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Making the Original Reagan Republican

Making the Original Reagan Republican

As unpredictable as the emerging presidential campaign season will be, one safe bet is that just about every Republican primary candidate will claim the mantle of being a “Reagan Republican” (and any who don’t will probably not fare too well).

This competition to be Reagan’s political heir might attract a jaundiced eye from some quarters of the media and punditry. In excess it does run the risk of substituting backward-looking nostalgia for forward-looking vision. But overall it is a healthy exercise. Reagan justifiably stands as one of our nation’s greatest presidents, especially in the 20th century. He has long been regarded as such by popular opinion in the United States, and in recent years academic opinion has been catching up as some leading scholars have been making favorable assessments of the Reagan presidency, especially his Cold War strategy. See, for example, these books by John Gaddis, Hal Brands, John Patrick Diggins, Sean Wilentz, Paul Lettow, Jim Mann, and Francis Marlo.

While political leaders are prone to misuse history, I think that invoking archetypes from the past can be one appropriate way to employ history. It can offer lodestars that, in a name, define a legacy and a model of politics and statecraft. History used in this way can also help a party anchor its values, navigate internal debates, inspire its grassroots activists, and suggest pathways to political success.

(As an aside, Democrats seem to lack a comparable presidential icon of recent vintage. While the Clinton administration enjoys a favorable standing in the minds of many Democrats, it also has many detractors among the party’s predominant liberal wing. One doesn’t see prominent Democrats outbidding each other to be known as “Clinton Democrats” — in part because Hillary Clinton can claim exclusive rights to that label, but also in part because of the ambivalence with which many Democrats today regard the Bill Clinton presidency. Nor will any candidates proudly claim to be a “Carter Democrat” or “LBJ Democrat.” Otherwise one has to go back in history as far as Truman to find a hallowed Democratic president, and he is revered as much if not more by Republicans for his strong Cold War policies. And while Franklin Roosevelt looms large in history, he seems oddly neglected by his party today, perhaps because he seems too far distant in the past).

Of course to invoke the Reagan mantle today depends on knowing who Reagan was and what he accomplished, and here the historical record is still unfolding as archives continue to be opened, records declassified, and memoirs written.

On this note, Tom Reed’s The Reagan Enigma, 1964-1980 is a welcome new addition. [Disclosure: Reed is a member of the Statecraft Board of the Reference for the Clements Center at the University of Texas-Austin, where I serve as Executive Director.] Reed is singularly qualified to write such a memoir. Along with the likes of Bill Clark, Ed Meese, and Michael Deaver, he is one of the very few people to have worked with Reagan over three decades, from the California statehouse to the White House. Reed’s service to Reagan spanned the full spectrum of campaigns, politics, and policy. He helped manage Reagan’s first gubernatorial campaign in 1966, ran Reagan’s failed White House bid in 1968, helped lead his 1970 gubernatorial re-election, and later served as a senior member of Reagan’s National Security Council staff after Reagan’s successful third run for the White House in 1980. Among many achievements in the latter role, Reed oversaw the production of NSDD-32, a seminal national security manifesto that established the Reagan administration’s Cold War strategy.

Reed’s new book deftly intertwines a unique memoir of Reagan’s little-remembered 1968 presidential campaign with an exploration of Reagan’s mind and worldview. Along the way the book manages to be an insightful appreciation without lapsing into hagiography. Reagan’s abundant strengths are on full display alongside his weaknesses, the latter including neglect of management, aversion to staff conflict, indifference to personal friendships, and occasional indecisiveness.

There is as much to learn from Reagan’s early failures as his later successes. In Reed’s telling, while Reagan’s 1968 primary campaign came much closer than commonly known to capturing a majority of delegates and taking the nomination from Richard Nixon at the GOP convention in Miami, the effort ultimately failed due to Reagan’s own ambivalence, fractious political team, and inattention to detail. Some similar maladies beset Reagan’s 1976 primary challenge to President Gerald Ford, and it was only in the 1980 campaign that he overcame these liabilities and put together a winning electoral effort. A landmark two-term presidency followed.

Along the way Reed reveals some fascinating historical vignettes. For example, pace contemporary pundits who try to exalt supposedly moderate “Eisenhower Republicans” above right-wing “Reagan Republicans,” Reed reveals that Dwight Eisenhower was an early and enthusiastic Reagan supporter. Reed participated in many private meetings between Reagan and Eisenhower, and reports how Eisenhower helped recruit Reagan into the Republican party, loved Reagan’s landmark 1964 “A Time for Choosing” speech, urged Reagan to run for governor of California in 1966, and simultaneously encouraged Reagan to consider an eventual run for president. Eisenhower also mentored Reagan on national security policy, especially on the importance of decisiveness and disproportion in the use of force, in contrast to LBJ’s gradual troop escalation and corresponding descent into the sanguinary quagmire in Vietnam.

Reed portrays a Reagan indifferent to policy details but of firm convictions, such as the primacy of liberty and the evil of communism. “Over the years, Reagan had developed a set of unshakeable beliefs. He stuck to them with only tactical adjustments.” Though not an intellectual, “what set Reagan apart from his peers was his overarching sense of vision; that, plus a mental agility that far outpaced all others…. Reagan enjoyed a clarity of thought that gave him the confidence to ignore criticism, media abuse, and countervailing advice.”

While fiercely competitive, Reagan was also comfortable in his own skin, win or lose. He knew that politics is the art of addition, and sought to attract as many new voters as possible to his vision. Such personal confidence combined with clear principles eventually led to presidential success. Today’s Republican presidential candidates (and their advisors) who aspire to emulate Reagan would do well to read this timely new book.

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