The Republican presidential candidates commemorated the anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth on Saturday. But, far from honoring his legacy, the candidates utterly failed to exhibit his virtues of statesmanship.
The average Republican voter frequently says that he wants to vote for the next Reagan. But, in this hunt for a Reagan clone, we have lost sight of the important virtues of statesmanship he displayed.
The statesman must understand the fundamental questions of the day. Reagan understood the threat of the Soviet Union. He understood the pitfalls of the welfare state and the breakdown of the constitutional order. In his public speeches, he addressed the root problems of his time. Reagan was able to talk about conservative philosophy and first principles.
Most of this election’s Republican candidates — notably Donald Trump, the three governors, and (to a lesser extent) Marco Rubio — critique the Obama Administration on the grounds of competency, not constitutionality. These candidates rarely mention the Constitution, and almost never talk about natural law or the rights of men. Even the Republican candidates who habitually talk about the Constitution, such as Ted Cruz or the recently-departed Rand Paul, rarely delve deep enough to acknowledge the dramatic moral differences and the oppositional understandings of justice that separate the Right and the Left.
Effectively, the candidates running today have moved away from the platform of small-government conservatism Reagan ran on in 1980. The conservative movement in the 20th century predicated its politics on a rejection of the administrative state. Today’s candidates are primarily concerned with how to run the administrative state better than their liberal counterparts. And the American voters are vindicating this move.
Instead of substantive thought on urgent matters, American voters seem to be attracted to Reaganesque rhetoric. What they fail to understand is that simply sounding like Ronald Reagan or promising to cut taxes or “Make America Great Again” is not the same as possessing the virtues which made Ronald Reagan one of the most consequential conservative politicians of the twentieth century.
Consistently, these alleged “Reagan conservatives” support big government programs. When was the last time Trump, Rubio, or Cruz promised to end the Department of Education, or disarm the EPA, or privatize the TSA? Until substantive, specific policy action is promised on issues related to the size and scope of the federal government, the “Reaganesque” rhetoric is just a way to beautify speeches made in support of administrative law.
Take Marco Rubio’s performance last Saturday. He repeated four times an assertion that President Obama is seeking to radically transform the United States of America. But Rubio didn’t offer specific ideas about rolling back the administrative state, of restoring a culture rooted in tradition, and reversing this tragic transformation.
Prior to Reagan taking office, the Heritage Foundation issued a report detailing over 2,000 ways to move the federal government rightward. By the end of Reagan’s first term in office, about 60 percent of those proposals had been implemented.
Marco Rubio has no such plan to reduce the size and scope of the federal government. He, and other candidates, have shown little interest in such a plan. And that is a problem.
Donald Trump has shown absolutely no interest whatsoever in specifics, either. His campaign speeches and policy papers are devoid of any serious application of principle to policy. I suspect that this is because, unlike Reagan, Trump has no principles, and “making America great again” is simply a campaign platitude.
Out of all the candidates still in the running, Ted Cruz has shown the most interest in the application of principle to policy. However, most of his appeal is found in rhetoric, not a realistic approach to politics founded on conservative principles. Cruz talks about the Constitution, and occasionally Americans’ historic and inherent rights, but this is largely lip service. Cruz has done little in Washington besides grandstand, whereas Ronald Reagan served as a genuinely conservative governor in California.
Our candidates truly do not believe in the urgency of the conservative mission to restore the constitutional order. They are demagogues using conservative philosophy and rhetoric to accrue support and solidify their establishment in Washington, D.C.
What the conservative movement needs is not another Reagan parrot. What we need is a statesman, who understands the particular problems of our time, who understands the philosophical roots of the American experiment, and who shows true prudence instead of Catonian stubbornness or weakness in the face of difficult decisions.
We fast approach a crisis, and it is time for conservatives to get serious about statesmanship and talk tough about small government. And the current field simply isn’t acting like Reagan..