Historical figures transcend contemporary political issues and unite Americans. Their greatness overshadows differences and allows Americans of all political persuasions to see in them what they wish to see.
Ronald Reagan is such a figure. He transcends differences and allows people with a range of views to identify with him. Recently, people as disparate as Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Democrat, and Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, have cited Mr. Reagan as the touchstone for what the GOP should be.
Mr. Specter, newly departed from the Republican Party, cited Mr. Reagan's inclusive philosophy, and Mr. DeMint his conservative principles. Both are correct, and for the GOP to succeed in the future, both ideas are equally important.
Mr. Reagan clearly was the most successful conservative politician for the last half century. No president has enunciated a clearer message on seminal conservative themes. He is the president who defeated the Evil Empire. He is the president who said government is not the solution, but the problem. He had a clear vision for America when he entered office and spent eight years trying faithfully to carry out that vision.
Mr. Reagan, however, was also pragmatic and sought to build coalitions with a wide variety of people. His conservatism was never threatening, but inclusive and optimistic. His own Republican Party was composed of conservatives and moderates, especially in the Senate, and he worked with both wings to implement his plans.
His friend Jeane J. Kirkpatrick once described pragmatism as "the flexible pursuit of principled ends." By that standard, Mr. Reagan was a pragmatist who always welcomed new recruits into Republican ranks.
It is true, as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush recently said, that the issues are far different today from the 1980s. However, Mr. Reagan can still teach us that most valuable lesson - that great leaders can be true to their principles and work with other groups and factions to form governing majorities.
Mr. Reagan's Republicans dominated the 1980s precisely because Americans were comfortable with the party's direction. For the GOP to become the majority party again, the public must have confidence in how we would make America stronger and better.
The road to success starts with the Republican Party embracing these priorities.
(1) By history and birthright, we are the party of limited, constitutional government. Our proposals must focus on making the private sector work better for people, not replacing it with government bureaucracies.
(2) Government programs must be focused on giving more choices to individuals. Patient-driven health care that lowers health costs, educational choice, public-private infrastructure partnerships, and energy security that promotes all forms of energy development are specific examples of Republican proposals that can make life better for Americans by providing more choices and enhanced opportunities.
(3) Although our party is dedicated to a set of principles, we must allow for different application and interpretation of those principles in various parts of the country. Should our candidates reflect the views of voters in given districts? Of course! How else will they get elected? We'll have strong conservatives elected in the South and Plains states, Republicans with more libertarian leanings in the West, and yes, a few moderates in the Northeast. A diverse party must be reflective of a diverse country.
(4) America is changing demographically, and our party has not always kept up with that. In addition to having the right message, we also need the right messengers. We must seek out women, minorities and young people to run and win as Republicans.
(5) History tells us optimism is the best indicator of candidate success. America has always been a forward-looking, optimistic land where all things are possible. Our party's dynamic culture of achievement is perfectly attuned to this historic American impulse.
The great American Jack Kemp recently left us, but his spirit survives. Mr. Kemp introduced Mr. Reagan to supply-side economics. His political life's work can be summed up in two words: opportunity and outreach. That is still the right philosophy for the GOP as we seek to renew the spirit of America.
Frank Donatelli is chairman of GOPAC, the center for training and electing the next generation of Republican leaders.