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Newt Gingrich’s recent article on CNN asks “What Would Reagan Do About ISIS?” Writing a “speech” from the perspective of Ronald Reagan as if he was still president, Gingrich seeks to show a more assertive, commanding response to the massive unrest in Iraq and Syria. The relative merits of Gingrich’s Reagan’s speech are not worth all that much consideration (In a nutshell, it calls for swift action against the militants, and generally damns the present policy). What is of interest is the strange phenomenon the article reveals about a large section of the American right wing today: dogmatic Ronald Reagan worship.
Don’t get me wrong; I am a big fan of Reagan and I believe he led America as well as anyone could from a time of fearful uncertainty into one of triumphal prosperity. But he was not a god and he did not have the right answer every time on every issue in his own time. It is really strange that conservative commentators trot out the “What would Reagan do?” line so regularly. Sure, we can reflect on the qualities of a president and the character they reveal through their actions. We can express our desires for more forceful and decisive leadership in the mold of Reagan. But to ask his opinion on how to address ISIS? That is a bit of a stretch.
Reagan left the White House in 1989, 25 years. That is a long time for things to change. The world is a radically different place from the one in which Reagan lived and governed. His whole political career was spent as a Cold Warrior. No doubt a man of his skills and leadership quality could make a mark on any era, but to try to envision his exact strategy, or even his general feelings, on specific issues facing us now is not particularly nourishing to intellect or beneficial to the formulation of policy.
This tendency to call up the ghost of Ronald Reagan at the drop of a hat has become a running joke in the liberal media. And if you think about it, it is rather funny. It is, after all, tough to make the case to the public that you have new solutions when you keep dredging up the image of a man who has not governed in two and half decades (and been dead for ten of those years). And that is a really serious problem facing the political right.
When Reagan rose to prominence and won the presidency, he did so by looking forward. He inspired people to believe in a future for America that was bright. He called on many of the timeless words and principles of the American political canon, but he was at his heart an independent animal. He never tried to be a mouthpiece for a preceding generation’s standard-bearer. Reagan’s message was his own, and that is why it resonated so thoroughly with the public.
Trying to be the heir to Reagan’s political legacy, as so many Republican contenders seem to be doing, misses the whole point of what made Reagan special. If the timeless message of individual liberty, of which Reagan was a true champion, is to be carried to another generation, it needs a new voice, not just an echo of an old one.