Nathan Sass

Chasing Reagan

In Politics, Ron Johnson, Ronald Reagan, Tea Party on February 9, 2012 at 6:00 AM

Since the 1992 election victory of Bill Clinton conservatives have been on a quest to find and elect “the next Ronald Reagan” without much success.

Perhaps the reason we conservatives cannot find “the next Reagan” is because we are looking in all the wrong places for him or her.

In order to determine who “the next Reagan” is, you first need to deeply understand who Ronald Reagan was, and not just from a political perspective.  I believe that most conservatives have forgotten, or perhaps never grasped in the first place, the unique qualities that Reagan possessed.

It is accurate to say that Reagan was a staunch conservative in the current modern usage.  He believed in lowering taxes to spur economic growth, a smaller government contained to the areas authorized by the Constitution, free market capitalism and a strong national defense.

But this is not what made Reagan Reagan.  Barry Goldwater believed in those same things and was trounced in 1964.  It can be argued that Goldwater was a man before his time, or that factors outside of issues were responsible for his defeat, but the simple truth is that Reagan won and Goldwater lost with the same core principles.

Why?  What specifically made Reagan different, and how does that help us find his natural heir?

One of the biggest elements of who Reagan was that gets overlooked are his actions in 1975 and 1976.  Reagan, then a former governor of California, launched a primary challenge to the sitting President of the United States, Gerald Ford.  That was, and remains, something that is just not done.

Party politics demands that sitting incumbents are never, ever, challenged in a primary with the possible exception of the case of a disloyal or rebellious incumbent.  Ford was neither disloyal or rebellious.  In fact, he was the titular head of the party, so he could really never be either.

Reagan, then, was first a conservative and second a Republican.  Party loyalty, unity and the unwritten rules of politics did not matter to him.  Only principles mattered to him, and his beliefs were the very core of his being.  He ran in 1976 because his conscience required him to do so.  He saw Ford as a moderate to liberal Republican who must be challenged.

The Ford team, and the GOP establishment, saw Reagan as “the biggest threat to the President’s re-election” (1)  with “the capacity to do a great deal of damage to the President’s autumn election effort”. (2)  Reagan was therefore an anti-establishment conservative leading a call for “a new Republicanism” rooted in conservative principles.

That new Republicanism was essentially the same movement as the modern Tea Party, minus the overt party connections.  Both advocate conservative small government and stand against party elites and the establishment’s “way of doing things”.

Therefore it follows that the next Reagan will most likely be found at the forefront of the Tea Party movement, either as an outspoken leader or as a person elected with the support of the movement.

Another quality often overlooked as a contributor of Reagan’s success is where he came from.  No, I don’t mean Hollywood and his acting training, although that did serve him well as a communicator.  I am referring to where he was raised, how that impacted who he was, and his extensive private sector experience.

Reagan was born in a little town in Illinois that no one heard of.  He grew up in a normal middle class manner, played high school football and did everything a “regular” boy his age would have.  Later he moved to California to chase his dream of being in the movies, where he became a modest success as an actor and later the head of the Screen Actors Guild.

It isn’t the California part of his life experience that I believe is relevant.  It is my opinion that the period before he left for California that has the most relevance in our discussion around where the next Reagan may be found.  His relatively anonymous and typical upbringing and experience is something that he never forgot.

Even at the height of his fame and power, Reagan remained that same small town Illinois man that went to California to chase a dream.  He was cordial, respectful, caring, and kind to the people most men in his position would typically ignore.  His staff was forever trying to keep him from the handshake lines at events because Reagan insisted that he shake every hand.  In Reagan’s mind, it was the polite thing to do, since they had take time out of their day to see him.

Reagan never saw himself as special or better, just blessed.  His politics and policy flowed from this place, but more importantly he connected with people at a subconscious level.  He was liked, even by many who disagreed with him.

This also impacted Reagan’s demeanor.  Another overlooked attribute was his relentless positivity.  This was a man with a smile on his face, even on the operating table after an assassination attempt.  This was man who would seek to put others at ease with his (usually lame attempts at) humor, up to and including the surgeons tasked with saving his life.

This positive outlook did not preclude him from times of anger, though they were few and far between.  When Reagan got mad however, it was always something that the voting public saw as “righteous”.  His famous “I paid for this microphone” moment in the 1980 primary debate resonated with voters as a man standing for what was right.  Later, his actions against the Air Traffic Controllers which he clearly articulated was taken because “they are breaking the law” was similarly seen as proper anger.

All these things lead to one conclusion.  Reagan was as much an “every man” as Mr. Smith in many regards.  He was relentlessly positive, flashed anger at all the right moments, and allowed his humility to show through in just the right ways.  He was, well, normal.

Reagan had a sense of humility about him that is rare in politicians at any level.  He did not see the voters as largely ignorant masses to be manipulated.  He respect the people and felt that there was tremendous wisdom in the common man.  (The name of this blog comes directly from that belief.)

Furthermore, Reagan’s humility required that he sometimes do what a politician is never supposed to do – admit that they were wrong in public.

When the Iran-Contra scandal broke, questions surfaced as to the extent that Reagan was involved.  History now shows that the actions taken were done so without Reagan’s knowledge, yet he did a remarkable thing.  Reagan went before the American people and said essentially “I had no idea this was going on, but it was wrong, and even though I didn’t know about it, its my responsibility.  I’m sorry.”

A politician acknowledging they were wrong and apologizing?  Compare that with Clinton’s “I did not have sexual relations with that woman…” finger wagging or Nixon’s “I am not a crook.”.   Reagan so respected the people, and had such humility, that he was compelled to do what no politician is supposed to ever do.

Because he did that, the public shrugged its collective shoulders and moved forward.  They accepted his apology and respected his willingness to do so.  He respected them enough to humble himself before them, and they in turn respected him all the more for it.

It follows then tha the next Reagan should be similarly situated.  He or she should come from rather modest beginnings, be of good humor and disposition, humble, but at the same time as strong in their beliefs and possessing as much backbone as Reagan did.  Such a person is not likely to be found in the usual places we look for candidates, so we must search elsewhere.

Finally, it is also important to consider that Reagan was not “the next” anybody.  He was “the first” Reagan.  I mean to say that we cannot be so consumed only with finding “the next Reagan”.

The standard bearer of the Reagan legacy may not be “the next Reagan”, but “the first” [insert name here].

He or she will have an all too “normal” upbringing and disposition.

He or she is likely to be affiliated with the Tea Party or other similar conservative movement outside the GOP party structure.

He or she will have entered politics as a “second” career path, having spent most of their life in the private sector.

He or she will not be consumed by their own ego, but will still have the courage of their conservative convictions, even when those convictions put them at odds with the GOP itself.

He or she will connect with the public on an subcousious level, and will respect the voters and the public tremendously.  They will return the favor.

He or she will speak plainly to the public and respect their intelligence.

Finally, he or she will be relentlessly positive, and will always believe that America’s best days still lay ahead of it.

This is the blueprint for the heir to Reagan, and if this sounds familiar to you, it probably should.

Especially if you live in Wisconsin.


(1) The Miami News Nov. 6 1975 – Assessing Reagan – Tom Wicker

(2) Memo from Bruce Wagner to Rogers Morton, 4/7/76, Attacking the Candidacy of Ronald Reagan – Page 3


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