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What Would the Gipper Do?

A former Reagan aide asks what his boss would have done in 2020.
September 27, 2020
What Would the Gipper Do?
US President Ronald Reagan shown in file photo dated 04 November 1991 giving a speech at the dedication of the library bearing his name in Simi Valley, California. (Photo by J. DAVID AKE / AFP) (Photo by J. DAVID AKE/AFP via Getty Images)

I worked for Ronald Reagan for more than a decade and came to know him well.

How anyone who respected what he stood for and how he conducted himself could support Donald Trump is beyond me. Being loyal to the Republican party is one thing, but at some point—now, for example—loyalty to a party should take second place to loyalty to the country. And besides, the GOP under Trump bears virtually no resemblance to the party as it existed under Reagan.

The political situation in which—Republicans and especially Reaganites—find ourselves raises an interesting question. WWGD: What would the Gipper do?

Obviously we cannot know the answer with complete certainty. And some might say it doesn’t matter because Reagan was then and this is now.

Fair enough. So let’s look at now.

Trump likes to compare himself to Reagan. This is understandable because he knows the political value of basking in Reagan’s success and enduring popularity. And yet, the two men could not be more different.

Reagan sought to unite. Trump seeks to divide.

Reagan was humble. Trump is arrogant.

Reagan was kind. Trump is mean.

Reagan was honest. Trump lies.

Reagan inspired. Trump incites.

Reagan was uncomfortable being given credit for what he accomplished. Trump is obsessed with being credited and thanked for his dispensations.

Reagan respected women. Trump is a misogynist.

Reagan viewed those who disagreed with him as worthy political opponents. Trump views anyone who disagrees with him as an enemy.

Reagan revered war heroes who suffered at the hands of a brutal enemy. Trump has disdain for them unless they support him conspicuously.

Reagan respected the pillars of democracy, especially the free press. Trump does everything he can to undermine the press’ credibility.

Reagan built and nourished relationships with allies. Trump routinely dismisses and disrespects them.

Reagan viewed the presidency as an institution belonging to the American people of which he was given temporary custody. Trump views the presidency as something to which he is entitled and a way to enrich himself and his family.

But of course, for all that, Trump is not running against Reagan. The contest is between Trump and Joe Biden.

It is true that Reagan was a loyal Republican. He began his political life as a Democrat, but over time, as the Democratic party changed, Reagan switched parties. He liked to say, “I didn’t leave the Democratic party. The Democratic party left me.”

And this was true.

But even as a loyal Republican, Reagan never put the interests of the country second to politics. He was always all about what was best for the country, and only the country.

It would trouble Reagan to have to choose between a man nominated by his beloved Republican party but whose record is so disappointing, refusal to accept science is so dangerous, and vulgarity has so disgraced the presidency, versus a man from the “opposing” Party whose views are at odds with traditional Republican positions.

While he might be supportive of some of Trump’s policy initiatives—particularly those which reduce government regulations and the Federal bureaucracy—Reagan would not buy into the “I don’t like his style, but I like what he’s doing” excuse that many Republicans use to explain their support of Trump.

Reagan understood the importance of style.

Indeed, what would bother Reagan deeply and fundamentally is how Trump behaves. Reagan expected a president to act in a way of which everyone could be proud, to which parents could point as an example for their children. And he always conducted himself accordingly.

That is not to suggest Reagan wanted his successors to be carbon copies of himself. He understood every president had his or her own style. But Reagan thought whoever was allowed by the people to temporarily live in the White House should always be guided by what was in the best interests of the American people, regardless of how that impacted his or her political fortunes. It would upset Reagan to no end that Trump’s record in office shows him to be a man who looks at everything through a prism of how it will impact his chances of being reelected.

One of the few things that genuinely angered Reagan was when an aide started to talk about the political consequences of a presidential decision. He would always shut down such talk immediately.

It’s pretty clear that just as the Democratic party of the ‘60s left him, Reagan would ask himself whether today’s Republican party under Trump had done the same. He would wonder what the party stands for—especially when there is no platform other than loyalty to Trump.

Reagan would question whether the party is still what it was when he decided to join. He would ask whether different viewpoints are allowed. Or if the party unambiguously stands up to dictators, pushes strongly for freedom, and welcomes those who suffer at the hands of oppressive regimes. I suspect the answers would not please him.

It’s clear that Reagan would be appalled by Trump. But would the Gipper be attracted to the candidacy of a life-long Democrat? As Reagan himself often said, Well…

There are more than a few reasons to suspect he would. Both men came from very humble beginnings, both switched parties, and both had an unmatched ability to make friends—true, deep friendships—across the aisle.

Reagan would like that Biden does not take himself too seriously. Toward the end of his presidency, Reagan had the musical comedy troupe Capitol Steps perform at a social event on the South Lawn of the White House, at which the group poked fun at his management style. Reagan roared with laughter; Nancy did not. After the event when the Reagans and a few aides were in the Diplomatic Reception Room Nancy made a point of telling us that she did not think the Capitol Steps’ parody was funny. Reagan made a point of telling us he thought it was.

On a key policy matter, Reagan would agree with Biden that individuals do not need military-style automatic assault weapons—which Reagan called “machine guns”—for personal protection.

And on a very personal matter, it would mean a lot to Reagan that the Bidens befriended Sarah and James Brady—Reagan’s press secretary who was very seriously wounded in the 1981 assassination attempt. The Bradys had a home in Delaware and the Bidens reached out to them for no reason other than friendship. They became so close over the years that Sarah asked Biden to be the keynote speaker at the memorial service for Jim.

That said, it is worth recalling that the crucial and most memorable question of the 1980 presidential campaign, which Reagan urged voters to ask themselves when deciding whether to give Jimmy Carter a second term, was this: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?”

That’s the famous question that everyone remembers. But it wasn’t the only question Reagan posed during that campaign. In his election eve address to the nation, Reagan also asked the following:

  • Is our nation stronger and more capable of leading the world toward peace and freedom, or is it weaker?
  • Is there more stability in the world, or less?
  • Are you convinced that we have earned the respect of the world and our allies, or has America’s position across the globe diminished?
  • Are you personally more secure in your life? Is your family more secure?
  • Is America safer in the world?

I would add one more: Does America under Trump’s leadership bring us closer to—or further from—that “shining city upon a hill” of which Reagan often spoke?

He described it thusly:

…a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.

The answers are obvious.

As unappealing as it might be to Reagan to vote for a Democrat, he was an American and patriot first. Nothing was more important to him than the well-being of our country.

So what would the Gipper do? Reagan would be ridin’ with Biden.

Mark Weinberg

Mark Weinberg, a communications consultant, served as special assistant to the president and assistant press secretary in Ronald Reagan’s White House and as director of public affairs in former President Reagan’s office, is the author of Movie Nights with the Reagans.