Certainly since the November elections, and to some degree even before that, Republicans have been looking for their next standard bearer. John McCain was never that man, unfortunately, depsite how hard Republicans campaigned for him. With the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) going on this weekend, the search for the next leader of the party seems to be the new past time of conservatives. And with conservatives without a true leader, the search seems even more desperate. When Rush Limbaugh has become the titular leader of the party, that shows a power vacuum among the Republican leadership.
But as the search continues, I am sure you have heard the war cry of ‘we need to find the Next Reagan!’ every time some new Republican comes on the stage. Mitt Romney won the conservative straw poll on Saturday; but he has yet to step up and take the conservative mantel in the way Reagan did in the seventies. Frankly, since so many of the contenders are new and unheard of, the public instantly tries to compare them with someone they are familiar with from the past if possible. Whether it be Bobby Jindal, Mark Sanford, Tim Pawlenty…instantly conservatives thing of the icon of the conservative movement.
That is a mistake.
Reagan is a hero to many. He is one of my heroes. But part of his success were dependent on the fact that he was the right man at the right moment. That is true with many of our political heroes. Would FDR have been the dominant political force he was, without the Great Depression and World War II? What would a Lincoln Presidency have looked like in peace time? What if John F. Kennedy had not been assaisnated, and therefore would never have been deified?
It is common place to look to the past when you are uncertain of the future. We all do that, it is part of human nature. For example, in 1980, were Republicans looking for the next Barry Goldwater or Richard Nixon? No, they were looking for a new voice to convey their ideals. Conservatives must look elsewhere other than the past for their next leader. Additionally, the shadow of George W. Bush as well as the Iraq War hangs over us. Despite conservative affinity for the former president, it is clear the public rejected him long ago. That colors any future choice we make, at least in the short run.
First of all, we face a world much different than that of 1980. This is a world that has numerous world powers, with only the U.S. as the lone superpower. It is a world that is changing at break neck speed, when it comes to economics, cultural changes, etc. It is a largely democratic planet now, unlike 1980. And technology has made us a smaller planet.
Barack Obama, as the new liberal standard bearer, has been able to adapt the new world paradigm. That is one reason he is beloved overseas. He has used technology the its greatest use. And he has tried to bring America closer into the world community.
A conservative need not do all those things…but a conservative leader must provide a vision of where America is going. That was a large part of Ronald Reagan’s greatness. At a time when the country was in recession, our world standing was diminishing, and we had a misery index, Reagan was the sole light of hope.
Obama currently is that hope for many. Of course, many think it is an empty hope, because there must be successful substance behind the rhetoric. The question remains whether Obama’s proposals will give any weight to that hope.
Conservatives must focus on ideas. How are we going to solve the current economic crisis? How will we reshape the world with conservative ideals? Will we blindly adopt the decisions that President Bush made, or will we finally admit that some of his decisions, at least in hindsight, were a mistake? What will our core ideology be? How will we answer the new problems confronting us at home, such as health care, Social Security, and immigration? And how do we communicate those ideas to the public at large?
If we are able to answer those questions, the biggest task will be complete. Reagan arose because of the foundation laid by the conservative thinkers of the sixties and seventies. Our next leader may be in the current cohort of Republican leaders that are constantly being named, or may be it will be a dark horse candidate. But that person will only have the chance to succeed if we as a movement have answers to the great questions of the day.