Newt Gingrich is fond of framing his race against Mitt Romney as a “timid Massachusetts moderate” against a “bold Reagan conservative.”
It has come out of his mouth in television commercials, debates and stump speeches. Gingrich thinks the more he mentions Reagan’s name in association with his own, the more we will believe that he is the 41st president reincarnated.
He’s not. No one is, and they never will be.
Reagan’s name is an irresistible catnip to any Republican running for national office, and I can understand why, given his legacy, but I’ve grown more than a little tired of hearing candidates try to “out-Reagan” each other.
It has been more than two decades since The Gipper left office, and since then he has become — based on rhetoric more than actual record — something of a demigod among GOP voters. Every presidential nominating contest seems to turn into a competition to see who can most fully wrap themselves in the warm embrace of the now-dead icon’s legacy. Each debate devolves into a struggle for who is more similar to Ronald Reagan than his opponents.
Yet, it occurs to me that you didn’t hear Reagan run around the country constantly referring to himself as a “Coolidge conservative” or a “Goldwater conservative.” He didn’t feel the need to try to make himself more appealing by defining himself as the reincarnated soul of some departed political hero.
Indeed, one of the things that has consistently been most attractive about Reagan to GOP voters is the fact that he was his own man. He defied the establishment of his party, spoke to principle and crafted a unique political brand.
Reagan himself was the ideological heir to Goldwater, yet you wouldn’t know it from listening to him. His rise to political prominence really began with his 1964 speech, “A Time for Choosing,” which strongly advocated for not only Goldwater, but the philosophical basis for Goldwater’s candidacy.
It is often said that Goldwater didn’t truly lose the 1964 election, but that it just took him 16 years to win — upon the landslide election of Reagan in 1980. So if anyone could be forgiven for running for office in another man’s shadow and walking rhetorically in his footsteps, it would be Reagan.
He didn’t. He ran on his own ideas. He crafted his own identity. He was his own man and felt confident enough in his own skin that he didn’t feel it necessary to make himself look great by standing nearby a great man. That is what a truly great leader does, rather than constantly groping for greatness-by-association.
Leaders truly deserving of our attention should define themselves on their own terms. People such as Newt should proudly say, “I’m a Gingrich conservative,” and do their best to inspire a generation of political leaders to look to their legacy.
The constant posturing over who is the most similar to Ronald Reagan betrays a massive insecurity about the gravity of one’s own ideas. In essence, these people are saying that they can’t be compelling on their own merits, but instead need the weight of a mythical hero to make them important.
Sadly, the candidates currently in the field show no signs of such transcendent leadership. We are likely to hear Reagan’s name more — and in a less substantive way — as the primary election drags on.
I very much look forward to the day when Reagan’s name is no longer used as some kind of proxy argument by candidates. Someday a man or woman confident enough in their own ideas and their own capabilities will emerge, willing to define himself or herself as who they are.
When that happens, we will finally have a candidate worth our vote.
Matthew Gagnon, a Hampden native, is a Republican political strategist. He previously worked for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and read his blog at www.pinetreepolitics.com.