Magazine | January 26, 2015, Issue

What Would Reagan Say?

Reagan on the radio in 1976 (Bettmann/Corbis)
GOP presidential hopefuls should make a case for their beliefs

After narrowly losing the Republican presidential nomination in 1976, Ronald Reagan immediately resumed his newspaper column and radio commentaries. He continued them well into 1979. He used those venues to express opinions on all the major issues of the day, and quite a few minor ones.

It is a precedent that most of the Republicans who are trying to be his heirs have not chosen to follow. The Republicans who are running for president in 2016, or thought to be running for it, or to be considering it, will all say that they have Reagan’s principles and his spirit. They will all defend their policies as in keeping with his. Most of them, however, seem intent on minimizing their involvement in controversies. It is the opposite of the approach that Reagan took in the run-up to the 1980 presidential campaign.

Reagan in His Own Hand collects (among other things) his pre-presidential radio commentaries, most of which he wrote himself in longhand. It also shows how he revised the drafts to better make his points. They are blunt, often funny, and wide-ranging. Many of them concerned foreign policy. The week’s radio address might be about Namibia, or Vietnam, or Chile; it would take a strong anti-Communist line on any foreign topic. In June 1977, he complained that the Carter administration’s policy toward China did not match its rhetoric on human rights. He did a series of talks about arms-control negotiations in October 1978.

He offered a full domestic platform, too, taking on topics that he could easily have ignored. He talked about public-sector unions, urging California to bar them from being able to strike (May 1977). He made the case that raising the minimum wage would keep a lot of teenagers from getting jobs (September 1977). He said that Social Security should be reformed without tax increases (November 1977).

Gun control was less popular than a superficial reading of some polls suggested, he argued (August 1978). He plumped for the Kemp-Roth tax cut (November 1978). He urged a free market in agriculture (March 1979), condemned “bilingual education” for keeping kids ignorant of English (April 1979), asserted that sex education should present information in a moral context (May 1979), and came out for abolishing Amtrak even though he loved trains (July 1979). And he suggested that Madalyn Murray O’Hair should not make a federal case of “the pain of carrying coins which carry the inscription ‘In God We Trust.’”

None of the contenders for 2016 has a regular column or radio gig. They communicate via press releases, sporadic speeches and op-eds, and interviews. Most of them seem to be striving to avoid using these media to weigh in on issues unless they have to.

The trend is most pronounced among the governors and ex-governors who are thinking about 2016. It would be unfair to say that these men have been trying to live quiet lives. As governor of Florida, Jeb Bush was at the center of two national conflagrations — over the state’s disputed electoral votes in 2000 and the starvation of Terri Schiavo in 2005 — and innumerable local ones. Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin became Public Enemy No. 1 for the Left nationally by reducing public-sector-union privileges. Chris Christie has been no one’s idea of a shrinking violet as governor of New Jersey.

But they’re largely staying away from national issues. The one who is being most candid about this avoidance is Christie. Asked about immigration during a campaign stop last summer, he straightforwardly said he was going to duck the question: “I’m not going to discuss a complicated issue like immigration here in Marion, Iowa.” Christie added that he had “no role in the immigration debate except for how it may affect the citizens of New Jersey” and that he would address it only “if and when I become a candidate for president of the United States.” He repeated these lines later in the summer during a trip to Mexico. On a fall campaign trip to Arizona, a reporter asked him about securing the border, and by way of response Christie first looked at him and then walked away.

#page#Bush has been almost entirely absent from the political debate during the Obama administration. He left office at the start of 2007 and has been working in the private sector since then. He has made news involving political controversies three times in the Obama years. He said that Republicans should be willing to trade tax increases for spending cuts. He supported the Common Core initiative to create uniform standards for schools. And he spoke and wrote in favor of an immigration reform that includes legal status for many illegal immigrants. Breaking the immigration laws, he suggested, is often “an act of love” for one’s family.

In each case, Bush’s remarks were more controversial among conservatives than among liberals. Reagan, too, was willing to disagree in public with other conservatives: He debated William F. Buckley Jr. and George Will about the Panama Canal. Most of the time, though, he was trying to win converts to the positions that most conservatives held. For whatever reason, that’s not a way Bush has spent much time in recent years.

On the other side of the spectrum are — in rough, and admittedly impressionistic, order — Senator Ted Cruz of Texas (who has been a friend of mine since college), Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. It’s not surprising that the senators are being more vocal about national issues than the governors, since they deal with them in their daily jobs. Jindal, who is generally seen as having worse odds of getting the nomination than Bush, Christie, or Walker, is using any issue he can to punch his way into the top tier of candidates. Paul is a little like Bush in that a lot of the controversies in which he has engaged have been disputes with other Republicans.

An example of the field’s reticence came in October, when the Supreme Court declined to rule on whether many lower federal courts are correct in saying that the Constitution requires state governments to recognize same-sex marriages. Those lower courts had cited a previous, ambiguous ruling by the Supreme Court in reaching their conclusion. The effect of the Court’s silence was to displace the democratically enacted laws of eleven states.

Senator Cruz blasted the courts for indulging in judicial activism, said states should be allowed to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman, and said he would offer a constitutional amendment to that effect. Jindal said he agreed with Cruz. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee said that elected state officials should ignore the courts and continue to stand for the traditional definition of marriage. Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum complained that “the courts continue to exceed their authority.”

The other potential candidates obviously did not wish to go as far as this quartet. All of them are aware that most polls show that a majority of voters now favor same-sex marriage, and that support for it has been rising rapidly. Still, the other candidates could have reiterated their position on marriage and self-government while, perhaps, acknowledging that many people of good will disagree. Instead, most of them were silent. Governor Walker said that the debate over marriage is “over in Wisconsin,” where the Supreme Court’s decision meant same-sex marriages had to be officially recognized.

If you asked the quieter candidates why they have spoken out so little, and they broke their pattern by answering the question, they might plead that they were being prudent, picking their battles, keeping their powder dry. Conservative voters should not, after all, be looking for candidates who make incendiary remarks when none are called for, or create controversies where they do not exist.

But it is possible to engage issues winsomely and judiciously. Reagan mostly did that. He went out of his way to share his opinion on issues, and did not refrain from doing so by invoking the excuse that he was not currently a presidential candidate. If he held his tongue on some matters, the presumption was nonetheless that people had a right to know where he stood. Speaking his mind helped him to develop his ideas, and probably made it easier for him to hold his ground as president — when, for example, he acted on his convictions about public-sector unions during the air-traffic controllers’ strike.

The candidates could also say, fairly, that Reagan was an outlier in this respect as in others. They are certainly no less forthcoming than Hillary Clinton, who pipes up now and again but usually hides behind the fiction that she is a private citizen. Perhaps the nature of the modern media, or of Americans today, in some way militates against Reagan’s style of engagement.

A willingness to speak out on the issues of the day, even at the risk of attracting criticism for it, seems like something Republican primary voters should count in a candidate’s favor — in part so that they can go on to make further judgments about whether the candidate can do it deftly. It is not the only thing that voters should consider, of course: Some of the most reticent members of the field have records of accomplishment that should not be ignored. But primary voters should also remember which candidates have fought the rhetorical fights of recent years as they watch all of them declare how much Reagan’s example means to them.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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