Lose One for the Gipper
We are witness this campaign season to something that has not happened in a long time — a nationwide internal fight among Republicans. Democrats do this all the time. Republicans usually have more discipline. Why is it happening? Why is it happening now?
Ronald Reagan instituted an Eleventh Commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” This edict served the party well, and, surprisingly, it lasted for some three decades. I categorize this as a “surprise,” because politicians are inherently an ambitious, egotistic, and self-centered bunch. It takes a special kind of chutzpah to run for elected office, and to believe anyone wants to vote for you. People with that much ambition and inflated self-esteem naturally feel it’s their right to use whatever underhanded tools will help them get ahead.
We see these Type-A personalities in the business world all the time. The same sorts infest politics. Only a very powerful force can constrain and channel these drives into a direction that is useful to goals beyond individual aggrandizement.
Reagan saw the key. Or perhaps one of his advisers did, and Reagan had the good sense to embrace it. From all the personal reports I’ve read, Reagan was a genuinely kind and caring man. His public persona was very close to his private person. Self-effacing and generous, kind and grandfatherly, a man prone more to pulling together those he cared for than to throwing the kind of bombs that are so symptomatic of today’s politics. Yet he had no patience, and no mercy, for those who threatened the people or causes he cared about.
The key to channeling Type-A’s into a coherent body is to convince them they’ll all do better, individually, when they all do better as a group. Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment turned the natural ire and sociopathic cruelty of a Type-A personality far outward, not toward those who would be identified as immediate competitors — for example, opponents in a primary or in the Iowa caucuses — but toward the ultimate enemy — the Other Party.
The way to get ahead in this worldview was not by stomping on Republican primary opponents, but by proving you were best at attacking the Democrats. This created a rising tide to lift all yachts. When a Republican succeeded — when any Republican succeeded — all other Republicans would benefit, because they’d all move up in the world. And none of them had grudges or feuds against any others, no scores to settle, no resentments to fester, because success had been achieved only at the expense of the True Enemy. This eliminated both the need for, and the effectiveness of, any internal strife.
This even made it possible to occasionally work with The Enemy, if the result of coöperation would benefit the nation, because benefiting the nation would, of necessity, also benefit Republicans — and, therefore, all those ambitious Type-A’s. This is why Reagan and Tip O’Neill were able to create an historic deal on saving Social Security. Reagan and congressional Republicans were made to look magnanimous and forward-thinking. (Reagan immediately turned it to his own purposes, by stealing the Social Security trust fund to finance what were then the biggest deficits in world history — but that’s a topic for another time.)
But the Reagan Commandment has fallen away as a new generation of young Mongols has moved in. Reagan is rightly praised (nearly worshiped) by Republicans as a monumental figure in Party history. But many of today’s hot properties — Eric Cantor, Sarah Palin, Paul Ryan, as examples — were either too young or too incurious about history to really understand the Reagan phenomenon. They see Reagan as an office to achieve, not as a goal to emulate. The want to scale the same heights, and, in their Type-A ambition and arrogance, they imagine they can. They haven’t the first clue as to how he did it.
So we now have Trump and Palin and Bachmann and Ryan all going after each other. Palin and Bachmann have openly attacked Romney. Pawlenty has referred to “ObamneyCare” in an attempt to tie Romney to President Obama. Uncrowned Bachmann campaign director Ed Rollins went after Palin, which prompted Palin-friend Greta van Susteren to publicly ask for Rollins’ head. They are clawing at each other, which blunts their assault on Obama. For Democrats, this forgetfulness of Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment is a gift, for it is dividing the Republicans into warring factions. The slimy brilliance of any would-be Frank Luntz is turned primarily to the primaries. Oh, the Republicans will pull together again for the general campaign. But they’ll be bruised and splintered, with internal winners and losers, in ways they have not been for thirty years.
The Party of Reagan is no more, and its death will leave Republicans weaker. Fortunately for the Democrats, Republican strategists are unlikely to embrace my analysis. Perhaps someone who actually understands Reagan’s strategic genius will one day re-emerge. But that day is not this day.
- Simon says.…Ronald Reagan! (jaypinho.com)
- The Buckley Rule And The 2012 Election (theundergroundconservative.wordpress.com)
- 3 Lessons from the Gipper — Another Look (christianpaulsen62.wordpress.com)
- The Shallow GOP Gene Pool (ichabodskin.wordpress.com)
- Think Progress: FLASHBACK — In 1983, Reagan Warned Of ‘Incalculable Damage’ If Debt Ceiling Wasn’t Raised (kaystreet.wordpress.com)
About dcpetterson (187 posts)
D. C. Petterson is a novelist and a software consultant in Minnesota who has been writing science fiction since the age of six. He is the author of A Melancholy Humour, Rune Song and Still Life. He lives with his wife, two dogs, two cats, and a lizard, and insists that grandchildren are the reward for having survived teenagers. When not writing stories or software, he plays guitar and piano, engages in political debate, and reads a lot of history and physics texts—for fun. Follow on Twitter @dcpetterson