Missing Gipper’s spirit

Republicans have mused about when they will regain that old Reagan spirit. If only they had the Gipper’s grasp of what Americans desired and a candidate who could communicate in Ronald Reagan’s convincing fashion. But in tenor, tone and tactics the GOP lacks any of Reagan’s deft touch. For the second Democratic administration they have behaved as insurrectionists, plotting to overthrow or frustrate whoever had, in their view, the misfortune of getting elected.

Again history has been repeated, first as tragedy and the second time as farce. The Democratic party in the ’70s and ’80s operated in a similar manner, one during Watergate and the second during the Iran-Contra scandal. Now Republicans are hunting around the administration of President Barack Obama as they did that of Bill Clinton.

They should learn from Democratic mistakes. Watergate might have satisfied a primal lust against Richard Nixon, but it led to Democrats taking power without a clue as to program or purpose. The gotcha politics got Democrats obsessed with legalities and pettifogging procedural points. What was lost was any development of a message that would both appeal to voters and last after an election. Suddenly everything depended on the missteps of their opponents, not Democratic visions for the future.

In the 1970s and 1980s Democrats became rule book junkies. Certainly Watergate was serious, but the party gained very little except two meaningless election victories in 1974 and 1976. By the time Jimmy Carter got elected, Democrats had been so much on the defensive they forgot the pedigree of their president. In the end, Reagan won with a cohesive ideology and plan.

After Reagan’s landslide in 1984, Democrats got obsessed with the arms for hostage scandal known as Iran-Contra. Granted it was a Keystone Cops affair, but it was hardly a fatal blow to Reagan. Indeed, Oliver North emerged as a hero and his accusers appeared petty indeed. While Democrats used this approach, their party’s ideology went undeveloped and its message became stale. Michael Dukakis in 1988 was left with a weak platform of “competence not ideology,” running as a well-intentioned clerk. George H.W. Bush, running on a diluted Reaganism, at least had enough strength to dispatch Dukakis.

Now Republicans are on the same path. One day its Benghazi charges were countered by Robert Gates and Thomas Pickering, two Republicans in good standing. The Internal Revenue semi-scandal is somewhat less, given that a George W. Bush appointee led the investigation of the tea party groups. Both are thin cases and not likely to stick. Darrell Issa, the coup-master from California who helped engineer the overthrow of Gray Davis, leading to the disastrous regime of Arnold Schwarzenegger, is at the forefront. As with the push against Clinton in the 1990s it is a wasted drill.

They could learn from Reagan, whose approach was both straightforward and effective.

No gimmicks – he promised less government and a strong foreign policy. When he ran in 1976 and 1980 his opponents, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, tried to turn him into a radical. Instead Reagan stuck to his message and won two landslides and, remarkably enough, kept his word.

Gimmicks, tricks and investigating committees are no substitute for message: no tea-pot domes or Bobby Baker affairs are sufficient. Republicans seemed to be destined to re-enact the directionless Democratic party of the 1970s and 1980s with probably similar results.