Time for a Reagan Smackdown

by Steven F. Hayward

I’ve been trying all the known anger-management techniques to refrain from commenting on the Jeb Bush-inspired “get over Reagan” comments from the other day. This is really rich, coming from the awesomely successful Bush family, given the way President Bush 1 squandered Reagan’s legacy by raising taxes in 1990, and by Bush 2 squandering the rest of Reagan’s legacy over the past eight years. I expected better from Jeb, who seems to be the one member of the Bush family who can actually talk on his feet.

Dan Henninger does a good job today in the WSJ in taking down this self-loathing, but, surprisingly for Henninger, I don’t think he goes far enough. I’ve had my own criticisms of superficial Reagan nostalgia, as outlined in this recent lecture, and with more to come in this book slated to appear in August (order now!), but there is something perversely self-destructive about the idea that we should shove aside or ignore the example of the single most popular GOP president of the last century. After all, Obama hasn’t abandoned FDR nostaglia for good reason — FDR shows the blueprint for how to contest with conservatives for the meaning and interpretation of the American Founding and Lincoln. Indeed, Obama is the first Democrat since FDR to do this in so serious a way, just as Reagan was the first conservative to contest the modern liberal tradition in a serious way (which helps explain his affinity for FDR).

More to the point — we’ve been here before, and Reagan showed the way out. After the post-Watergate 1974 election disaster, some polls showed the number of voters who identified as Republicans below 20 percent (compared to 31 percent today), and there were calls to abandon the Republican Party and found a new Conservative Party. Bill Buckley wrote at the time that the Republican Party had become “an administrative convenience for a few politicians,” and speculated that “If Reagan ran for President on an independent ticket, he would get a higher percentage of the vote than the Republican Party would get if it were led by any other American.” Reagan rejected this advice (which came also even more strongly from Bill Rusher), and it prompted one of his most famous speeches, before CPAC in 1975: “Is it a third party we need, or is it a new and revitalized second party, raising a banner of no pale pastels, but bold colors which makes it unmistakably clear where we stand on all of the issues troubling the people? Americans are hungry to feel once again a sense of mission and greatness.” 

But there is another rant that needs registering, namely, that all those folks who claim to be Reaganites would take the time to sit down a study the man’s methods — not his ideology — more seriously. As we now know, he worked extremely hard, studying the issues in depth and preparing and practicing his speeches at great length. I’m frankly appalled at the low level of rhetorical skill displayed by most GOP politicians today. It is not just a matter of talent; talent helps, but Reagan showed that hard work is the key ingredient. Too many of our would-be party leaders today are simply lazy, and think they can coast through speeches and media appearances with little forethought. Finally, Reagan lived by an old show-business adage — always leave your audience wanting more. His speeches were often memorable because they were relatively short. You could fit five of Reagan’s state of the union speeches inside one of Bill Clinton’s or George W. Bush’s. (This means you, Governor Palin, whom I heard in Anchorage in March making a rambling hour-long speech that someone at my table rightly described as “Castroesque.”) So try this out, GOP leaders: Shorter speeches. People will remember more of what you say, and want to hear you say more later. This really isn’t rocket science. Heck, it isn’t even political science.