Political Hay

Reagan and McCain

The similarities begin with their extraordinary attachment to principle.

By 1.24.08

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Apparently dissatisfied with their presidential choices, Republicans are asking, "Why don't we have another Ronald Reagan?" But if we think seriously about what made Ronald Reagan a great leader and a great president, we may find that there's a reasonable facsimile hiding in plain sight. John McCain, although he has failed to toe the line of conservative orthodoxy, has many of the characteristics that the American people admired in Ronald Reagan, including the key elements that made him a successful president. In fact, given his electability, McCain offers a rare chance for conservatives to recapture the essence of the Reagan revolution.

The similarities between Reagan and McCain begin with their extraordinary attachment to principle. Reagan never altered his views about Communism, the Soviet Union or the importance of shrinking the government, and it was this quality that made him a successful president. Washington is a city where everything is negotiable. In this world, a president with actual principles has a unique attribute -- credibility. When Reagan stayed the course on tax cuts, despite high interest rates and a weak economy in 1982, he was relying on his principles. When John McCain said, in supporting the surge in Iraq, he would "rather lose an election than lose a war," he is demonstrating the same attachment to principle that animated Ronald Reagan. And this firmness will give him the same credibility in Washington that Reagan enjoyed.

A second similarity is their view of the United States and its role in the world. Reagan, as we recall, described America as a shining city on a hill. What he meant by this was that the United States is an exceptional nation -- "the last best hope of earth," in Lincoln's words. This is the foundation of an aggressive foreign policy, respectful of other nations but ultimately doing what is necessary to defeat the enemies of peace and freedom. Thus, Reagan's foreign policy -- much to the chagrin of our European allies -- was the opposite of the accommodationist approach followed by his predecessors in dealing with the Soviet Union; as he summarized it: "We win; they lose." McCain sees the United States in the same way, having served in its armed forces, borne years of torture in its behalf, fought for a stronger military, and promised to follow Osama bin Laden to "the gates of hell." He wants to defeat our next great enemy, Islamofascism, not live with it, just as Reagan refused to accept the Soviet Union as a permanent fixture on the international scene.

Reagan and McCain also share the essential characteristic of leaders -- both set their own course without reference to polls or political pressures. When Reagan fired the air traffic controllers, he made a powerful statement about the rule of law, although customary Washington politics would have dictated compromise. When he said in his first inaugural address that "Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem," he was putting himself in opposition to a half-century of growth in the government and its role in the economy. When McCain told a questioner at a New Hampshire town meeting that if he wants to limit free trade "I am not your candidate," or told Iowans that ethanol is not the solution to the nation's energy problems, he, like Reagan, was signaling that he will set his own course and not pander to the politics of the moment.

Finally, Reagan built a new coalition to secure his election, attracting voters across the political spectrum with his vision of smaller government and more personal freedom. Many conservatives fail to understand that Reagan's tax cuts had two objectives -- to promote economic recovery, of course, but also to "starve the beast," by reducing the funds available for government growth. Although Reagan did in fact successfully cut domestic discretionary spending, later Republican presidents and congressional majorities spoiled the brand that Reagan had created for his party. They did it, however, over the strong objections of John McCain, who has been the most consistent advocate in Congress for Reagan's original vision of a smaller and less intrusive government.

The Reagan coalition is still out there, a majority of Americans -- Republicans, Democrats, and Independents -- who believe that the size of government and its role in the economy should be reduced. Through the aggressive use of the veto pen, McCain has promised restore this essential element of Reagan's vision. Why should disaffected conservatives believe this? Because John McCain is like Ronald Reagan in the most significant respect of all: he is an authentic person, not a confection designed by consultants. Reagan, as his diary shows (as if we needed further proof), wanted to be president for a purpose -- as a real person would -- not simply to hold the office. He had a consistent and firmly held set of views that he intended to pursue as president. McCain's straight talk is popular because it's the way real people talk to one another, not the coddling way today's politicians present themselves to us. So when John McCain said, after his victory in South Carolina, that he was a foot soldier in the Reagan revolution and is running for president "not to be something, but to do something" he was making clear that on a range of issues -- from defending the nation to reducing the size of government -- he would bring a new vitality to the Reagan revolution.

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About the Author

Peter J. Wallison is the Arthur F. Burns Fellow in Financial Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.