The Magazine

Waiting for Reagan

You fight an election with the politicians you have.

Jan 28, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 19 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Conservative editorialists, radio hosts, and bloggers are unhappy. They don't like the Republican presidential field, and many of them have been heaping opprobrium on the various GOP candidates with astonishing vigor.

For example: John McCain--with a lifetime American Conservative Union rating of 82.3--is allegedly in no way a conservative. And, though the most favorably viewed of all the candidates right now, both among Republicans and the electorate as a whole, he would allegedly destroy the Republican party if nominated.

Or take Mike Huckabee. He was a well-regarded and successful governor of Arkansas, reelected twice, the second time with 40 percent of the black vote. He's come from an asterisk to second in the national GOP polls with no money and no establishment support. Yet he is supposedly a buffoon and political naïf. He's been staunchly pro-life and pro-gun and is consistently supported by the most conservative primary voters--but he is, we're told, no conservative either.

Or Mitt Romney. He's a man of considerable accomplishments, respected by many who have worked with and for him in various endeavors. He took conservative positions on social issues as governor of Massachusetts, and parlayed a one-term governorship of a blue state into a first-tier position in the Republican race. But he, too, we're told, is deserving of no respect. And though he's embraced conservative policies and seems likely to be steadfast in pursuing them--he's no conservative either.

One could go on. And it's true the Republican candidates are not unproblematic. But they are so far performing more credibly than much of the conservative commentariat. Beyond the normal human frailties that affect all of us, including undoubtedly the commentators at this journal, there is one error that is distorting much conservative discussion of the presidential race. It's -Reagan nostalgia.

It's foolish to wait for another Ronald Reagan. But not just because his political gifts are rare. There's a particular way in which Reagan was exceptional that many of us fail to appreciate: He was the only president of the last century who came to the office as the leader of an ideological movement.

Reagan gave "The Speech" in October 1964, inherited the leadership of the conservative movement after Goldwater's loss, defeated a moderate establishment Republican two years later to win the GOP nomination for governor of California, and then defeated the Democratic incumbent. He remained in a sense the leader of conservatives nationally while serving two terms as governor, ran unsuccessfully against Gerald Ford in 1976, and won the presidency in 1980. He was a conservative first and a politician second, a National Review and Human Events reader first and an elected official second.

This is exceedingly unusual. The normal American president is a politician, with semicoherent ideological views, who sometimes becomes a vehicle for an ideological movement. Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and George W. Bush are typical. They can be good nominees and effective presidents. They can advance the cause of a movement that works with them and through them. But they're not Reagans.

This year's GOP field is, in this sense, normal. Conservatives will find things to like and dislike, to trust and distrust, in each of the candidates. All of this is fine. And one could argue that a primary process featuring debate and competition is also fine, that it is healthier than a coronation, and that the party nominee could well emerge stronger from the process.

So the conservative commentariat should take a deep breath, be a bit less judgmental about these individuals--and realize that there is not likely to be a second Reagan. They could also learn from liberalism's history. Liberalism was the most successful American political movement of the first two-thirds of the 20th century. Its three iconic presidents were Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and John Kennedy. All advanced the liberal cause while in office. None was a standard-bearer for liberalism before becoming president--though each was inclined in a more or less progressive direction. What it means to be a serious, successful, and mature political movement is to take men like these--one might say to take advantage of men like these--in order to advance one's principles and cause.

So conservatives might think of John McCain as our potential TR, Mike Huckabee as our potential FDR, and Mitt Romney as our potential JFK. Support the one you prefer. But don't work yourself into a frenzy against the others. Let the best man emerge from a challenging primary process. And if there is no clear-cut winner, then the delegates at the GOP convention can turn on the fifth ballot to an obvious fallback compromise candidate, one who would be just fine with conservatives--Dick Cheney!

--William Kristol