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Who Is the Most Reaganesque GOP Candidate?

The Hill

Republican presidential hopefuls will line up on August 23 for the first round of primary debates. For conservatives who lived through the late 1970s and the 1980s, Ronald Reagan set a standard for how to behave as a candidate and then how to lead as a president.

What were the traits and accomplishments that made Reagan the model for many subsequent GOP candidates? For me, six come to mind.

First, he could win elections. It may sound trite, but the first important test for any political candidate is the ability to win. It is even more important to win reelection, since that vote comes after constituents have seen what the candidate has accomplished, in addition to what he or she promises to do.

Reagan ran for governor of California twice and won both elections. He ran for president twice and won both times (though he lost to incumbent President Gerald Ford in the 1976 GOP primaries). Importantly, winning at the presidential level means not just appealing to the party’s base, but attracting the independent voters who ultimately decide elections.

Most of the current crop of GOP presidential candidates have demonstrated they can win election and reelection. Unfortunately, the leading GOP candidate barely won his first election and failed to win reelection.

Second, Reagan was the “great communicator.” He could give speeches that people would remember and quote for decades to come, like his 1964 Republican convention speech, “A Time for Choosing.”

Critics often claimed that his ability to communicate was just a result of his years as an actor. But there are lots of actors who fail badly when it comes to communicating to the public off-screen.

Being a great communicator is a mix of what a person says and how that person says it. Barack Obama was good at communicating (though I didn’t like most of his policies). And Donald Trump has a way of communicating that strongly resonates with a portion of the public, though it perhaps puts off even more people. So far, none of the GOP candidates have distinguished themselves as great communicators.

Third, Reagan talked policy, not just platitudes. Reagan delivered daily radio commentaries from January 1975 to December 1978—1,027 of them to an audience of 20 to 30 million people (me included). He hand-wrote 679 of his commentaries on yellow legal pads.

Those commentaries allowed him to demonstrate his knowledge of the issues, convey his political and governing philosophy, and connect with the public. At this point it’s difficult to know what most of the current GOP presidential candidates stand for. Of course, it’s very hard to get a message out when media airtime is consumed with covering Trump’s legal troubles. But it’s a challenge GOP candidates will have to overcome if they want beat Trump in the primaries and President Joe Biden in the election.

Fourth, Reagan embraced free-market economics. For half a century, the government and most economists embraced the liberal economic policies proposed by John Maynard Keynes. Reagan didn’t. He turned to the free-market economic policies of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. Reagan cut taxes in 1981 and 1986, and he began scaling back the federal government’s spending and regulatory overreach. It paid off. Reagan’s policies began an economic expansion that lasted for decades.

Several of the current GOP candidates also embrace free-market principles. As president, Trump took a different approach. He attacked free-trade principles and arbitrarily imposed tariffs, which are a tax on Americans, not foreign countries.

Some GOP voters and politicians have largely abandoned the free-market policies that have been a hallmark of conservatism, endorsing versions of Bidenesque industrial policieshigher tariffs and government intervention in the economy.

Economic policy will be a big factor in the campaign. Attacking Biden’s policies should be accompanied by supporting the kind of free-market solutions that Reagan did.

Fifth, Reagan reasserted U.S. global leadership. The United States is not alone in the world. Authoritarians who want to expand their power, territory and ideologies are on the prowl, threatening American allies. They can smell weakness in the air.

Following the massive loss of respect for the United States under President Jimmy Carter, Reagan reasserted U.S. leadership, which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and reasonably good relations with China. Which of the current GOP candidates can reclaim that mix of strength and diplomacy is still an open question.

And finally, Reagan did all this with grace and dignity. He had numerous policy differences with Democrats, but was able to persuade them—including Joe Biden, then a senator—to vote for several bipartisan bills. And Reagan even had a respectful working relationship with the Democratic Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.).

Ronald Reagan wasn’t perfect, of course. No person, and certainly no politician, is. But he did a great job of growing the economy, rebuilding the military, and reasserting U.S. global leadership. It’s a good model for GOP candidates to follow. Millions of Americans will be watching the August 23 debate hoping to identify the most Reaganesque presidential candidate. Which one, if any, will it be?