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February 4, 2008

Jeff Jacoby Plays Name That Conservative

With Super Tuesday less than 24 hours away, expect a great deal of hyperbole and alarmism from secondaries and surrogates in both parties and for all four major frontrunners. The press of over 20 states all conducting their contests simultaneously has increased the pressure for people to make their messages heard over the din, and it has already caused more than a few of them to lose all sense of perspective. Jeff Jacoby brings us back to earth with a simple game of Name That Conservative:

Conservatives bristle at the thought of a Republican president who might raise income and payroll taxes. Or enlarge the federal government instead of shrinking it. Or appoint Supreme Court justices who are anything but strict constructionists. Or grant a blanket amnesty to millions of illegal aliens.

Now, I don't believe that a President McCain would do any of those things. But President Reagan did all of them. Reagan also provided arms to the Khomeini theocracy in Iran, presided over skyrocketing budget deficits, and ordered US troops to cut and run in the face of Islamist terror in the Middle East. McCain would be unlikely to commit any of those sins, either.

Neither would Mitt Romney. In a way, neither candidate is really the point of this essay, although Jacoby uses it as an apologetic for McCain. The larger point speaks to the laments of conservatives who apparently can't take yes for an answer in this election.

Everyone has been invoking Reagan as the gold standard for conservative presidential candidates, and for some good reasons. However, most of them have ignored the historical Reagan for the mythical Ronaldus Magnus. Reagan did all of the things that Jacoby mentions; he didn't stand firm in Beirut when he probably should have, and he raised taxes as part of a compromise with Congress. He threw amnesty at the illegal alien problem without doing anything to strengthen border security, and then didn't do much to pursue it later.

Conservatives learned from all of Reagan's missteps -- and so did Reagan, for that matter. He was adaptive and wily. He knew how to pull together a vast coalition by giving each part at least a little of what they wanted. Most of all, though, Reagan had a vision of both America and his role in leading it to greatness.

That may be what's missing from this year's crop of candidates. We have not seen that kind of Great Communicator, although I think Romney comes closest. We have seen both the candidates and the surrogates focus on policy to the exclusion of vision. The one really insurgent candidate in both parties, Barack Obama, has risen improbably to the top of his primary contest with the seemingly invincible Hillary Clinton because he has focused on vision rather than policy, knowing that Americans elect leaders and not managers, at least when given the choice.

Conservatives have some important policy differences with McCain, and if he manages to win the nomination, they have to be addressed. But in truth, both frontrunners in this race should give some comfort to conservatives to see that they have continued to define the Republican Party and the parameters of the policy debate. They have a choice between one candidate who grew into the Reagan vision and another who has supported much of that vision consistently through the years. Neither deserves the obloquy they have received in the past two weeks.


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