‘The 2016 race for the White House has already gotten started,” ABC’s Shushannah Walshe suggested today, “and it looks like Dr. Ben Carson is first in the ring.” “Carson,” Walshe records, “first became a conservative star when last year he created a buzz at the National Prayer Breakfast when in front of an audience that included President Obama and Vice President Biden he spoke out about political correctness, health care and taxes.”
My colleague Jay Nordlinger likes to gripe that “you should run for president” is uttered far too swiftly on the right nowadays, the injunction tending to follow almost every instance of public-facing conservative competence. A man has made an impressive speech, full of critiques of which you approved? He should be president! A governor is doing well in a state that is usually run by the other side. Shouldn’t he be our commander-in-chief? We have someone in the legislature who is fluent in fiscal policy? Let’s remove him from his area of expertise and put him immediately into the White House. More often than not, it has to be said, this happens with minorities and with women — the tendency serving perhaps as the Republican party’s own form of affirmative action. If we could just parachute this gifted black man into a position of prominence, the thought goes, our image problem would be solved.
This proclivity is not entirely unwise, of course. Washington D.C.’s insider culture is certainly a real problem, and the abundance of career politicians and wannabe lobbyists does render substantial retrenchment unlikely. On occasion, we really do need outsiders to shake things up. But there are talented political newcomers and there are mavericks and then there are rank amateurs and flavors of the month, and the difference between these two types is the difference between a Dwight Eisenhower or a Rudy Giuliani and a Herman Cain or a Donald Trump. One would like to imagine that the prospect of an unknown’s being held up as the face of a centuries-old party and a timeless political movement would set loud alarm bells ringing in the ears of those who characterize themselves as “conservatives.” That for so many it does not is troubling indeed.
As a rule, we on the right like to tell ourselves that we are steadfastly opposed to heroes in politics, and that we are especially opposed to heroes who promise that their election to the executive branch will result in sweeping changes or in a post-partisan utopia. The United States, we argue, was set up in opposition to princes and to aristocrats, with the express recognition that politics will always be with us and with the explicit understanding that the influence of individual players would be strictly limited by the system. Long before anybody in the wider electorate so much as knew Barack Obama’s name, this instinct was a virtuous and a sensible one. But if we have learned anything from his presidency, it is just how prudent that conviction was. Somehow, however, the hope that a shining knight will come to save the republic from itself remains common within conservative circles. What gives?
I suspect that the impulse is in part the product of the way in which the Right sees politics. On Wednesday, Reihan Salam quoted Noam Scheiber’s invaluable observation that, unlike “interest groups on the left, which tend to accept the transactional nature of government, many movement conservatives have a genuinely coherent worldview they want to see reflected — in its entirety.” This is correct, and to an extent I am among them. An ugly consequence of this, however, is that individuals who line up with a given conservative’s worldview tend to be held up by that conservative as a rarity and as a savior — as an unimpeachable superhero who will not compromise in the face of identity politics or elite pressure and whose elevation to power will immediately stop the ratchet from moving ever leftward. Those who doubt this should see what happens when one criticizes Sarah Palin or Ron Paul. Right-leaning politicians who differ on a few important issues, by contrast, are quickly dismissed as “traitors” or “sellouts” or “fake conservatives.” To witness this process in action, consider just how far Marco Rubio has fallen in the affections of many who once greatly admired him. Rubio, who has an impressively conservative voting record and a generally winsome character, erred on the question of immigration last year. Did this error transform him in the eyes of the Republican base into a fair prospect with some unlikable traits? Or did this make him an unconscionable turncoat who should never have been elected in the first place? For too many, I’m afraid, it is the latter.
This inclination helps to explain why Ronald Reagan is so chronically misremembered, too. Reagan was an unquestionably great man, who, like Margaret Thatcher in Britain, not only helped to turn around the prospects of his own country but played a key role in freeing millions of foreigners who had been brutally enslaved by the Soviet Union. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, as the old saying goes. And yet, despite the common implication of those who revere him, Reagan was by no means a perfect president, and there is some truth to the common progressive jab that he would not get through a Republican primary today. For a start, Ronald Reagan compromised far, far more than conservatives at the time wanted him to — to the extent that some here at National Review considered him to be a failure. He signed an amnesty that we now regard as having been a disaster. He raised taxes when he thought it necessary. He signed gun-control bills, including one that outlawed the importation of automatic weapons. And, famously, he made deals with Mikhail Gorbachev that were slammed by many on the right as being little more than “appeasement.” It is all very well for conservatives to say, “If only Ronald Reagan were president,” but in doing so they have to take the rough with the smooth and to remember, too, that Reagan did not achieve as much as he did because he was a superman, but because he was part of a more general shift.
All in all, the “Reagan era” was an expression of changed public sentiment as much as it was the product of an especially capable president. At no point in Ronald Reagan’s tenure did Republicans control the House, and for six years of his time in office the Democratic party had a majority in the Senate. Despite this, he changed the country for the better and reset the ideological presumptions of the electorate for a generation — perhaps more. Dr. Ben Carson is a remarkably accomplished man, and I am thrilled that he is on my side rather than my opponents’. But not everyone who is remarkable should be given the keys to the country, and not all who are with me on most of the issues are ideally suited to represent me. A good man wants to run for the presidency? Fair enough. Let’s hear him out. But perhaps we might cool it a bit before we build him a statue.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.