Beware of the RINO (Reagan In Name Only)

As the Ronald Reagan centennial celebrations get under way this year and the Republican presidential nominating contest kicks off soon (the first GOP presidential debate is scheduled to take place at the Reagan Library, for good measure, on May 2), it seems as if all kinds of folks—Republicans and even some Democrats—will try to compare themselves with the fierce optimist from Tampico, Ill., who made California his home en route to becoming the greatest President of the last century.

Buyer beware.

Today, the political landscape is littered with too many individuals who can be referred to as RINOs (Reagan in name only), falsely laying a claim to Reagan’s legacy.

In just the last month, the political cognoscenti who are as clueless about Reagan now as they were when he was in power have compared former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty to Reagan solely because Pawlenty comes across as “nice.”

In an example of insiders believing their opinions of a candidate are representative of the populace at large, some compared Rep. Mike Pence (R.-Ind.) with Reagan, citing Pence’s purported ability to be a fusionist like Reagan and bringing together libertarians along with social and traditional conservatives. 

Former Alaska Gov. and Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin has also been compared with Reagan.  In fact, Palin, more than any other potential 2012 presidential candidate, has explicitly and implicitly invited and welcomed such comparisons through her words.  But questions remain about whether she has the temperament, the intellectual curiosity, and the ability to win over independent voters the way Reagan did.  In addition, one must wonder whether Palin has the security that Reagan had about himself and his ideas, along with the thick skin that allowed him to be self-deprecating.

The list goes on.

Of course, what may be even more egregious than the false comparisons to Reagan are those who call for conservatives to move beyond Reagan’s legacy at the very moment when more Republican dinners than ever are being named in honor of Reagan, exemplifying how strong his legacy is.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels both have been guilty of foolishly calling on people to move on from Reagan.

Like any transcendent leader, Reagan’s stature and legacy have only been strengthened since his passing.

Reagan was an iconic figure.  He ended the Cold War without firing a bullet.  He understood how fragile freedom was.  He restored America’s optimism and greatness that had been fading away into a sense of malaise under the feeble Jimmy Carter.  Under Carter, the combination of unemployment and inflation was so bad that a new word had to be coined to describe it—stagflation.

Reagan was affable but wasn’t always nice.  He told a heckler to “shut up.”  In a New Hampshire primary debate in 1979 in Nashua, he memorably told the moderator, who tried to cut off his microphone, that “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green.”  He told Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.”

He was a conservative before he was a Republican.  He blunted the influence of the liberal, establishment Rockefeller Republicans and gave the party and the movement back to the grassroots.

But he also brought independents to the Republican—and conservative—cause, largely because his words were inclusive.

He was more than an actor.  But his time in Hollywood, especially leading its largest union, allowed him to feel comfortable in more liberal and cosmopolitan settings, and that helped him become a master persuader.  As political scientist Richard Neustadt once wrote, the power of the presidency is the power to persuade.

He held firm to his convictions.  He fired the air traffic controllers.  He believed Marxism would go in history’s “ash heap” at a time when the so-called “wise men” doubted him and even mocked him for being a know-nothing simpleton.  They said his supply-side economics and cutting of the marginal tax rate were “voodoo economics,” though they lifted America out of its economic doldrums and brought economic prosperity at home, which, in turn, allowed for America to defeat the Soviets without firing a bullet.

But he wasn’t afraid to selectively compromise, as he did in working with Democrats on social security.

He knew how to be an empathetic comforter, as he showed when the space shuttle Challenger horrifically exploded upon takeoff.

More than anything else, he was a leader who simply loved America and believed in its exceptionalism.  Regular, blue-collar Americans saw that this was absolutely heartfelt and not an act.

When comparing any candidate to Reagan, these are some of the qualities that one should consider.  It is obvious that very few are even worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as The Gipper.

In recent years and days though, the mainstream media has tried to speciously build up Barack Obama as the next Reagan.  Obama, who once denounced Reagan, also seems receptive to the comparisons.

This is preposterous.  Obama makes up for his lack of conviction with loads of ambition.  And even though Obama was elected President in a country that is as exceptional as ours, he unfathomably runs away from American exceptionalism instead of fully embracing it.  Most jarring, though, is that Obama is trying to tilt a center-right country to the left.

None of this is Reaganesque.

So let us be clear. It can be safely said that Barack Obama is the biggest RINO of them all.