Today would be the 102nd birthday of the greatest president of my lifetime.
People say “there’s no Ronald Reagan in American politics today”. And they’re right – but as his son Michael told me in an interview a few years ago, it’s not that there couldn’t be.
Because Reagan had three great talents: he was a great, natural communicator (who, unlike a lot of “natural communicators”, honed his craft with relentless discipline); he developed a vision and he stuck to it with determination and focus; and most importantly for today’s conservatives, he knew how to build coalitions, rather than exclude people from them.
We have plenty of people who can communicate well, although the conservative movement has had its share of duds in that department too. And we have not a few who can visioneer with the best of them – in fact, with the rise of the Tea Party, our movement’s best years may be to come, provided they keep the faith.
But as to building coalitions?
Today, we’re better at building silos.
Reagan did something that conservatives are terrible at today; he got social conservatives (at the peak of their notoriety and political cachet), blue-collar Democrats who the economy had turned into instant fiscalcons, Jack Kemp-style economic hawks and paleocons together…
…by focusing remorselessly on what they agreed on; fixing the economy, and ending Communism.
And once in office, that’s what he focused on. Oh, he paid lip service to issues that were to him tangents – and lip service from the world’s greatest bully pulpit ain’t chicken feed. But he didn’t fritter his political capital away with excessive natterings about issues that were tangential to his vision, and the vision his coalition all agreed on in electing him. He spoke eloquently on issues – many of them – and that speaking had its effect.
Some call that an abdication; it was in fact a matter of leaving that work to the members of his coalition (example: he exerted very little executive effort on abortion and gun control – but the efforts to roll both back at the state and local level started to coalesce during his time in office anyway – in part because of his leadership from the bully pulpit. But for all that, always, the focus was on “dancing with the one what brung him” to DC at the head of an impossibly-diverse coalition; his rock-solid, bone-simple two point agenda, fixing the economy and toppling the Commies.
As I moderated the “Where Do We Go From Here” event last week at the Blue Fox, and listened to some of the friction and cat-calling across the party’s various factions, I thought there was a lot of focus on what divided us. And so my final question to the panel was “what do we all – all of us, from socialcons like Andy Parrish to libertarians like Marianne Stebbins, actually agree on?” Because that is the only real way forward for any of the factions – since if any faction takes Parrish’s (tongue in cheek?) advice and forms a separate party, it’s the road to mutual palookaville, with multiple parties that are less than the sum of the parts they once were.
So for my annual Gipper Day celebration, it’ll be the usual; jelly beans at my desk, taking the kids out to dinner to talk about what Reagan’s legacy has meant in their lives (other than the uninformed, out-of-context crap the DFLers in their lives’ll say)…
…and asking my fellow conservatives “what do we agree on?”