Don’t Worry, Jeb

Nostalgia for Reagan is nostalgia for a politician who exercised rhetorical leadership in the discussion of political principles. That quality will never be outdated.

… You’ve already left Reagan behind


The Washington Times reports today that on a listening tour of America, in company with other GOP luminaries, former Governor Jeb Bush of Florida “said Saturday that it’s time for the Republican Party to give up its ‘nostalgia’ for the heyday of the Reagan era and look forward.”

“…[O]ur ideas need to be forward looking and relevant.  I felt like there was a lot of nostalgia and the good old days in the [Republican] messaging.  I mean it’s great, but it doesn’t draw people toward your cause,” TWT quotes Bush as saying.  “From the conservative side, it’s time for us to listen first, to learn a little bit, to upgrade our message a little bit, to not be nostalgic about the past because, you know, things do ebb and flow.”

Bush’s fellow GOP leaders spoke in similar terms of not abandoning the party’s principles, but of making sure it was “listening.”  Congressman Eric Cantor:  “The Republican Party is founded on some common-sense conservative principles that are as effective today as they’ve always been.  We just need to make sure we’re listening to the people.”

And Mitt Romney of Massachusetts:  “Mr. Romney said as well there will be no wholesale changes to the core tenets of the party.  ‘I think the principles remain the same,’ he told the Times after the hourlong session.  ‘I think we have to be very clear in what we stand for and make sure that the American people understand that we’re in this to help America’s future and their families.’ “

As Jeb Bush put it:  “We have principles, we have values.  They are the values that are shared by the majority of Americans, there’s no question about it.  But we have to now take those principles and values and apply them to the challenges that our country faces today and in the future… And then hopefully, God willing, [we] embrace our conservative principles and take these new ideas and present them to the American people.”

Basically, this group of Republican leaders did everything except what Ronald Reagan would have done:  discuss the substance of the principles.

Listening is great.  I am all about the listening.  I’m serious here, and not just because the GOP has had trouble attracting specific minorities.  I suspect intelligent politicians like Romney, Jeb Bush, and Cantor also recognize that they’ve got some make-up listening to do to their own party base, much of which senses itself dismissed and ignored by the GOP leadership.  One of the biggest conservative principles is keeping government small, not letting it regulate the individual out of business, and not letting it spend too much – and many voters today would give the GOP very bad grades on its performance in that regard, for at least the last decade.  There is no question the Republican leadership owes its constituency an extended bout of listening.

Nor need we impute particular freight to the idea of looking forward and not back, in political terms.  Of course it will never be 1980 again.  Those of us who were there in 1980 can see reasons why we wouldn’t want it to be, alongside the reasons why it may, in some ways, have been a better time.  The 1970s were – here’s a secret, kiddies – not that great.  Economically they were Keynesian, and therefore stagnant for much of the nation (and the world); in American domestic politics they were frequently unbearable; geopolitically they were downright scary.  No one who has come of age in the last two decades can really understand what it was like to know, 24/7, that the US and the USSR had literally thousands of long-range ballistic missiles targeted on each other; and that we actually – this is true – argued with each other and amongst ourselves over whether it was “destabilizing” to add or subtract a hundred from the totals, make them road-mobile, or MIRV the payloads.

Gas lines, a rising Misery Index (inflation + unemployment), national “malaise,” the fall of the Shah, American hostages in Iran, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Soviet puppet regimes proliferating across Africa, genocide in Southeast Asia, Soviet support of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, Castro’s Soviet-backed activism in Latin America and Africa, SS-20s in Europe, America boycotting the Moscow Summer Olympics to protest the invasion of Afghanistan, and of course, the national problem of Jimmy Carter that needs no further elaboration – not to mention embarrassing fashion, hilarious hair, and (here we go) the collapse of the US auto industry, and the Big Three CEOs appearing hat in hand before Congress… who would want to go back to 1980?

The nostalgia for Reagan is nostalgia for Reagan, not a vague yearning for the past.  I strongly recommend today’s political leaders get that straight.  What they also need to figure out is why there is such nostalgia for Reagan.  A large part of the reason is that Reagan never expended his political time – his time in contact with the people – on reiterating the words “principles” and “values” over and over again, without once referring to what those principles and values are.

Instead, from his very first days of political communication, Reagan made use of every opportunity to actually talk about the principles, as opposed to merely using the word.  He did this in a folksy way – but one that gave him valuable political exposure – during his days of hosting General Electric Theater on TV, and traveling for GE to speak to employee gatherings across the nation.  He did this in his famous political break-out speech at the Republican convention in 1964; a speech remembered and still referenced in GOP iconography not because he spoke earnestly of “principles,” but because he enunciated them.  He campaigned in California on principles outlined and explained, not merely invoked like a mantra, and he did the same in his bid for the Republican nomination in 1976.  It was his enunciation of specific principles that alarmed what was then called the “Rockefeller wing” of the GOP, as Reagan’s supporters nearly toppled its approved candidate, incumbent President Gerald Ford.

