- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 16, 2000

Bush, McCain both part from Reaganism

The last time Republicans made this much news, Newt Gingrich was dividing the Red Sea and leading his people into the promised land. The McCain/Bush battle royal, however, may turn out to be the more decisive engagement for modern conservatism. Viewed from the distance of six years, Newt's struggle can be seen as the final triumphant electoral battle on behalf of the Reagan agenda. The current campaign is the first to try to apply Reaganism to a new day and new issues.
Reaganism, which started as an insurgency against the Republican establishment, has become the establishment against which future Republican insurgencies will be measured. Even the most vibrant ideas eventually harden into brittle conventions: across-the-board tax cuts, adamantine opposition to all abortion, championing the traditional family against all deviations from the ideal standard, a willful opposition to public demand for a more engaged federal role in education.
And yet, Ronald Reagan himself was well into his 1980 campaign before he agreed to the Kemp/Roth across-the-board tax cuts. In the 1970s, Mr. Reagan did not oppose all abortions, he never excluded homosexuals from his circle of friends, and he rejected Barry Goldwater's 1964 opposition to any federal aid to education, seeking, rather, to expand it to private and parochial schools via tuition tax credits and vouchers.
The challenge for today's champions of Reaganism is to capture its spirit, not merely to recapitulate a set of programs and issues which are now a quarter of a century old. Can either George W. Bush or John McCain lay claim to the great mantle?
As an aside, it is a melancholy if inevitable fact that most of us Reaganites who came to Washington to drain the swamp have stayed to become expert fishers in the swamp. As it was said of the white missionaries in Hawaii, so it can be said of us: They came to do good, and they did well.
Reaganism doubtless means many things to different people. For me, it was a spirit tethered to principles. Mr. Reagan was forward-looking, optimistic and, unlike a classical conservative, trusting of the people. But he was also prepared to fight for an unpopular issue. His Central American anti-communist policy had the support of between 25-45 percent of the public. He trusted the people, but he didn't think they were always right. And, despite the fact that he was heavily staffed, he was remarkably resistant to the advice that certain things couldn't be done, or must be done. His trust in the ever-young American people was almost perfectly balanced with a distrust of the ever-old Washington hands.
As a challenger, Mr. Reagan could be tough on his opponent. His 1980 "bear in the woods" advertisement strongly suggested that President Jimmy Carter had failed to protect our national security. And, in his first campaign for governor of California he called the incumbent Governor Pat Brown a "tower of jelly." But that was seen as amusing rather than mean. Particularly since Mr. Reagan's quip followed Pat Brown's snide reminder that the public should not vote for Mr. Reagan because "an actor shot Abraham Lincoln."
But Mr. Reagan rarely, if at all, sank to name-calling. And his 11th commandment, "Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican," was critical in converting the Republican Party from a minority to a governing party. Fundamentally, Mr. Reagan believed in selling his ideas and his image, not denigrating the other guy. Even against Mr. Carter, the most personal Mr. Reagan got was his famous and cheerful "there you go again."
So far, neither Sen. McCain nor Gov. Bush can claim the Reagan mantle but it's a long time between now and November. The most telling mark against Mr. Bush was his reaction to the New Hampshire defeat. As Gary Bauer pointed out in another context last year, "Adversity is always a moral test." And in Mr. Bush's first test, he failed. He succumbed to the advice of the Washington professionals and went deeply and personally negative against fellow Republican Mr. McCain. This was followed by a straight steal of Mr. McCain's "reform" message. What is un-Reagan-like in Mr. Bush's reaction to adversity was his willingness to walk casually away from his own, and wisely chosen, image of a compassionate conservative. Mr. Bush is being ingenious. Mr. Reagan was always ingenuous. When Mr. Reagan faced adversity in New Hampshire in 1980, he got rid of some of his staff not some of his ideas.
Mr. McCain has clearly caught Mr. Reagan's cheerful, cowboy spirit. Just like Mr. Reagan, he trusts the American people enough to have a little fun while he is politicking. Mr. McCain understands that a substantively optimistic message cannot effectively be delivered if you are grim or angry. His message, that he wants to teach our youth to believe in something bigger than themselves, nicely parallels Mr. Reagan's "New Patriotism." But unless Mr. McCain sheds his utterly un-Reagan-like class warfare rhetoric, he can't possibly grab the Reagan mantle. It remains up for grabs. And it remains worth grabbing.

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