"Our people look for a cause to believe in. Is it a third party we need, or is it a new and revitalized second party, raising a banner of no pastels, but bold colors, which make it unmistakably clear where we stand on all of the issues troubling the people?"
- Ronald Reagan
Speech to CPAC
March 1, 1975
When Ronald Reagan spoke those words to the second annual Conservative Political Action Committee convention, he had just completed his second term as governor of California and was preparing to challenge President Gerald Ford for the 1976 GOP presidential nomination, a race he almost won. The Watergate scandal and subsequent resignation and pardon of Richard Nixon had devastated Republicans in the congressional mid-term elections of 1974, and as dispirited conservatives met at CPAC that spring, Reagan knew that talk of a third party was in the air.
In those years after Watergate, CPAC attendees were hungry for a candidate who would unapologetically crusade for the values and ideals embodied — but unfulfilled — in the Republican Party platform. Meanwhile, the pale pastel crowd was busy trying to convince the party faithful that in order to hold the presidency — let alone ever gain congressional power — the GOP had to become more "moderate," especially in its positions on social issues. The party chose the moderate course in 1976, nominating the accidental incumbent, Gerald Ford, who went on to lose to the most incompetent man ever to occupy the White House, Jimmy Carter.
Does any of this sound familiar?
There will never be another Ronald Reagan. That's what makes great leaders great. They are one of a kind, and they are molded by the times in which they live. Such was the case with former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the late Pope John Paul II, both of whom will go down in history, along with Reagan, as heroic leaders in the struggle to bring down the evil of the now-defunct Soviet Union.
Republican presidential hopefuls for 2012 cannot be Reagan, but they can and should take lessons from him. But already, we are seeing chinks in their armor. Mitt Romney is saddled with the dubious distinction of having been the only governor in the country to enact a health care plan that forces citizens to buy health insurance. He can't decide from one election to the next whether he is pro-life or pro-abortion, and he is too slick by half.
Mike Huckabee is a passionately conservative former Governor of Arkansas with a lot of great ideas (I love the Fair Tax), but he has some work to do convincing his critics he is not a "bleeding heart conservative" — soft on crime, soft on taxes, soft on the border.
Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty looks and sounds a little nerdy and is distrusted by some conservatives who see him as a bit of a tree hugger.
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, arguably the most creative mind in the public policy arena today, nevertheless shot himself in the foot in upstate New York when he endorsed hyper-liberal Republican State Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava for Congress instead of Doug Hoffman, the Conservative Party candidate. Scozzafava showed her true colors — much to Newt's chagrin — when she dropped out of the race before the special election and threw her support to the Democrat, Bill Owens, who subsequently won (by the slimmest of margins).
And then there is Sarah Palin. Dear, sweet, smiling Sarah. How we passionate conservatives do love her so! And she was doing everything right, too, until — out of loyalty or pity or some other emotion — she decided to endorse her former running mate, John McCain, for re-election to the United States Senate over a clearly more deserving candidate, J.D. Hayworth.
This is not to say that the Gipper didn't have his flaws. One of his greatest regrets, he would later admit, was signing into law one of the nation's first statutes legalizing abortion while he was governor of California. Today's crop of presidential wannabes can overcome their political warts, too, but only if they continually ask themselves this question: Which represents passion and conviction, pale pastels or bold colors?