In his years out of active campaigning, Reagan made use of his radio talks to, yet again, enunciate principles:  principles of conservative governance, of man and the state, of economic liberty, of taxes and regulation and small government, of national strength and American leadership.  I have no idea how often Reagan said the word “principle,” but it was no more often than he actually described his principles – unlike the inverted ratio of today’s GOP politicians in that regard.

Republicans running on a vague invocation of “principles” and “values” have given GOP voters at least a decade of big-government me-too-ism:  an actual expansion of entitlements with the Medicare drug supplement; mushrooming federal regulation; record spending levels that it took Barack Obama and a heavily Democratic Congress to best; and the proliferation of compromise-oriented Congressional “Gangs” – of 14, of 10 – that have stepped in to avert much-needed political showdowns, on bedrock issues like judicial appointments, energy policy, and illegal immigration.

In invoking Reagan, one of the key references voters are making is to Reagan as an exponent of political ideas.  In his own, less-comprehensive way, George W. Bush was such an exponent, as the failed GOP candidates of the last 40-odd years have not been.  Politicians like McCain, Dole, Bush Sr, and Ford relegated discussions of political principle to footnotes (or perhaps, more precisely, endnotes:  with them you had to turn to the back of the book and read through the work done by others, if you were looking for substantive treatments).  Nixon was uninspiring on the domestic policy front, but was one of only four post-WWII presidents (the others being Truman, Reagan, and the younger Bush) who outlined identifiable principles for foreign policy, principles that set our policy path, and that distinguished each president clearly from his political opponents.

Actual discussions of principle resonate with the public, in a way repetition of the word “principle” does not.  People still, today, can articulate the basics of how Nixon approached the Soviets, and how he leveraged “going to China” to get us out of Vietnam.  Non-experts can state, with pretty good accuracy, and in 25 words or less, what Reagan’s economic and national security policies were.  The diligent caricature of Bush II’s policies by his political enemies is actually a tribute to their memorable clarity:  even Americans who are not political junkies have no trouble making a summary like this:  “After 9/11, Bush took us on offense in the war on terror, so the battle wouldn’t be fought in our homeland.”  What is more, people understood Bush’s domestic policies:  use government where it can do useful things (“compassionate conservatism”); make sure anything government does is meant to encourage the initiative of the people; grow the economy with lower taxes; promote ownership of savings, investments, homes, and businesses.  Many conservatives disagreed with Bush on some of this, but what you could not say about Bush was that he failed to enunciate his principles of government, and that you weren’t sure, with him, what you would be getting.

There is something of an art to speaking compellingly of principles and philosophy, rather than mistaking laundry lists of policy proposals for such a discussion.  Mitt Romney has not mastered this art.  Anyone who cared to could get chapter and verse from him on exactly what he would do about Problems X, Y, and Z, during the long Republican primary campaign for 2008.  His discussions of the principles behind the proposals tended, however, to come off like the talking points of a high-school debater, being shoehorned into a time limit – and graded by a faculty panel.  Without trying to divine his level of philosophical engagement with those principles (and I should mention I voted for him in the primary), we can nevertheless say with some certainty that it came off as superficial, for a lot of voters.

Much more convincing on the matter of principles, on the other hand, was Sarah Palin, whose national-level rhetorical oeuvre is still much smaller than Romney’s.  Her convention speech in August was distinguished by the fact that she talked about conservative principles – and it did not hurt that she did so in folksy and personally-resonant ways.  It remains to be seen if Palin is as intellectually engaged with the principles and ideas of politics, government, and economics as Reagan was.  But it made a tremendous impression on voters that she was comfortable talking about them, and making them the centerpiece of her appeal to the electorate.

Our current crop of GOP politicians would do well to learn from Reagan the politician and leader, and not dismiss references to him as a yearning for an unrecoverable past.  People are not wrong to regard comfort with talking about principles, and a propensity to favor such discussions, as clues to how deeply held they are for a given person, and how much they mean to him.  A politician, of all professionals, should be able to talk about his principles.  Longing for “another Reagan” amounts, in large part, to wishing for politicians who can and will do that.  Listening is important, but rhetorical leadership is what wins elections and changes the course of history – and that’s what many conservative voters are longing for today.  It is something that will never be outdated.

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