Green Room

You’re no Ronald Reagan

posted at 11:00 am on January 28, 2012 by

The kerfuffle over Newt Gingrich’s status as a Reagan Republican will be a footnote to the 2012 campaign at most. But that does not mean we cannot learn from it.

On the surface, this is a silly issue. Last week, Mitt Romney was painting Gingrich as a minor figure of the Reagan revolution. This week ended with the following exchange during the CNN debate:

Wolf Blitzer: Governor Romney, you criticized Speaker Gingrich for not being as close to Ronald Reagan as he says he was. When you ran for the Senate, you said you were, quote, “You weren’t trying to return to Reagan-Bush.”

So the question is, do you think you can claim the Reagan mantle more than Speaker Gingrich?

Romney: Oh, of course not. ***

Romney then recited his biography, selectively omitting the 1994 Senate race which occasioned Mitt’s remark distancing himself from Reagan-Bush (a ticket which won Massachusetts twice). It’s an answer which tells the observant that Team Romney figured out this was a dumb line of attack (Newt can be unconservative, but Romney is not going to win an argument about Reagan). It also tells the observant that even after fumbling Mitt’s money issues, Team Romney was still capable of not recognizing that their attack would backfire in the first instance (Newt also launches attacks that boomerang, but Mitt is the one with the supposedly superior staff and organization).

While Team Romney was figuring this out, a scrum of conservative punditry ensued. Notably, Elliott Abrams (an assistant secretary of state under Reagan) attacked Gingrich for not having been sufficiently supportive of Reagan’s foreign policy. Jeffrey Lord (a former Reagan White House political director) defended Gingrich as one of Reagan’s best lieutenants, including the story of how Newt helped keep a firm line against tax increases in the 1984 platform against the likes of Bob Dole and Lowell Weicker. Lord later claimed that Abrams had never complained about Gingrich at the time and distorted Gingrich’s comments on Reagan’s foreign policy. Rich Lowry then went after Lord for smearing Abrams as jockeying for a job in a Romney administration and for providing only partial context of Gingrich’s foreign policy remarks.

So far, it appears that Lowry is correct that Lord has no evidence that Abrams was sucking up to Team Romney for a job. Moreover, the Abrams piece could easily have been a simple act of score-settling. I would not be surprised if Abrams and others in the Reagan administration were less than thrilled at Gingrich’s criticism at the time and feel vindicated by history (although history is not a controlled experiment, thus precluding a definitive judgment on the matter). However, Lord correctly notes (as does Reagan biographer Steven Hayward) that Gingrich was hardly a lone critic of Reagan’s foreign policy at the time in question. Newt cited George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Irving Kristol, and Jeane Kirkpatrick in his speech, while Hayward lists others, including Howard Phillips, Jack Kemp, George Will and William Safire.

The scrum demonstrates why Team Romney is running from the subject. The record tends to show that Gingrich backed Reagan on key issues and when he did critique the administration, he did so from the right. “More right-wing than Reagan in the ’80s” is not the frame Romney wants for Gingrich.

What can we learn from this episode (beyond the fact that Team Romney still has some bugs to work out)?

The reason that the right would spend a week discussing Gingrich’s connection to Reagan legacy is a testament to how much Reagan shaped the conservative movement and today’s GOP. By holding Reagan up as the ideal, he and his administration have become idealized — and it would serve us all well to be more clear-eyed about history here.

This episode is a timely reminder that the Reagan GOP was an occasionally fractious coalition. To moderates, Reaganomics was voodoo, while Reagan’s confrontational foreign policy seemed unconservative. Reagan was a politician who pushed the envelope… but his coalition also contained those who wanted to push it further.

It should be remembered that Reagan got to elected president as the result of many factors. He had experience running for president. He was an able and charismatic performer as a candidate, capable of disarming his critics with a down-to-earth chuckle as easily as a pointed barb. Stagflation had exposed the flaws of Keynesian economics. Iran and the Soviet Union exposed the impotence of Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy. Reagan’s election was as close to a perfect storm as one is likely to find in politics.

This year, the GOP remains a fractious coalition, but its candidate will be no Ronald Reagan. (Occasionally, Ronald Reagan was no Ronald Reagan.) Moreover, if America is lucky, the economy and state of the world will not make Barack Obama look as bad as Jimmy Carter. It is by those parameters that GOP primary voters should be making their choice, rather than hoping a perfect storm rolls in.

