Reagan, Jeb Bush and History

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Mitt Romney, by all accounts a decent man, is nonetheless a poor student of history, especially that of his own political party. In non-incumbent years since 1952, the GOP has always nominated its frontrunner. Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bush 41, Robert Dole, Bush 43, John McCain, and Romney himself were all frontrunners in the year before their nominations.

Also, far more often than not, the out-of-power party wins the White House after the opposing party had held it for eight years. This was true in 1960, 1968, 1976, 2000 and 2008: All were years in which the party that held the White House was turned out. Ronald Reagan, whose birthday is today, is the alpha and omega of modern American politics -- or perhaps the second coming of Franklin Roosevelt. Reagan, who handily defeated Jimmy Carter in 1980, upended this trend by seeing his vice president win in 1988, when many voters behaved as if they were voting for a third Reagan term and not a first George H.W. Bush term.

All things being equal, Romney may well have been positioned to become the next president of the United States.

Now, Jeb Bush is the frontrunner -- among the elites and the consulting classes -- and on the face of things history also appears to favor him as the next president. Trouble is, he’s a Bush and that is a heavy anchor to drag. Also, he is suffering from the very schism created by his brother’s policies. Indeed, this problem has appeared dramatically in several recent polls of Republican voters in Iowa.

Bush is trapped in the paradigm created by his father and his brother. He is also hemmed in on the other side by Chris Christie, Marco Rubio and maybe Lindsay Graham.

Bush is defined as a Bush -- a big government Republican -- and there is little he can do about it, especially with his insistent support for Common Core and comprehensive, Washington-based immigration “reform.” It is conceivable that Bush will not get 50 percent of the primary vote and yet win the nomination -- and then watch as millions of conservatives abandon him, convinced that the two parties are pro-big government and anti-individual.

The main glue holding the GOP together today is antipathy for Obama. This attitude is shared by establishment Republicans and anti-establishment’s Republicans. But it sometimes seems as if this is all they have in common anymore. Moreover, Obama he will be gone shortly and the fissure will be exposed again, with no solution in sight to unify the GOP. Loathing for the new Democratic nominee would accomplish some of this, but Jeb Bush would be a particularly difficult nominee for millions of grassroots conservatives to swallow.

Romney had room to maneuver to the right partly -- and ironically -- because he never really defined himself in an ideological fashion in 2012. So he could have reinvented himself as Reagan did between 1976 and 1980. (I am now writing a book about this.) Reagan in part went through a philosophical makeover because he’d seen the country again for the first time since the 1950s, when he was on the lecture circuit for General Electric. He saw the decency in Americans, heard their complaints about the rottenness of Washington, and it helped him understand why the Framers cherished the citizenry and feared a corrupting centralized authority.

Therein lies a path forward for a brave soul willing to be not just the anti-Bush, but the pro-Reagan candidate. Perhaps it will be Scott Walker or Ted Cruz or Rand Paul. Favoring them is the fact that this the most wide open GOP nomination contest since 1940, when Wendell Willkie came out of nowhere to defeat several candidates considered frontrunners by the political establishment.

This 2016 GOP savior, whomever that may turn out to be, should not try to replicate Reagan, the man -- he was one of a kind -- but to replicate Reagan’s timeless ideas on federalism and the power of the individual over the state. Utah Sen. Mike Lee grasps this. “We need to stop simply talking about Reagan,” he said recently, “and start acting like him.”

In 1988, Reagan pleaded with his vice president, George Bush, to run under the slogan “We are the change.” Bush didn’t understand it, rejected it, and ran the most content-free campaign in modern history -- winning the White House by sneering at the ACLU and accusing Michael Dukakis of refusing to support the Pledge of Allegiance, and faulting him for not using all available federal funds on environmental cleanup efforts in Boston Harbor.

Many movement conservatives were appalled at Bush’s campaign, and derived more satisfaction from the Gingrich Revolution of 1994, and the Tea Party insurgencies of 2010 and 2014. Along the way, conservatives learned how to dominate the national conversation in off-year elections -- knowing that in presidential campaign years, media consultants would dumb-down the discussion, leaving the GOP without a coherent message. What is astonishing about Republicans is they say conservatism cannot work in this day and age while denying the manifest failures of Big Government Republicanism.

Reliably liberal columnist E.J. Dionne wrote a snarky column recently about the “Rush Limbaugh-Ted Cruz Permanent Revolution Complex,” but Dionne unwittingly stumbled upon the truth.

Whoever is to emerge as the conservative, Reaganesque alternative to Jeb Bush and the elite GOP establishment should not focus on Reagan’s personality but instead articulate the everlasting ideas and ideals of Ronald Reagan. Above all, that means understanding the limitations of government -- but not of the American people. And they must understand that the natural state of modern American conservatism is permanent revolution. 

Craig Shirley is the author of two best-selling books about Ronald Reagan, including “Rendezvous With Destiny” and “Reagan’s Revolution.” He is also the author of the best-selling “December 1941; 31 Days That Changed America and Saved the World” and is the president of Shirley & Banister. He is now writing several more books about Reagan, including “Last Act.” He has lectured at the Reagan Library, is the Visiting Reagan Scholar at Eureka College, and is a member of the Board of Governors of the Reagan Ranch.

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