Outlook: Would Reagan vote for Sarah Palin?

Mar 08, 2010

Steven F. Hayward, F.K. Weyerhaeuser fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of "The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counter-Revolution, 1980-1989," discusses his Outlook article titled "Would Reagan vote for Sarah Palin?"

As a man who made frequent use of the teleprompter, wouldn't Pres. Reagan take issue with Sarah Palin's constant assertment that only out-ot-touch liberal elitists use it?

Yes, I think he might in a gentle way.  There's a great story about Reagan showing Margaret Thatcher how Teleprompters worked, and why she should use one, since it was apparently (Reagan thought) invented in England.  But Reagan could be good without a teleprompter, and there is some doubt that Obama (and Palin) on this score.

Your analysis are interesting and in-depth and not verbal spitballs. Thanks. Palin's problem is that unlike Reagan she did leave a governorship mid-term (shows lack of sticking to your committments) and doesn't seem to have the discipline. How does someone change their nature as well as voter's perception?

I think that was a big problem for her.  Governors make good presidential candidates precisely because of an executive record, and Palin cut short her chances to build a larger one.  That said, it is a problem for any Alaska (or Hawaii) governor to participate in many aspects of national politics because of their geographical remoteness, which is one large reason she felt compelled to do this.

Hi, was President Reagan a policy wonk or politician?

He was both.  His own writings show a serious interest in ideas, but the former showman understood the theatrical aspects of democratic politics.  It's a winning combination that is surprisingly rare in politics.

In your piece you say that Palin needs to be careful about learning more about foreign policy because she risks appearing “inauthentic.â€ï¿½ How can you justify advising a candidate for President against preparing him or herself for the foreign policy challenges he or she will inevitably face? Surely you’d rather your conservative choice for President made decisions based on at least some knowledge? Moreover, how do you think a potential Palin voter would respond to the suggestion he or she views policy knowledge as a negative?

Maybe my prose was too abbreviated.  I'm not advising against Palin (or anyone) studying foreign policy (or other issues) deeply and intensely.  To the contrary, I think she needs to do A LOT of this.  Reagan's example, though, shows a way to do this effectively.  Reagan never tried to overcome the "lightweight" image he had by public displays of learning, which would have been unconvincing I think.  That's the lesson I was trying to convey about Palin.

I know aides to Reagan deny this, so I will accept that Reagan official endorsement and supported Bush in 1992. Yet, I recall one aide, who some say was disgruntled because he had been fired, claims Reagan told him he voted for Clinton in the ballot box. Who knows what he did in the privacy of a ballot box. Yet, I find it interesting this discussion of whether Reagan would vote for Palin. Was Reagan still a Reagan-ite after he left office? There may have been different views from a President Reagan who also was the leader of his party, and the more reflective former President Reagan.

Interesting story, and possibly true.  Reagan was usually a party man, but apparently (I think Lou Cannon reported this) Reagan didn't support for vote for Max Rafferty in California in 1968 (a Senate race), and supported Joe Lieberman against liberal Republican Lowell Weicker in 1988 (going as far as wanting to send Lieberman a campaign contribution). So his party loyalty had limits.  I think he remained a Reaganite after leaving office, but between he dismay at Bush raising taxes, and his possible admiration for Clinton's political gifts (remember that Reagan loved FDR), he might possible have pulled the lever for Clinton in 1992.  We'll likely never know.

The original pamphlet by Martin Anderson entitled "An Economic Bill of Rights" had these four recommendations: (1) a balanced federal budget; (2) a limitation on federal spending; (3) a line-item veto power for the president; (4) a gold standard: (5) a prohibition of general wage and price controls. Do you know why the gold standard concept was taken out? What evidence exists regarding Reagan's views on the gold standard? Thanks.

