What Would Reagan Think?
As a Reagan Republican, I am an unlikely and probably unwelcome source of ideas about how a Democrat can win the presidency in 2020.
But precisely because I am a Reagan Republican, I do not support Donald Trump and do not wish to see him elected to a second term. I worked for President Reagan for many years: initially in his 1980 campaign, then in the White House, and finally in his post-presidency office in Los Angeles. I knew him well. And I am absolutely certain he would be appalled by how Donald Trump conducts himself in the presidency.
Ronald Reagan had a reverence for the office of the presidency. He thought of himself as the temporary custodian of a sacred trust that required him to treat every citizen—whether they wished him well or ill—with the utmost respect; to act in a way that earns our country the respect of allies and fear of adversaries; to support the pillars of our democracy, including the rule of law, a free press, and an independent judiciary; and to be an example to which parents could point their children.
For those reasons (and I suspect many more), I am convinced Reagan would conclude that Trump should not have a second term. Reagan probably wouldn’t campaign for whomever the Democrats nominate to run against Trump, but he would hope that the voters would do what’s best for the country.
Will the Democrats be able to do what’s best for the country—by pulling themselves together and getting behind a nominee who can win the general election? Maybe, although it seems likely that will only happen after divisive, destructive primaries that could leave any nominee too damaged to defeat Trump.
It’s enough to make one wish for the legendary old days in which party leaders picked candidates in smoke-filled rooms. Some people nowadays might prefer a woke-filled room—but either way, how nice it would be if Democratic elders could, by wheeling and dealing in private meetings with the candidates and their representatives, settle on a ticket that would unify the Democratic party and appeal to enough people outside the party to lock in a general-election win.
Alas, as appealing as this idea might be, it is not workable: Today’s party bigwigs lack the leverage. But just thinking about such a scenario highlights how having the support of a united Democratic party would be a huge advantage, one that Donald Trump would be unlikely to overcome. And that’s the ultimate goal.
One wonders what President Reagan would say today about the Republican party. Under his leadership, it stood for inclusion, civility, human rights, and global leadership against dictatorships. What would he think about a president who is divisive, rude, self-obsessed, and often mean-spirited? How would he feel about a successor who is literally the laughingstock of our allies, has accomplished little legislatively, and is viewed with disdain by many in the military establishment—especially those whose responsibilities include the administration of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, with which Trump has shown an unprecedented and audacious willingness to tamper?
Reagan would no doubt be troubled by congressional Republicans’ mindless fealty to Trump, but as a skilled politician, would understand that Republicans in the House and Senate will publicly stand by Trump because they are afraid that opposing him could alienate his ultra-loyal base of supporters, whose votes they need to stay in office. Yet Reagan would be unimpressed by their obsession with fear, likely viewing it as pathetic and ultimately unwise. He might even remind them of something that Helen Keller—whom Reagan admired as the embodiment of courage—said: “Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold.”
While he would understand, though rue, Republican congressional allegiance to Trump, Reagan would be mystified by why rank-and-file Republican voters remain under his spell. Why, he would wonder, does the party of Lincoln now march to the tune of Donald Trump? Why is the Shining City on a Hill now covered by dark clouds of despair? There are as many answers as there are pundits.
Always one to look to the future, Ronald Reagan would probably peer beyond those vexing questions toward what he was certain would be better days for America—a time when the Republican party and a Republican president stood for the principles and hopes that drew him to the party in the first place.
But for today, Reagan would, I think, sadly feel like history was repeating. He started his political career as a Democrat but over time became disenchanted with that party’s principles and policies and so switched his registration to the GOP. When asked why he switched, he famously said, “I didn’t leave the Democratic party, the Democratic party left me.” Looking at today’s politics, I think Reagan would say that, once again, his political party lost its way, left him, and is no longer worthy of his support.