Ronald Reagan made that remark in a forgotten 1975 interview with Mike Wallace of “60 Minutes.” Observing the uninspiring presidential leadership of moderate Republican Gerald Ford, Reagan communicated to Wallace the need for effective communication. He evoked FDR’s fireside chats, not to mention a harbinger of his own presidency: “[FDR] took his case to the people, and he enlightened the people, and the people made Congress feel the heat.”
While the interview has slipped through the cracks of history, these words of political wisdom from the Great Communicator are as timeless as ever. In fact, for Republicans, they have never been so obvious, especially over the past eight years and going into November.
I’m in an ever-narrowing camp of Republicans who believe that George W. Bush has the potential to be remembered as a leader who did great things—a stoic, stable presence who stood the course and quietly transformed the Middle East and wider world, laying the groundwork for a much better 21st century. Of course, that’s a big “if,” depending on whether his extraordinary actions in Iraq and Afghanistan bear fruit over the long-run. If they don’t, he will be seen as a failed leader.
That said, Bush has not been a “great leader” as defined by Reagan in 1975. Reagan was not only onto something with that remark but was prophetic of his own work. Reagan himself changed people and changed the world. He got people to do great things.
Bush completely lacks the support that Reagan overwhelmingly enjoyed from the vast majority of Americans. Reagan was elected to a second term in a landslide, winning 49 of 50 states. He left office with the high approval ratings (Gallup) of any president since Eisenhower. Bush spends his final year in office with the lowest approval ratings (Gallup) of any president since Truman.
What’s more, Reagan was a towering figure in his own party—literally Lincolnesque. In an interesting modern political phenomenon, local GOP chapters throughout the country have begun holding Reagan Day Dinners in February instead of their traditional Lincoln Day Dinners. Bush, on the other hand, is unpopular even within his own party. A couple of weeks ago at the website of the Center for Vision & Values, we received a disgruntled email from an excellent editor who frequently publishes our material. He is a conservative Republican. Unhappy with an op-ed I wrote commending George W. Bush, the editor zinged Bush as a “destroyer of the Republican Party.” That’s a complaint I’m hearing constantly from Republicans, and which I fully understand. Bush will leave the GOP a far weaker party than the pillar of strength he inherited from Reagan.
Further, consider Bush’s total lack of inroads among Democrats. It is there, perhaps more than anywhere else, where Bush has completely failed. Remember the Reagan Democrats—the converts who voted Republican because of Reagan? There were literally tens of millions of them. The combination of Jimmy Carter’s disastrous presidency and then the emergence and resounding success of Ronald Reagan transformed the political landscape for a generation. It elected both George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush. The Bushes, however, have been poor stewards of the legacy; they have allowed it to crumble. This was not so much policy-wise—though that’s a big part of the failure—but communication-wise.
In the end, then, where are the Bush Democrats? There are few to none of them.
If all of that isn’t depressing enough for Republicans, consider the future: What Reagan lamented to Mike Wallace in 1975 is again lacking—with no solution in sight—in 2008. In 1975, there was a solution to the problem identified by Reagan: Reagan. In 2008, George W. Bush’s Ford-like failure to inspire is rearing its ugly head as the greatest liability of John McCain; it persists. McCain is not only failing to turn it around but probably will make it worse. He is a terrible communicator—a painfully clear inability to speak well and to articulate conservatism. McCain’s shortcomings in this regard will be made even more manifest by the Democratic presidential nominee, the most radical-left candidate his party has ever nominated but who has the slick ability to look good and speak well—even when saying nothing—and woo voters.
All of this means that the situation is pretty darned grim for Republicans. To stand a chance in 2008, they need the votes of Bush Democrats. The only problem is that there aren’t any.
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