My memory of that particular question is a little vague, but I know there was a lot of agitation in 1981 that the gold standard should be part of the economic plan, and I believe Reagan even had a study group or low level commission of some kind that looked into the matter.  He had great sympathy for the gold standard, but I have simply forgotten why he draw back from that particular plank.  As I say in my book, to conventional economists, if supply side economics was "voodoo economics" or "laetrille" economics (as one critic called it), then the gold standard was the equivalent of leechcraft.

Steve, Tim Seibel here. Hope you're doing well. You are right to suggest the Tea Parties propose Constitutional amendments as a positive agenda and organizing principle which "would put liberals on the defensive." I would further argue that proposing Constitutional amendments would also re-focus the People's attention to the actual text of the Constitution rather than on its interpretation by judges. Don't you agree? If yes, shouldn't you re-phrase your statement that seeking Constitutional amendments "may not be the most conservative of initiatives?"

Hey Tim!  (My former grad school roommate everyone): Yes, any time you bring up amendments you reintroduce people to thinking and talking about the Constitution, and that is always good.  Though the cliche is overused, the concern about the deficit and related problems makes the present time a "teachable moment" about the constitutional design  of our government.

Although I disagreed with many of his policies, I admired him as a man, a leader and a president. He left office with a bigger budget, more federal employees and more debt than when he arrived. I don't see him aligning with the TPers because they violate his 11th commandment: Thou Shalt Not Speak Ill of Another Republican. I think Reagan would be more accepting of diverse groups (minorities, gays) than the TPers.

Slow down just a little bit.  I know there is controversy, from Keith Olberman and others, that the TPers are nativists, but Im not sure that is correct.  In any case, the same thing was said of the tax revolt in the 1970s (that its motivation was racist, in fact, was explicitly claimed by Jesse Jackson and others), but Reagan loved the tax revolt, Prop. 13 and the rest.  As for the 11th Commandment (which wasn't actually his--it comes from Gaylord Parkinson, a former CA GOP state chairman--everyone always attributes it to Reagan), true in almost all cases, but see my answer above about the Lieberman 1988 election, for example.

Comment first. One aspect of Reagan methinks you neglected was his pragmatism. As some of the more lucid conservative commentators have pointed out, he worked with Congress and, after his initial tax cut, signed off on tax increases that would disqualify any current GOP contender. And that's just for starters. Reagan has become more a figure of nostalgia than of historical reference for today's conservatives. On that note, would you agree that there's a comparison with what liberals/Democrats have done with the JFK legacy? Although too young myself to have been cognizant during his administration, based on coversations with family elders -- all JFK supporters BTW -- he was neither as liberal nor as popular as many of his hagiographers assume and, in fact, was no shoo-in for reelection.

Lot packed in this very good comment.  I agree with much of it (esp. your shrewd observations about JFK).  I think Reagan's pragmatism needs to be understood as arising most of the time for a position of strength.  Tip O'Neill said he hated negotiating with Reagan because Reagan always got 80 percent of what he wanted.  I think that's even true of the 1982 tax increase you mention (which Reagan later regretted);  I have a revisionist history of that whole episode in my book which is too long to outline here (hint, hint).

Mr. Hayward: Good morning. I think your Sunday Post column assumed Palin had a lot more in common with Reagan than she does. One obvious difference is that Palin excels in expressing resentments, and Reagan was never only about that. Another, though, is that Reagan had been a celebrity for years when he entered politics. He'd had his fame and earned his money. Palin is going in the opposite direction. I don't think Reagan could have gone back to making movies after being governor of California; I have a hard time seeing Palin winning elective office after cashing in on her celebrity.

Have to answer this one, because it tees up one of my favorite Reagan stories.  Like Palin last week, Reagan went on the Tonight Show in 1973. When Carson asked him if he might go back to show business after Sacramento, Reagan said, "Oh, no, I'm much too old to take off all my clothes."  I recently told this story to Gov. Schwartzenegger and asked him he same question. He replied: "I still work out very day, so I CAN still take off all my clothes."