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The scrum demonstrates why Team Romney is running from the subject. The record tends to show that Gingrich backed Reagan on key issues and when he did critique the administration, he did so from the right. “More right-wing than Reagan in the ’80s” is not the frame Romney wants for Gingrich.

What can we learn from this episode (beyond the fact that Team Romney still has some bugs to work out)?

Perhaps what we can learn is that the campaigns to define who is what by way of labels such as “ConservativeE” and “more Right than (someone else)” are misleading movements.

And that Reagan wasn’t Conservative, not in the sense that some today want to insist the word, term means.

I’m far more “conservative” in my lifestyle and beleifs than just about 99% of the population. Yet here in comments, I’ve been demeaned by some as all sorts of ridiculous labels, none of which is accurate nor fits,nor appropriate.

Regan just may not have been that All-Time Big Conservative he’s been later made out to be, though he was a Great Communicator and accomplished beneficial things (Berlin Wall down, end of Cold War, etc.).

But maybe the man was a Liberal of the Olde Timey sort and therein lay his major appeal. His wife (actually, both of them) certainly were Liberals, as are his children with hte exception of one.

So perhaps the benchmark being used to try to place others on one side or the other of Reagan is evaluated inaccurately.

Lourdes on January 28, 2012 at 11:51 AM

And didn’t McCain try to lay claim to the Reagan Standared Bearer title last election yet boasted about being a Progressive (and he still does)? Certainly his VP pick kdid and has done so since the election…

It’s becoming a marketing pitch that just might not mean win reality what most are assuming it means.

Lourdes on January 28, 2012 at 11:53 AM

It’s becoming a marketing pitch that just might not mean IN REALITY what most are assuming it means.

Lourdes on January 28, 2012 at 11:53 AM

Lourdes on January 28, 2012 at 11:54 AM

Reagan was then, this is now and who cares.

jeanie on January 28, 2012 at 12:20 PM

I live in a very blue county in a very red state. Most of the life-long Dem voters here have been shocked and dismayed to wake up in the new America where today’s Democratic Party is not the same one that they grew up with. Conservatives are discovering that the same holds true for the GOP.
Now we know why our values and Constitution have not been defended by the very party that we support.
The GOP is almost as Progressive as the Dems.

Pecos on January 28, 2012 at 12:25 PM

Reagan wasn’t a real conservative, but a Neocon. He was a part of the right-wing of the Democrat party. He was against the new Deal for example, which the GOP had no real problem, at least if we look at the GOP standard bearers as they never tried to walk any of it back.

Frankly, the country is finished. There is no one with any inclination, other than Paul, to take a meat ax to FedGov so we can turn things around, and Paul has a foreign policy that will most likely end up embroiling us in war because we would project weakness abroad. But, if we don’t take a meat ax to FedGov, we will not have the money needed to defend the country and we will end up with a Ron Paul foreign policy anyway because we won’t have the money for anything else.

Quartermaster on January 28, 2012 at 7:34 PM

I agree with Karl. Reagan is not running. I have no emotional attachment to any of the candidates the way some do to Grandpa Gingrich. Newt is trying to “grandfather” his way into the Reagan Mantle and it’s not working.

I have learned from Ayn Rand to look at things objectively. I’m looking at the candidate with the best shot at beating One-bama without forcing the countryr over a cliff.

I rate candidatesates by their ability to beat One-bama:

Romney has a 50% chance. He has the money and the organization on his side.

Santorum has a 30% chance. He could fire up the base, but it’s not likely. This election will be about jobs and not social issues.

Gingrich has a 20%. It’s the baggage, Newt, it’s the baggage.

NickDeringer on January 28, 2012 at 7:57 PM

My husband and I early voted for Santorum today. It might be a “throw away” vote, but it was a ballot cast for the most conservative candidate we feel is still standing, and we feel very good about it.

rightwingindy on January 28, 2012 at 8:14 PM

Newt as Reagan…Not even close. He might be Reagan without the charm, likeability and wisdom…Like I said, not even close. I see Newt as more like Churchill…Yet again, Churchill without the charm, and likeability. Newt should have learned from his short tenure as Speaker that a leader has to be respected and admired by the persons they intend to lead. It’s not enough to just have the most glib delivery. The most erudite thoughts. You have to get people to understand and implement your great ideas…A tour as a military officer would have taught Newt a lot about leadership…tsk tsk

Nozzle on January 28, 2012 at 8:21 PM

I have a bit of news for you, Carl.

