In Search of the Next Reagan

Democrats never waste time fretting over who is the "natural heir" to Presidents Clinton or Carter. Neither was a great President with a philosophical mantle to take up. They sometimes pay homage to JFK, but their tributes don’t go to the extent of demanding a candidate with his dedication to defending Western interests. Republicans, however, both in 2000 and again in 2008 spend endless energy and time debating who is the natural heir to Ronald Reagan. Blessed — and to some extent burdened — by the legacy of a great President, Republicans seek to associate their favored candidate with the first true conservative in the White House.

If William Buckley, Jr. was the intellectual father of modern conservatism and Barry Goldwater was its first viable national candidate, Reagan developed conservatism into a governing philosophy. If conservatives previously were the party to put up their hands and say "No!" Reagan was the great optimist who transformed the American economy and slayed the Evil Empire — a tough act to follow.

A year before the next election, who among the major Republican candidates — Gov. Romney, Sen. McCain and Mayor Giuliani — is the natural heir to Reagan? Well, Romney was a governor, McCain is an aggressive proponent of American military strength and Giuliani was a tax-cutting mayor who revived the greatest American city. Reagan would no doubt tell us to go back to first principles, governing philosophy, and results. So, using a Reaganesque measuring rubric, who best exemplifies Reagan in terms of character, governing philosophy and results in the often asked, "Are you better now than you were ‘X’ years ago" test?

By character we should not look only to personal morality. Reagan was divorced and by most accounts an indifferent father. We mean, of course, public character — fidelity to ideals, political courage, optimism, vision and leadership. By this measure Romney seems to have significant deficiencies. (His suspiciously timed change of heart on major social issues speaks not only of a lack of honesty but of courage to go to conservative voters without erasing policy differences, be they on social issues or gun control.) However, he clearly embraced conservative principles with tenacity over the opposition of a liberal legislature and voting population. Likewise, his dogged pursuit of a fair democratic vote on gay marriage evidences persistence and vision.

As for McCain, his personal bravery and heroism in war is beyond question, but not indicative of public character. His involvement in the Keating Five seems to have left him with the zeal of an ex-smoker, on a quest to "reform" whatever he sets eyes on. Is this principled vision or personal redemption? His crusade for campaign finance "reform" showed daring and some would say courage in challenging his party. Others would say he simply covets the limelight and treasures the media’s adoration. Moreover, he hardly projects the image of an optimistic warrior, gracious toward his enemies and jolly toward his friends. He reminds us of the petulent and angry Bob Dole who, before he became a witty elder statesman, was best remembered for snarling at his opponents during a presidential debate to "stop lying about my record."

What of Giuliani? Of the three he is the only one to face a terrorist attack while in office. His role in 9-11 has cemented American’s view of him as a detail oriented, courageous and empathetic leader under stress. But well before that he figuratively walked into the lion’s den of a crime ridden, high tax, and decaying city and carried out a conservative agenda of tax cuts, crime reduction and, in the case of the Brooklyn Museum, defense of religion in the public square. On this count Giuliani seems to be the winner in the public character category for his extraordinary vision and leadership

What of governing philosophy? Here McCain seems the least Reaganesque on domestic policy. While our game is handicapped by the obvious problem that he has never been an executive, we can easily discern his policy preferences. He is not a champion of low taxes or free speech, although his passion for spending reduction if not Reaganesque is at least Goldwater-esque. Where McCain most closely resembles Reagan is in foreign policy. He has championed a strong military, defended projection of American power and tolerates neither tyrants nor fools who disparage the role of America in defending security and liberty for free people.

On governing philosophy, Romney seems here to do much better, having resisted calls for higher taxes, cut spending and enacted market reforms as part of his health care plan. He suffers most obviously because he has no foreign policy experience and has said little of substance other than to say he is opposed to Islamic fascism and concerned about Asian competition. (Good points but not particularly innovative.) Giuliani here comes out well. Certainly his pro-choice stance creates the greatest concern for social conservatives although his support for Justices Roberts and Alito and strict constructionist judges may give them some comfort. Beyond this hot button issue conservatives may be pleasantly surprised. Is there is any city which more faithfully enacted an agenda of low taxes, school choice, crime reduction and bureaucratic reform? Although he, like Romney, has not been responsible for foreign policy his many public speeches including his address to the 2004 GOP Convention evidence a clear preference for assertion of American power, skepticism of international organizations at the expense of American sovereignty and defense of American exceptionalism and ideals. His defense of Israel and intolerance for Arab and U.N. sponsored anti-Semitism is legendary.

Who wins the "better off" test? Well the Senate is certainly not better off because of McCain. Indeed during his tenure the majority was frittered away and no meaningful reform can be traced to him. Aside from McCain-Feingold — which is an affront to most conservatives — the only significant legislation that bears his name is his so-called "anti-torture" amendment which was more media event than substantive law. (Torture was illegal before McCain’s amendment and many legal scholars say his amendment muddied up what had been a clear standard). On this item Romney does well. The Massachusetts budget and economy are in much better shape due to his leadership and democracy may prevail on the gay marriage issue solely because of his efforts. He was by any measure effective and competent, but nevertheless left unpopular and unable to be re-elected, even if he wanted to. However, the rebirth of New York City, the most visible urban achievement in the 20th century is the work of the person now dubbed America’s mayor. For the millions of Americans who live in New York and the millions more who work or whose livelihood has been affected by its revival the contrast between the pre and post Giuliani years could not be more striking.

Although every election is a new experiment in democracy, with new issues and concerns, some considerations are perennial.  We can ridicule political parlor games as the favored time wasters of pundits but in the end character, governing philosophy and results really do matter.