Anyway, I share your doubts that Palin really wants an electoral career.  She may settle for being a prominent political celebrity like Pat Buchanan, and make money and speeches.  The point of my article was to suggest some things she and others ought to consider if they really do intend to run for high office.

With a climate very similar to the one Reagan had when he was first elected, can a Reagan conservative like Sarah Palin win the presidency in 2012? What must she do to accomplish this?

This is a very hard question to answer for all of the usual reasons, but one that often gets left out is the role of chance.  Events broke just right for Reagan in the runup to 1980.  I can easily imagine counterfactual scenarios of a highly unsuccessful Reagan presidency had he been elected in 1968 or 1976.  So Palin's (or anyone's) chances will depend a lot on events in the next three years.

For one thing, Palin said that if Obama invaded Iran conservatives might think he was sufficiently tough. Reagan, as some might recall (but his fans seldom mention), actually sold arms to the Islamic government of Iran,partly as a misguided attempt to woo supposedly moderate mullahs and also to raise funds (illegally) for the Contras. Reagan also raised taxes, including as Governor of California (back when it was probaby easier for a conservative to do that).

A lot packed in this short comment.  I'll just note that Reagan himself told the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff in 1983, "If Carter had sent four more helicopters into Iran in 1980 [on the ill-fated rescue mission], you'd still be talking to him right now instead of me."  So while Palin's comment was crude and off-putting, there is some sense to it.  BTW, I do no believe Reagan ever knew of the diversion of Iran arms money to the contras; there never has emerged any documentary evidence of this.  That really was Oliver North freelancing.  In my book, I am very critical of Reagan for approving and then persisting in the arms sales themselves.  I do give him all the blame for that.  And I have a harsh final judgment about North in my book (another hint hint).

Okay, I am a liberal Democrat, but any comparison between Sarah Palin and Ronald Reagan is absurd at this juncture and probably always will be. Reagan was a two-term governor of a state whose economy (especially in the 60s and 70s) was booming so much that it had a greater GDP than 90 percent of the world's nations. Of equal note, perhaps, Reagan was president of the Screen Actors Guild at one of the most fractious times in its history, as the Hollywood studio system was breaking down, television was moving to prominence and political issues had riven the movie-making community. The fact is, there is no one Republican candidate for 2012 who could put forth a resume of executive experience anywhere near Reagan's. In fact, our current president can't either!

Those are all good points, except that they cut no ice for Reagan in the late 1970s (and not just among liberals--the Republican establishment was not impressed with Reagan's California record, and thought his SAG experience counted for nothing).

Was Reagan healthy enough to be president and call the shots in ALL of his 2nd term?

In general I think so, in part because you can see complete sentience in the transcripts of meetings and in his diary.  However, you can also see in his diary examples in his second term of memory loss; there's one entry where he says flying over LA in his helicopter he can't remember familiar street names; only later does Topanga Canyon Road come to mind.  Not sure what it means--I have the same problem at age 51.  But one thing is clear--when the moment called for his (esp. his summits with Gorbachev), he performed strongly.

President Reagan was a supporter of immigration reform that Tea Baggers find anathema. Again how does this garner the support of the anti-immigration reform movement

Sarah Palin has yet to earn anything on the national stage. She was given it by virtue of John McCain's hail mary move. How on earth can anyone compare Palin's gift with President Reagan's years of work towards the ultimate prize, the presidency.

Slow down a little.  There are examples of figures who emerge suddenly on the national scene and sweep all (0r almost all) before them: William Jennings Bryan in 1896; Reagan himself in 1964 with the Goldwater speech.  And of course Barack Obama in 2004, with his convention speech.  Without that single speech I doubt he'd be president today.  You are right about Reagan's patient but tenacious course after 1964, and Palin needs to show the same tenacity if she is serious.  But I think it is wrong to discount her merely because she emerged from obscurity by the act of a nominee.  (After all, Obama owes his break to John Kerry.  Notice how he repaid Kerry for that favor.  Oh, wait. . .)

