Ronald Reagan was a prophet of the conservative faith, not its grand inquisitor. That truth is lost on the Palinized Republicans who whacked their own moderate nominee in New York’s 23rd Congressional District in favor of a hard-shell, third-party conservative. Newt Gingrich is right (a sentence I don’t often write): "If we get into a cycle [like this]," he said of the fratricide, "we’ll make Pelosi Speaker for life and guarantee Obama’s reelection." Win or lose on Tuesday, Republicans lose.
The true believers claim they’re Reagan conservatives, but their politics are a betrayal of the leader they ritually canonize -- a betrayal not just in strategy, but in spirit. Ronald Reagan didn’t just tolerate moderates in his party; he valued them. Reagan knew that to be a governing party, rather than an ideological faction, the GOP needed to run and win outside conservative strongholds. So Reagan’s GOP gave all-out support to pro-choice candidates like Pete Wilson in California.
You didn’t have to agree with the Gipper, and I usually didn’t, to comprehend what made him President -- and a presidential giant. In character and temperament, in flexibility and personal grace, Reagan was a sharp departure from the dire and dour jeremiads of Herbert Hoover, Robert Taft, and even his progenitor Barry Goldwater. Reagan was above all a hopeful figure, channeling his one-time hero Franklin Roosevelt, "the happy warrior of the political battlefield."
Even while bending history in a different direction, Reagan more frequently quoted FDR and JFK than any conservative predecessor. In announcing his presidential run in 1980, facing an America of gas lines, rising inflation and rising doubt, with U.S. diplomats held hostage in Iran, Reagan rebuked Jimmy Carter’s complaint that he couldn’t govern effectively due to a crisis of national spirit. With a sense of comfort and command, Reagan told the voters that it was time to renew "our capacity for dreaming up fantastic deeds and bringing them off to the surprise of an unbelieving world. . . . We still have that power." He even retooled one of Roosevelt’s signature phrases: "You and I together can keep that rendezvous with destiny." It’s stunning to rewatch that speech; Reagan seems less like today’s Republicans than like Barack Obama declaring: "Yes, we can."
In tone, image, sense of possibility and even destiny, Reagan’s appeal resonated powerfully with what he described as the enduring American condition--not apprehension, but "anticipation of the future." It’s notable that the one Republican who built a big lead in the 2009 off-year elections, Virginia gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell, came across as affirmative, engaging -- a conservative with a human face. (Conceivably McDonnell could be so distinctive in his own party, so reminiscent of Reagan, that he might be the Republican Obama -- if not in 2012, then by 2016.)
McDonnell stands out in the party of "no," which won’t repeat Reagan’s victory so long
as it forgets Reagan’s history: Don’t just oppose, propose; don’t just denounce, but envision a better future -- and look and sound like you believe in it. Most Republicans in high office, or in the high-decibel environs of cable TV and talk radio, convey the insecurity that Reagan so masterfully dismissed in his 1980 campaign: they "fear the future as just a repetition of past failures." Indeed, today’s GOP doesn’t simply fear, but embraces failure. Their sole focus, reiterated in every debate from the economic recovery plan to health care -- is on what can’t be done. In a stunning inversion, the GOP has become the party of "malaise."
Republicans compound this in a very un-Reaganlike way -- by being frozen in the ice of their own ideology. Like Roosevelt the iconic liberal, Reagan the iconic conservative was pragmatic in both domestic and foreign policy. He owned up to economic reality in 1982, and just a year after his hallmark tax cut signed what one of his advisers, Bruce Bartlett, has called "the largest peace-time tax increase in American history." Today, raising taxes -- regardless of circumstance -- is reflexively disdained as sacrilege in Republican ranks. The point here is not that Reagan would have approved of national health reform; he almost certainly wouldn’t. The point is that his self-proclaimed ideological heirs resist any tax increase no matter how crucial to economic stability or domestic progress.
Similarly, Reagan the enemy of government was a world-class deficit spender and pump primer. He gave lip service to balancing the budget, and called for a constitutional amendment to require it. But while he was assailing spending, he was spending away -- and the economy was growing. Today’s GOP, confronted with the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, robotically demands spending cuts. Reagan might have appreciated the rhetoric, but he never pursued the policy.
He was even more pragmatic on national security. When his intervention in Lebanon culminated in the bombing of the American barracks in Beirut and the death of 241 marines, he promptly withdrew. In 2009, the GOP is demanding massive troop escalation in Afghanistan without any consideration of the contours, merit or workability of the mission.
In his 1980 debate with Carter, Reagan had to reassure voters that he wasn’t trigger-happy -- and he pledged that yes, indeed, he would negotiate with the Soviets. He more than meant it. To the consternation of his own advisers, he proposed the abolition of nuclear weapons at a 1986 summit with Mikhail Gorbachev; to their relief, the idea foundered on the rocks of Reagan’s refusal to give up missile defense. Nonetheless, he persisted in his belief that he could negotiate a deal with the Soviet Union; the great Cold Warrior dispensed with his own certitudes to became a great peacemaker.
Today’s Republicans, by contrast, resist every negotiation. They contend that talking is a sign of weakness -- and that Obama is naïve to renew Reagan’s goal of nuclear disarmament. From Guantanamo to North Korea to Iran, the GOP is the party of Cheney, not Reagan.
Reagan’s politics weren’t petty, personal, or bitter. In a political battle, he could give as good or better than he got -- and then at 6 pm sit down with Tip O’Neill or Ted Kennedy for a convivial hour. When Ronald and Nancy Reagan received the congressional gold medal in 2002, Kennedy was one of three speakers at the celebratory dinner. Many in the audience wondered what the nation’s leading liberal was doing there. Mrs. Reagan had insisted on it. And as the adamantly conservative columnist Bob Novak reported, Kennedy received a standing ovation as he paid tribute to Reagan’s "presidency of hope."
A GOP mired in anger and vituperation doesn’t begin to comprehend Reagan’s gift for respecting political opponents -- or even diminishing them. Instead of dispensing with the opposition with Reagan-like humor, Republicans treat their opponents as mortal enemies, elevating them with paranoid fantasies about their immense power. To one of Jimmy Carter’s attacks during their debate, Reagan famously replied with a chuckle: "There you go again." It’s impossible to imagine him sneering: "How dare you go Marxist."
Ronald Reagan was a proud conservative, but not an unthinking, unyielding, or uncivil one. He had an appeal that reached across party lines, not just to a withered and warped political base. The least Republicans could do, having named an airport for him, is to remember how he navigated the political winds -- and found the route to a new political era. But it’s Obama who’s doing that now. The GOP has dumped the Gipper.