article

05.10.09

Waiting for Reagan

The GOP doesn’t need any more soul-searching, writes Nicolle Wallace. It needs a larger-than-life hero to lead it back to victory. Who? How about Gen. Petreaus? Or Gary Sinise?

Every where you look, there’s another Republican vs. Republican story on the news. Rush vs. Romney; Steele vs. Rush; Palin vs. GOP; GOP vs. Reagan and the “good old days”; and on and on. The media adore the storyline for its simplicity and the conflict narrative it presents. I’ve had a dozen requests over the past week to debate Democrats about the future of the GOP—a topic that I’ve so far managed to avoid because of the suspension of reality it requires. It was four short years ago that the Democrats were in a similar state of disarray after John Kerry’s bruising defeat in 2004. While there were plenty of “where do they go from here” stories about the Democrats in early 2005, I don’t remember a daily drumbeat of stories about whether the Democratic Party had become a regional party. And I don’t recall a similar volume of coverage about the Democratic Party facing a choice between remaining true to its ideals and moderating itself to appeal to independent voters.

The tortured internal debates between those who believe we should cling more tightly to our conservative principles and others who advocate applying more modern (and in many cases, more moderate) interpretations of individual freedoms are as wrenching for those of us who love this party as the film Sophie’s Choice.

In nominating Barack Obama, the Democratic Party offers Republicans all the assurance necessary that we need make no such choice. The tortured internal debates between those who believe we should cling more tightly to our conservative principles and others who advocate applying more modern (and in many cases, more moderate) interpretations of individual freedoms are as wrenching for those of us who love this party as the film Sophie’s Choice. Our first mistake was accepting this media-generated debate as legitimate. It’s a false choice that offers nothing but continued division for Republicans.

In Barack Obama, the Democrats found a politician who matched the moment. The combination of a nation’s despair and external events that made his candidacy more appealing than his experienced opponent’s turned him into a leader onto which Americans pinned their hopes for better days. Just as George W. Bush did in 2004 and Clinton and Reagan before him, Obama excited his party’s “base” and appealed to independent voters. Voters were not enamored with each of Obama’s positions. In fact, on taxes, national security, and many social issues, they were more in line with John McCain’s positions. But Obama spoke to voters’ fears, their hopes, and their disgust with a government that stopped working for the people it was formed to serve.

It’s worth rehashing all of this recent history to ensure a more honest debate about the way forward for Republicans. What we need is a leader who matches the moment and transcends the narrow debates about ideology—not because they’re unimportant, but because they are un-resolvable in a media-refereed vacuum. It’s also worth keeping in mind the words of Bonnie Tyler when we imagine the task at hand for the Republican Party:

Late at night I toss and turn and dream of what I need. I need a hero.

So, who is that hero? Republicans agree that it must be someone who can move the entire discussion into the future and away from the past. This leader must convey our party’s most essential beliefs in a way that is meaningful to all Americans: young and old; straight and gay; black and white; Spanish-speaking and Chinese-speaking; people living in cities, suburbs, and rural America, and people from coast to coast and every inch in between. Our next leader must be able to articulate a belief in America’s unique role in the world that is as relevant today as it was when our nation was founded. He or she must make clear that when the men and women of our military are on the battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan, and other fronts as well, our entire nation is at war, and we must live as a nation at war. We must value our freedoms and thank those who are dying to preserve it.

Our next leader must be able to talk about the benefits of capitalism and competition as vehicles for economic opportunity and a better quality of life for all Americans. He or she must restore faith in government without getting stuck in the old debate of small vs. large government, but instead focus on the benefits of a competent, frugal, accountable government that is as mindful in spending taxpayers’ dollars as American families are in spending their own hard-earned income. The man or woman who saves the Republican Party will be the person who restores our faith in an American Dream.

One Republican I know suggested that actor Gary Sinise might be our savior. According to news reports, he’s part of an underground group of conservatives in Hollywood—an act of bravery in itself. His stated belief in American exceptionalism might end up being a powerful contrast to Obama’s “American apologist” mantra. The natural strengths that an actor brings to politics would come in handy to anyone going up against Obama in 2012. We will need an effective communicator who can stand toe to toe with Obama’s eloquence.

Others suggested Gen. David Petraeus or Gen. Ray Odierno. Both have denied any interest in a run for office, but if their masterful management of Iraq is undermined in any way over the next four years, one could hope that they’d reconsider.

Most Republicans I spoke to agreed that it would take a new leader, as opposed to any one of the politicians on the national stage today rising to the occasion. Many believe our best hopes lie in proving grounds like New Jersey and Virginia, where candidates might offer a fresh playbook for winning in (now) blue America. And maybe our next hero is serving in a state legislature somewhere. That wouldn’t be the end of the world. At least we have a theme song.

Nicolle Wallace served as a senior adviser to the McCain-Palin campaign from May to November 2008. She served President George W. Bush as an assistant to the president and director of communications for the White House, as well as communications director for President Bush's 2004 campaign.