Ronald Reagan and What I Got Wrong

Every person who talks and writes about politics gets stuff wrong. I’ve gotten my fair share wrong. But what I think I got most wrong in Campaign 2012 was the damage Mitt Romney’s “47%” remark would do to him.


It may seem obvious, but bear with me.

Mitt Romney was talking off the cuff to a supposedly off the record group of donors and muddled several data points together, ultimately telling the tale of the 47% who won’t vote for him for any reason. He was referencing the 47% who don’t pay taxes and interwove it with a 47% of locked in Obama support. The statement was a mess.

I didn’t think Mitt Romney would be as hurt by the statement as he was because I assumed Romney had misspoken in an off the cuff way. I assumed Romney would clarify that he knew many of those who have government assistance did not actually want the assistance, but needed it. I assumed he’d make the case that he’d help those people get off the government dole and back into work.

In other words, I assumed Romney believed what I believe — many of those people are good people who fell on hard times and are not of the same class of people who will vote for Barack Obama for free stuff. I was absolutely wrong. Romney not only believes completely what he said as he said it, he reinforced it with his post election analysis of his defeat blaming gifts to various classes of people. If that was true, as Newt Gingrich pointed out, Romney had plenty to gift to plenty strapped to the back of marching elephants.

Note to Mitt Romney: really, it’s you, not them. Seriously.


What does this have to do with Ronald Reagan? As Dan McLaughlin pointed out, every Republican Presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan opposed Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election except John McCain. Think about that for a minute. Every nominee of the party cast by the media as an insane fringe of conservatives actually opposed, from the left, Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Each of those candidates ran successfully as heirs to Reagan or, when they failed, as rich Republicans who believe in some sort of noblesse oblige. George H. W. Bush, embracing his own identity outside the shadow of Reagan in 1992, Bob Dole in 1996, John McCain in 2008, and Mitt Romney in 2012 all ran as patrician aristocrats who intended to make government more efficient to help the poor. There really was no theme of elevating the poor from poverty or the middle class to the rich. The theme was the care and comfort of men through the technocratic efficiencies of government and a conservative disposition. Romney did that this time too, going so far as to put his more conservative running mate in a witness protection program for candidates.

Reagan in 1980 ran a campaign on the explicit understanding that government was an obstacle to the poor and middle class elevating themselves from poverty and the role of a Reagan Administration would be to get the government out of the way. George W. Bush largely ran his 2000 campaign in a similar vein, but cast as a compassionate conservatism that quickly morphed into a big government conservatism once elected.


Republicans are not successful when they run campaigns as the rich patrician out to make government more efficient so it can be more helpful. Republicans win with conservative populists who run as men who pulled themselves up in life fighting big government and its cronies.

Fortunately for the GOP, in all this talk about the end of the GOP, people overlook that from here on out for the next decade or two we’ll be in an era of Republican politician who was raised in the era of Reagan and supported either Reagan or the idea of Reagan. Mitt Romney will probably be the last Republican nominee who ever opposed Ronald Reagan. That is a very good thing. From here on out our candidates will most likely speech Reaganese, even if not in a Reaganesque way, without sounding like they learned it from Rosetta Stone because each of them will have formed their world view during Ronald Reagan’s America.


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