How to Walk on Three Legs

by Steven F. Hayward

Let’s start with full disclosure: I’m a huge Mitch Daniels fan. If I can’t have a presidential ticket of Chris Christie and Paul Ryan (or better still, Chris Christie and John Bolton, to revive the William Howard Taft look of girth and facial hair in our executive offices), then I want Daniels. Some years ago he offered the best short summary of how people should think of the Reagan presidency:

The Reagan years will be for conservatives what the Kennedy years remain for liberals: the reference point, the breakthrough experience—a conservative Camelot. At the same time, no lesson is plainer than that the damage of decades cannot be repaired in any one administration.

Lately Governor Daniels has been catching flak for being a “one-legged” candidate in a party that requires all three legs (economics, social policy, and foreign affairs) to reach a majority. His call for a “truce” on social issues has not gone down well, and his relative silence on foreign policy, except for a couple of enigmatic comments that suggest a slight affinity for old-fashion Midwestern isolationism, have got some of the neocon community nervous. My good friend Dan Oliver notes all of this in a piece over at The American Spectator that concludes with the taunt: “Because Gov. Daniels avoided both the social issues and the national security issue at CPAC, many observers thought it fair to conclude from his speech — a very good speech indeed — that he is not running for president. Or, at least, not running for president yet.” Clever of Dan, but then he’s always been a highly clever fellow.  

There’s a model for how a successful candidate can walk on all three legs at once without tripping, and — forgive me for sounding like a franchise hawker — it’s the Gipper. I’m continually amazed at the number of Republicans who claim Reagan is their model, but who seemingly spend so little time studying closely his careful methods, especially the basic structure of his speeches. Take as an example his speech launching his fall campaign in 1980, given across from the Statue of Liberty. (It’s worth reading the whole thing; it’s quite short. I wrote at some length about Reagan and the imagery of the Great Lady on Reagan’s birthday over at Powerline.)

In 1980, like today, the economy was the most important issue on voters’ minds. Most of Reagan’s speech was about the economy, and it included one of his great lines that he thought up himself:

Let it show on the record that when the American people cried out for economic help, Jimmy Carter took refuge behind a dictionary. Well if it’s a definition he wants, I’ll give him one. A recession is when your neighbor loses his job. A depression is when you lose yours. Recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his.

Great stuff. But note toward the end an important pivot that Reagan makes:

But restoring the American dream requires more than restoring a sound, productive economy, vitally important as that is. It requires a return to spiritual and moral values, values so deeply held by those who came here to build a new life. We need to restore those values in our daily life, in our neighborhoods and in our government’s dealings with the other nations of the world.

Now, set aside that Reagan used the term “values” in exactly the way that I criticized here a few days ago (no one’s perfect, not even the Gipper), and concentrate instead on how Reagan subordinates, not only in this paragraph but in the entire speech, our concern with the economy to broader ideas of liberty and moral character. This was typical of most Reagan speeches. The famous “evil empire” speech provides the same structure as applied to foreign policy. This common structure is why Reagan’s rhetoric worked so well.

I think a lot of voters will like Daniels’s flinty fiscal practices, but not if he reminds them merely of their accountant.