Steven F. Hayward: Would Reagan Vote for Sarah Palin?





[Steven F. Hayward is the F.K. Weyerhaeuser fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of "The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counter-Revolution, 1980-1989." His most recent Outlook essay was "Is Conservatism Brain-Dead?" on Oct. 4. He will be online on to chat with readers on Monday, March 8, at 11 a.m. Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.]

Sarah Palin invokes him. Mitt Romney glorifies him. The "tea party" movement hopes to recapture him. And the Republican Party still can't get over him.

Six years after his death, and almost a century since his birth, conservatives are more transfixed than ever by Ronald Reagan, so much so that I fully expect a Gipper anxiety disorder to appear in the next edition of the psychiatrists' diagnostic manual.

"What would Reagan Do?" is a leading motto for the right. You can get the slogan -- or its WWRD acronym -- on a bumper sticker, a T-shirt, a coffee mug, a thong. There's even an iReagan app for your phone. And having renamed Washington National Airport for Reagan in the 1990s, last week congressional Republicans started agitating to have the Gipper replace poor Ulysses S. Grant on the $50 bill....

Reagan was the most popular and successful Republican president of the past century, so it makes sense that he would be the shining model for conservatives, just as FDR has been the gold standard for liberals. (No small irony, since Reagan voted for FDR four times and modeled his statecraft after the Democrat's.) But as the current occupant of the White House could warn, measuring yourself against historical icons is a recipe for disappointment. These days, President Obama is more likely to draw comparisons to Jimmy Carter than to Lincoln or FDR....

You can't assume the Reagan mantle simply by repeating his name ad nauseum or by bickering with primary opponents over who is more like him. (Romney and Huckabee duked it out in the 2008 campaign, engaging in a Reaganer-than-thou exchange memorable for its inanity -- lots of good it did them.) That said, there are two largely unrecognized elements of Reagan's statecraft that his imitators should recognize and study if they truly want to emulate him.

The first is the deliberate but unseen crafting of Reagan's public profile. As we have come to learn with the opening over the past decade of Reagan's personal papers, his public style was a product of enormous discipline, hard work and calculation. Long before Palin was ridiculed for writing reminders on her hand, Reagan was derided as the 3-by-5 note card candidate (actually, he used 4-by-6 cards) -- but his cards were his means of staying succinctly on point and delivering his message in a compelling way. Reagan's speeches, including his State of the Union addresses, were typically much shorter than average. He knew from show business the power of leaving your audience wanting more. Is there a politician today who you wish gave longer speeches?...

Conservative columnist George Will complained in 1985 that Reagan "is painfully fond of the least conservative sentiment conceivable, a statement from an anti-conservative, Thomas Paine: 'We have it in our power to begin the world over again.' " Will objected: "Any time, any place, that is nonsense." Will's voice is that of traditional, Edmund Burke-style conservatism, but that was not the idiom of Reagan; his belief in America's dynamism was at the core of his optimism, and that dynamism can have profoundly un-conservative effects....

This populist undercurrent is why I am certain that Reagan would have been an enthusiastic supporter of the tea party movement. While the tea partiers confuse the media and annoy the establishments of both political parties, Reagan would have seen them as reviving the embers of what he called the "prairie fire" of populist resistance against centralized big government -- resistance that helped touch off the tax revolt of the 1970s. That movement was often dismissed as a tantrum, but when The Washington Post called California's 1978 antitax Proposition 13 "a skirmish," Reagan replied that if so, then the Chicago fire was a backyard barbecue....

Wittingly or not, Palin hit the nail on the head in her keynote address at the Tea Party Convention last month: "Let us not get bogged down in the small squabbles; let us get caught up in the big ideas. To do so would be a fitting tribute to Ronald Reagan." Meaningful limits on the size of government is one such idea, and it offers a substantive opening for Palin and other would-be heirs to Reagan. To pull it off, one thing above all is required: Do your homework. Reagan did his.

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