in his second presidential term Reagan began arguing for a package of five constitutional amendments that he called his "Economic Bill of Rights." (Once again he borrowed from FDR, who used the same label for a very different set of ideas in 1944.) Reagan's package included two familiar standbys he'd requested in nearly every State of the Union address he delivered: a balanced budget amendment and a line-item veto. But he added three more proposals: a federal spending limit (revived a few days ago by Republican Reps. Mike Pence and Jeb Hensarling), a "supermajority" vote requirement for Congress to raise taxes, and a prohibition on wage and price controls.
Granted, seeking multiple constitutional amendments may not be the most conservative of initiatives, but if the tea party faction wishes to stand for something concrete rather than remain merely a protest movement, it might consider embracing Reagan's Economic Bill of Rights, perhaps with the addition of term limits and an anti-earmark provision to keep the politicians away.
To have a significant political effect, it is not even necessary that such an agitation succeed in getting the amendments adopted. After all, there is no chance that the current Congress would bring any of them to a vote. But advocating amendments securing new limits on government would put liberals on the defensive, just as the balanced-budget movement and tax revolt of the 1970s assisted the rise of Reagan and conservatives in the 1980s.
Wittingly or not, Palin hit the nail on the head in her keynote address at the Tea Party Convention last month: "Let us not get bogged down in the small squabbles; let us get caught up in the big ideas. To do so would be a fitting tribute to Ronald Reagan." Meaningful limits on the size of government is one such idea, and it offers a substantive opening for Palin and other would-be heirs to Reagan. To pull it off, one thing above all is required: Do your homework. Reagan did his.
Stephen F. Hayward is the F. K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at AEI.