You’re no Ronald Reagan, either.

Beyond that, you’re inconsequential.

jersey taxpayer on January 28, 2012 at 8:22 PM

Wondering if anybody is actually going to read that long boring post from Karl.

Guessing people are just going to spout off, like me, without bothering to read it.

Get your boring arse back to the Green Room!!!

Jailbreak on January 28, 2012 at 8:38 PM

What I have learned about Reagan, I did not find him to be that amazing of a President. Sure he was a great war president, but he did little to improve domestic problems. Sure he inspired Americans and people to get back to work, but not more than any other President.

ArkyDore on January 28, 2012 at 10:40 PM

I’ll gladly admit that Newt has a stronger bond to Reagan than Romney – but as what I recall from then and re-read recently, Newt did attack Reagan on many issues. The most important current issue for me is the Gingrich attack on Romney’s success with capitalism, private equity and investment. To me, as a conservative, this is attacking the “holiest of holies”. For a so-called conservative to make such attacks is completely inexcuseable. On this issue alone, Newt totally blows all credibilty and I would bet my last dollar that Ronald Reagan would be turning over in his grave because of this.

BabysCatz on January 28, 2012 at 10:50 PM

What I have learned about Reagan, I did not find him to be that amazing of a President. Sure he was a great war president, but he did little to improve domestic problems. Sure he inspired Americans and people to get back to work, but not more than any other President.

You obviously didn’t live through Reagan’s administration. I did, and he was exactly the President we needed at that time.
The malaise covering this country was terrible. Reagan inspired everyone to turn it around, just by his encouragement, and optimism. He gave us a goal to achieve, in overcoming the “evil empire”, and accomplished that without starting a war, and the whole country returned to prosperity.

FoxyLady on January 28, 2012 at 11:03 PM

Frankly, I find it a little off putting when politicians try to wrap themselves in Reagans mantle.

Nobody else can be Reagan, this doesn’t mean that nobody else can ever reach his heights, but Reagan was a unique individual. While he is a great inspiration, our politicians shouldn’t aspire to be EXACTLY like the man. Blaze your own paths people!!

Besides that, more often its just used to manipulate people that are too lazy to research candidates properly. Not exactly a big fan of encouraging laziness.

WolvenOne on January 29, 2012 at 1:52 AM

My husband and I early voted for Santorum today. It might be a “throw away” vote, but it was a ballot cast for the most conservative candidate we feel is still standing, and we feel very good about it.

rightwingindy on January 28, 2012 at 8:14 PM

Thank you for giving me hope that there is still some sense left in the GOP.

Taco Bob on January 29, 2012 at 8:04 AM

Moreover, if America is lucky, the economy and state of the world will not make Barack Obama look as bad as Jimmy Carter.

Well that horse has left the corral, don’t you think?

whbates on January 29, 2012 at 8:13 AM

Gingrich has a 20%. It’s the baggage, Newt, it’s the baggage

Yes, it is. And Gingrich supporters who get angry about this are in denial.

I listen to Mark Levin whenever I happen to be in the car during the hours of his show. I like Levin, I’ve read his books, but I have recently been perplexed by his insistence that we MUST elect the most conservative candidate in the race – who, according to him is Santorum – and then goes straight into an impassioned defense of Newt and attacks Romney (always making special mention of Mitt’s surrogate “Krispy Kreme Christie”)

There are other things besides a candidate’s conservatism that make him or her a winning candidate and an effective leader. I’m pretty sure that’s what John Bolton meant when he called Romney “conservative enough” for him to endorse, and why Marco Rubio is defending Mitt from Newt’s attack ads.

I do wonder about the conservative entertainment stars, such as Levin, secretly wanting Romney to lose because he does not often make himself available to their shows and will not consider them factors in his eventual election, should he win.

Priscilla on January 29, 2012 at 8:42 AM

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Allahpundit on January 29, 2012 at 5:53 PM