Desperate Democrats Searching for their Ronald Reagan

After the most recent Democratic debate on December 19th, like many other political pundits, I offered my evaluation of how I felt each of the candidates performed in the final debate of 2020.

My view was that Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) had the best night. She scored points for experience and foreign policy expertise. She often played the grownup when the other candidates started squabbling. She seemed “presidential” which is like saying Kate Middleton has “grace.” The trait, like “character,” is often more identifiable by its absence than its presence, but Senator Klobuchar certainly showed it.

Most importantly, she had a strong night by stressing why she should be the next president, not why the other candidates should not be.

Remember, if she is not the nominee, one of the others from that stage will be.

That is not to say that mistakes candidates have made in the past are not fair game in a debate or campaign. And that is not to say that one candidate cannot highlight their own policy proposal by contrasting that proposal with an opponent’s and by highlighting the flaws in the latter.

No one should be required to pull their punches in a debate that helps determine America’s future, but the right to swing freely should not apply to sucker punches.

Stick to the policies, the platform, the past votes and positions, but leave the person out of the argument.

That allows for candidates to evolve. 

Sure, they will still carry the burden of those past mistakes, but as scars, instead of as open wounds into which their general election opponent can gleefully pour salt.

During the 1996 Republican primary for Governor of California, Gaylord Parkinson (then California’s GOP Chairman) coined what would later become conservative lore as Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment,

“Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.”

Yes, it was a little self-serving back when Reagan first adopted the policy in 1966 as he was the frontrunner for the Republican gubernatorial nomination to oppose incumbent Democrat Pat Brown.

The last thing Reagan needed was his rivals for the nomination to launch personal salvos that might wound him, not severely enough to prevent him from securing the nomination, but by providing Brown with lines of attack for the general election.

And yes, pushing for that prohibition also played to Reagan’s strengths.

He was soft-spoken, almost in an “Aw, shucks” kind of way, genial and jovial with the election-winning knack for making people like him. To get into a mudslinging battle would risk not only damaging his reputation (if the mud stuck) but would also risk damaging his likability (if he were forced to fight back in kind).

Most important though were Reagan’s presidential aspirations.

Democrat Lyndon Johnson had destroyed Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964, taking 486 electoral votes (90.33%) and pushing Democrats to 2/3 majorities in the House and Senate. That defeat left the Republican Party’s liberal and moderate wings (led by future Vice President Nelson Rockefeller) sharply divided from the conservative wing which had supported Goldwater.

Reagan knew the path to making Republicans viable for the White House again lie in unification of these warring factions, and that an armistice had to come before unification.

It is a much more challenging task to negotiate peace if both sides bring their guns to the negotiating table.

An effort had been made previously, in July of 1960, the so-called Treaty of Fifth Avenue between Republican presidential nominee Richard Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller. Though Rockefeller never formally challenged Nixon for the nomination in 1960, and despite Nixon being the incumbent Vice President and presumptive nominee, Nixon felt he needed the support of Rockefeller to convince the more liberal and moderate wings of the party to trust the far more conservative Nixon.

Yes, half a century ago, the Republican Party had liberals and moderates, and the party’s conservatives often reached out to them seeking cooperation.

The two met at Rockefeller’s apartment in New York City and agreed to compromise on fourteen key components to the party platform which was due to be unveiled at the Republican Convention in Chicago later that week.

Nixon went on to lose the general election to Democrat John F. Kennedy.

Those internal struggles in the Republican Party of the early 1960’s sure sound a lot like the current situation facing the Democratic Party as the moderate and establishment wings of the party face-off against progressive voices demanding revolution.

There was an effort in 2016 to appease the progressive wing (led by Bernie Sanders) much the way Nixon tried to appease Rockefeller, with significant input on the platform for the convention. Sanders won concessions from Clinton on the minimum wage, climate change and marijuana legalization, as well as promises to move the party (albeit, slowly) towards Sanders’ goal of free college tuition.

Clinton, like Nixon in 1960, lost anyway.

So here the Democrats are, at a similar crossroads to the one Republicans faced in 1966.

A leader for the future must emerge, someone capable of bringing all Democrats to the table regardless of how moderate or progressive they might be.

The simple truth is the ideology, the platform, is meaningless unless elections are won.

Otherwise they are words in speeches and unfulfilled promises, not enacted policies.

It is worth noting that at the time Ronald Reagan set about seeking to unify the party in 1966, he had never held political office of any kind. He was 55 years old, and into his early 50’s, he had been a Democrat. He was the past leader of the Screen Actors Guild, the union representing film and television performers.

He knew he would need to bide his time and polish his credentials, likely serving two terms as Governor of California while another Republican occupied the White House.

That is a key so many politicians from today’s generation seem to overlook.

It was nearly 15 years from the day Reagan and Parkinson set in motion the plan to unite and revamp the Republican Party to the day Reagan was inaugurated as president, the oldest ever elected at the time.

Yes, times have changed and politics has changed, but Reagan did not burst on the scene as a neophyte in 1966 and immediately seek the 1968 Republican presidential nomination.

The Republican Party won the White House in 1968. Four years later, incumbent Republican Richard Nixon would claim 49 states in his re-election victory, a feat Reagan would repeat in his own re-election victory in 1984 after winning 44 when first claiming the presidency in his 1980 win over Democrat Jimmy Carter.

The Republican Party won five of the six presidential elections from 1968-1988, losing only in 1976 when incumbent Gerald Ford, who had replaced Vice President Spiro Agnew and later replaced President Richard Nixon when both resigned because of the Watergate Scandal, lost by 2% to Jimmy Carter.

Might that election have turned out differently if Reagan had successfully unseated Ford for the nomination or if Reagan had not damaged Ford during the brutal primary fight that lasted right through the convention? Perhaps.

So, who will it be, folks?

Who can unite the Democratic Party?

Who can chart the path towards two decades of (mostly) Democratic control of the White House?

Can the Democrats find their Ronald Reagan?

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