But after watching a number of excited folks leap to comment over my statement at the Nov. 7 Cobb Chamber of Commerce election postmortem that the GOP should “give up the ghost of Ronald Reagan,” I asked if I might personalize this one piece.
Most who speak of Reagan never met him. And those of us who enjoyed that privilege, like my longtime friend Bob Barr who opined on my comments, never really knew him well. Bob was appointed U.S. Attorney while Reagan was in office by nomination from then-U.S. Sen. Mack Mattingly. It was Mattingly who really knew Reagan. I was just a kid working with Mattingly and Newt Gingrich and my most prolonged Reagan experiences were riding up on a private elevator with him and waiting with him before we both spoke at a rally years later. The rest were photo ops during his presidency. Oh, and he did sneeze on my dad once and profusely apologized (no kidding).
Regardless, Bob and I really share the same conclusions about the late president. Bob is correct when he notes that Reagan was not dogmatic and that his more pragmatic approach to issues and politics made him an exceptionally strong candidate and president. Of course that presidency includes the so-called “immigration amnesty,” a move not in vogue with many Republicans today.
Barbara Donnelly Lane also penned a very cogent piece suggesting that my perceived call for Republicans to stop “channeling Ronald Reagan” was way off base because while Reagan was pragmatic, he never gave up his core values. Bob accurately described Reagan’s approach to those values.
Cobb Tea Party leader Tom Maloy penned a column suggesting the Tea Party had been disparaged. Readers of this column know that the Tea Party philosophy and its positive impact has been a staple of mine.
Maloy’s comments about the Tea Party may be spot on. But invoking Reagan’s name is something even his surviving children have expressed concern over. His views were complex and he rarely publicly called folks “ignorant.” Reagan, as noted in my “sneezing” story, was extremely polite.
But all of this misses my original message entirely. It’s not an issue of whether in some mock contest the Reagan of 1980 could defeat Barack Obama. That’s sort of like the movie “Rocky Balboa” where an aged retired Rocky is placed back into his prime by a three dimensional “fantasy” fight on a sports show in which he defeats a reigning king of boxing. Nor is it an issue of his presidency, which is a cherished memory.
My message is that Republicans can’t expect to see the same demographic and political coalition Reagan built in the 1980s carrying the day in 2016 and must use new tools to win. I did not suggest that Republicans should abandon Reagan’s optimistic approach to a smaller government, less taxes or a strong approach to our nation’s enemies.
Looking at future GOP campaigns, consider that 32 years passed between Harry Truman’s defeat of Thomas Dewey and Reagan’s defeat of Jimmy Carter. In that time the nation had moved from primarily a radio and print based-media to an age of three dominant big television networks. Most homes had televisions and landline phones. Both the Vietnam War and “Sexual Revolution” had occurred. The social and political landscape had changed dramatically.
Even in the “modern days” of Reagan’s second administration there were few if any cellphones, there was no Internet, no Facebook, Twitter, or robo-calls and no Fox News or MSNBC — all big factors in elections today.
Four years from now for Republicans to expect to see the demographic or political landscape of 1980 or to use the same worn out approach would be like Reagan having run his 1980 effort with an Eisenhower-style campaign—no slick TV commercials, no debates, no post-Watergate media dwelling on Iran hostages. We all have a right to cherish the memory of the Reagan years. But even Reagan changed with the times and the circumstances he faced. The days of H.V. Kaltenborn are over.
“Who is that?” one might ask. Well that’s my point.
Syndicated columnist and pollster Matt Towery of Cobb County is the publisher of Insider Advantage.