Mitch Daniels: Let Go of the Gipper

Indiana Republican Governor Mitch Daniels is taking some heat from the conservative commentariat for suggesting in a speech that it's time for the GOP "...
by | April 25, 2008

Ronald_reagan Indiana Republican Governor Mitch Daniels is taking some heat from the conservative commentariat for suggesting in a speech that it's time for the GOP "to let go of Ronald Reagan."

Daniels' point is that the idolatry of Reagan is keeping the party from thinking about the future. Rush Limbaugh calls this nonsense:

"Have you ever heard a Democrat say, 'We need to get over John Kennedy or FDR?' Have you ever heard a Democrat go to the a microphone at a liberal conference and say, 'You know what? We gotta move past FDR. We gotta leave the past behind.'"

In order to clarify matters, Daniels' office has released a transcript of his remarks and a further statement from the governor:

"I hope very much not to be misunderstood. I think it is time to let Ronald Reagan go. Not from our reverent memory, of course. Not ever, but as our touchstone, as our icon, as our hallmark and our reference point."

Daniels clarified his comments in a statement this week.

"I served him for years, and no one reveres Ronald Reagan more than I," said Daniels, who once had a copy of the book "Remembering Reagan" in his Statehouse office. "My caution was that his present-day admirers must not appear to be stuck in the past, but always face forward, and apply the eternal principles of individual liberty to the problems of today and tomorrow. No one taught this lesson better than President Reagan himself."

I made this same point in Congressional Quarterly 10 years ago:

But even as the GOP acknowledges its debt, some have begun to question whether the continuing focus on Reagan is fogging the party's vision of the future and incurring a certain risk.

By elevating Reagan to nearly mythic stature, Republicans may well succeed in embarrassing Democratic President Bill Clinton. But the GOP also risks heightening another contrast, between the mythic Reagan and his would-be heirs within the party itself.

As the turn of the century draws near, Reagan's party is still looking for a national leader who can take advantage of the country's conservative mood and complete Republican control of the federal government by recapturing the White House.

"We are missing his successor and that person is not yet self-evident," said Eddie Mahe, a veteran Republican consultant. "We went real flat after his eight years, and I think it's the greatest testimonial that after his ten years out of office he still represents the energy of this party."

But a man who has been out of office for so long cannot easily represent the energy of any party. Although both parties often hark back to great leaders of the past, they need active candidates to carry their messages forward.

And it is easy enough to find Republicans who despair over the continuing search for new voices.

"We don't have a national leader -- Reagan was the last one," said Michael Deaver, who served as deputy White House chief of staff during Reagan's first term. "I think if Republicans keep talking about finding another Reagan they make a mistake, because you might not find one for a hundred years."

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