Mason Herron is a freelance political writer living in New York City and a contributor to FrumForum.
As the contest to be 2012’s Republican nominee for president continues to heat up, there is a name that all candidates will undoubtedly go out of their way to mention: Ronald Reagan.
They will try to promote themselves as the next Gipper, the true heir to his ideas and legacy, and the only nominee who can reinvigorate the Reagan Revolution. Their attempted emulation of our 40th president will more than likely focus on his policies, ideology, and legacy. While these will be helpful in establishing their conservative credentials, mimicking these traits can only take someone so far in a field of candidates all aspiring to be the same man.
Instead, when the potential nominees look to Reagan, they should attempt to harness his message, his optimism, and his ability to communicate. These qualities are what made Reagan a great leader.
When Reagan announced his candidacy for president in 1979, he did so in the midst of what was—at that time—the worst economic climate since the Great Depression. They had endured an assassination, the Vietnam War, and Watergate. They had hoped Jimmy Carter was the answer, but his presidency had fallen far below expectations.
And then Ronald Reagan ran on a platform of American greatness. In his acceptance speech for the Republican nomination, he professed that “they say that the United States has had its day in the sun; that our nation has passed its zenith. They expect you to tell your children that the American people no longer have the will to cope with their problems; that the future will be one of sacrifice and few opportunities. My fellow citizens, I utterly reject that view.”
He felt that Americans no longer believed in themselves, and that the inner glow that had driven American achievement in the past had faded. Americans had to be proud once again of their greatness, and proud of their country’s power. He didn’t want Americans to trust him; he wanted them to trust themselves. Limited government and a stronger national defense were simply the logical extension of this worldview.
When we trusted our current leaders to pull out us of a crisis they instead spent billions of dollars on wasteful stimulus pet projects while enacting a health care reform bill against the will of the American people. In response, the country elected a wave of Republicans, who, if they are wise, will not lead with policies that corrode American self-reliance, but policies that allow it to flourish.
Today, Americans find themselves feeling lower than they did in 1979. Talk of American decline in the face of rising powers continues to reverberate and capture proponents, our leaders have expanded the role of the federal government more so than any other in recent memory, and the economic crisis we face is the worst in eight decades.
The winner of the 2012 Republican nomination will be the candidate who is best able to convince the country that it isn’t up to our leaders to change America—it’s up to Americans. He or she cannot simply repeat tired phrases that merely strike patriotic chords or assert a conservative mindset. Rather, our next president will provoke Americans to look inside themselves and find what it is that has made the American dream possible.
Standing in the shadow of President Obama’s cautiously pessimistic inaugural address should make this easier. Furthermore, they must run a campaign based not on the message of what it is that they can do for America—as Obama did—but rather what it is that America can do for itself. As Reagan said, “’Trust me’ government asks that we concentrate our hopes and dreams on one man; that we trust him to do what's best for us.” The optimism of Obama’s campaign was misdirected—it shined on him, not on Americans.
In that sense, the Republican nominee must be the anti-Obama. There will be significant negative campaigning against the Obama platform in the early stages of the primary campaign, but eventually one of the nominees must separate themselves from the rest. It is here that they must display the ability to communicate with not only the American people, but also the American spirit.