Would you vote for Sarah and if so, why?

Yes, I would if we her and Obama as my choice.  But it's not about me! (as the cliche goes).  I do have another favorite in mind right now for 2012, not mentioned in my article.  But he may not run or might not make it.  I'll leave you to guess.  (Hint: he's short.)

How exactly would President Reagan -- someone who raised taxes multiple times, exploded the deficit, and granted amnesty to illegal immigrants fit in with today's Tea Party movement? Not to mention the abortion law he signed as governor (yes, I know he later expressed a lot of regret over that) and supporting the Brady Bill gun control measure!

There are several questions along these lines, with much packed in that make a brief answer difficult.  But I'll try.  First, his tax increases as president had one core principle--not to raise marginal income tax rates back up again.  That was always liberal objective #1.  Not all taxes are the same in their economic effects (not all taxes are created equal we might say), but that's a long story.  Second, his increases never did take back the full amount of the 1981 tax cuts, which actually came in twice as much as Reagan had initially proposed.  (Lots of congressional favor-granting in the final bill.)  On immigration, a lot of difference between Reagan's views and policy and, say, McCain's today.  But Ed Meese has admitted to me (and in print) that they made a mistake in signing the 1986 bill.  About the Brady Bill, he didn't do that until after he left office, when it meant much less.  I think he did it as a personal favor to the Brady family.  While in office, he quietly opposed it.  A weak answer perhaps, but results count for more than rhetoric.

I don't recall Reagan whining about every little real or perceived slight against him or his family -- unlike Sarah Palin. How many potential voters do you think this habit of hers will ultimately turn off?

A very good point.  Private Reagan would be enraged about criticism of Nancy, but merely annoyed about criticism of himself--he had the appropriately thick skin as an office holder.  But he thought spouses and children should be off limits; about this Palin is right I think.  But again, Reagan had the self-discipline not to respond, knowing that if he complained too much publicly it would only make it worse.  (He did privately complain to some editors and network figures.)

Regarding your point that Palin resigned partly because it is impossible to build a national reputation from remote Alaska, I wonder if this is as true in the days of the Internet and given that there was already a media and public fascination with her. If her concern was to take part in serious, national political debates, should she not have run for Senate? To me, it appears that she is more interested in being a celebrity than doing the hard work required for policy knowledge and effective governance. This is reflected in her repeatedly referring to the Alaska governorship as a "title," rather than as a position of public service. What do you think?

As a practical matter, in national politics people want to see the whites of your eye in person and not in the internet. Governors in the lower 48 can jump on a plane, do a lunch speech in Iowa, and be back in the office by 5 pm.  Alaska and Hawaii governors can't.  And I think the Senate is the graveyard of presidential ambitions; Obama is an anomaly I think.

Did Reagan ever visit Alaska?

I know Air Force One stopped there at least once (to refuel on far east trips, etc), but I'm not sure if he made a purposeful public visit.  Good question; I'll have to check.

Wouldn't it be difficult to learn about foreign policy and seem like you weren't? As you know, if you understand policy issues well it is easy to spot which politicians understand them and which don't. Palin, for all her spunkiness, clearly had not thought deeply about foreign policy; if she started to do so I would notice. Are you saying she should study the issues but come across as though she doesn't?

I guess I'm not explaining myself very well on this point, and maybe you're right that she'd be better off saying, "You know, I didn't know much about the details of foreign policy when I looked at Russia from my house, but I've been studying it a lot since then and here's what I think."

Lots of questions I couldn't get to, in many cases because they deserve longer answers than this format makes easily possible.  But as before I think the questions and comments--even the critical ones--were well put, so I'll look forward to doing this again some time.  Bye everyone.

In This Chat
Steven Hayward

Read the article: Would Reagan vote for Sarah Palin?

Steven F. Hayward is the F.K. Weyerhaeuser fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of "The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counter-Revolution, 1980-1989." His most recent Outlook essay was Is Conservatism Brain-Dead?

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