By: Brian Sikma

With nearly a dozen Republicans running for president, the base is being subjected to a single phrase over and over again. “I am a Ronald Reagan Republican” is now the war cry of just about every GOP candidate. Variations of that tune sound like “I am the true Reagan Conservative”, “If elected I will implement the policies of Ronald Reagan”, etc. etc.

While all of this is going on one can’t help but wonder if the next real Reagan will actually bear the title of a “Reagan conservative”. I’m not saying the views of Reagan are outdated, they’re not. But this continual reference to the greatest president of the last half of the 20th Century leaves one pondering what exactly set Reagan apart from the rest and how he articulated his views. When Reagan took to the podium in his now famous endorsement speech for Barry Goldwater, he didn’t introduce himself to the crowd by saying “I am a Ronald Reagan Republican”.

Great leaders have always had those that ride on their coattails. In fact, great leaders usually ride-at least in part-on the coattails of those before them. This does not detract from their greatness because it shows how much a student of history they are. In his farewell speech Reagan borrowed from Puritan John Winthrop the phrase “a city on a hill”. Greatness is not just developing new ideas, it is articulating timeless ideas in such a way as to inspire others to follow you on your upward journey. Leaders can developing seemingly new ideas simply by taking an old idea and applying it in one way or another to a particular situation.

Take the example of Patrick Henry. At the time of his famous “Give me Liberty” speech, freedom was something that parts of the world had experimented with. England had a constitution that guaranteed certain freedoms to the English people; the colonists enjoyed a measure of freedom from the mother country and had been allowed to elect their own legislative bodies. Patrick Henry did not invent the concept of human liberty in his speech, that was something that had been around for centuries. What Henry did do was to apply that concept to the then present crisis. He called his fellow Virginians and fellow colonists to realize that they were not experiencing freedom if England continued in her war-like ways. Henry took an idea and realized it to a fuller extent than most of his fellow colonists. He grasped what true liberty was and he called his fellow men to join him in the realization of that freedom.

So too, did Ronald Reagan take concepts that had existed for years and expanded those concepts by applying them to the crisis of the day. Reagan created new ideas not from scratch but from principles that had been neglected. The difference between Reagan though and some of his present day come-alongs is the fact that Reagan took the time to spell out exactly what he believed. When he spoke of freedom he spoke of the relationship between individual freedom and individual responsibility. When he spoke of the role of government he stressed the need for traditional values applied through libertarian means. Reagan was a social and fiscal conservative at a time when some wondered if the two were compatible.

Reagan’s particular breed of conservatism has been termed a “fusionist” conservatism. To summarize, fusionists believe in traditional Judeo-Christian principles and free-market economics. These two views are sometimes seen as irreconcilable polar opposites because if you believe in traditional morality then it is assumed that you believe that arbitrary government force should be used to coerce individuals to hold to that morality. After all, if traditional morality is our end should government work to bring about that end? While some social conservatives may desire to inappropriately use government power to bring about a social change, those social conservatives who understand the proper role of government are content to regulate only that behavior which integrally impacts society.

On other side of the conservative spectrum, libertarians argue that most government power is bad and that a free markets should prevail in economic and moral choices. It is their contention that free choices in markets must also be applied to free choices in values. What they fail to realize is that choice is not the ultimate end, the right choice is the final end. Freedom as a stand alone value equated with unbridled choice leads to anarchy.

The unique governing ability of fusionism centers around the achievement of traditional ends through libertarian means. Realizing that government force cannot change hearts, fusionist (a.k.a. Reagan) conservatives believe that government should create an environment where economic markets are free to function within the bounds of law and where those aspects of private morality that greatly impact a culture are regulated by law in such a way as to encourage individuals to make the right choices in the market of values.

The application and further enunciation of this basic conservative premise is worthy of a national debate. Shouldn’t a presidential campaign provide a good atmosphere for an intellectual exploration of this principle on the part of candidates and voters? Sadly, the current debate between GOP presidential hopefuls has been barren of any in-depth attempt to really talk about how this principle affects substantive policy issues. Although some very bright candidates are out there, it would seem that a reference to being a “Reagan conservative” or “Reagan Republican” suffices for a statement of principle.

Some, such as Congressman Mike Pence (R-IN), have successfully branded themselves as Reagan Conservatives. However, if we look closely at Pence’s rhetoric and actions we find more than just a passing reference to Reagan. Instead we find an individual who combines both a respect and reference to Reagan with a substantive analysis of what it means to be a conservative. Pence is a remarkable communicator who doesn’t rely on sound bytes to be the extent of his expression of principle. While hearkening back to a great leader, he also applies timeless ideas to the problems of today. Is he always right? No, he’s human, but rarely do we see someone in politics who isn’t afraid to move beyond the media summary and into the nitty gritty of understanding why a policy proposal is right or wrong. The Republican presidential candidates would do well to follow his example.

So, to answer the question posed in the title: Will the next Ronald Reagan be a Reagan Republican? The answer is yes and no. The next great leader may or may not identify himself with the name of Reagan, but he will identify himself with the ideas of Reagan. Saying you’re a Reagan Republican isn’t a substitute for doing some hard thinking yourself about what you believe, why you believe it, and how your principles will impact policy. Let’s work hard to make sure cliches don’t trump substance in this debate over who will be the standard bearer of our party in November of 2008.

Image courtesy of Ronald Reagan Library.