Misunderstanding Reagan’s ‘Morning in America’

Misunderstanding Reagan's 'Morning in America'

The idea that President Ronald Reagan was just some sunny guy preaching optimism has gotten a lot of traction lately.

The 40th president was, in fact, an optimist, and he often talked about things getting better. About half the time. The other half of the time, he was critiquing the status quo in biting terms.

Part of Mr. Reagan’s genius was that he could switch modes: He could be a good friend or a fierce foe. It’s this capacity for nuance — his ability to read a room, to know his times — that shouldn’t be lost in one-dimensional portrayals.

Typical of this misunderstanding is The New York Times. On Aug. 27, it headlined, “Ramaswamy-Pence Clash Shows New Right’s Radical Break From Reaganism.”

Reporting on the Aug. 23 Republican presidential candidates debate, the newspaper quoted entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy as saying: “It is not morning in America. We live in a dark moment.”

The Times added: “Extolling Ronald Reagan used to be the safest of safe spaces for an ambitious Republican. Yet here was an upstart candidate, with no record of public service, standing at center stage in a G.O.P. debate and invoking Mr. Reagan’s famous 1984 ‘morning in America’ theme not as an applause line, but to mock one of the party’s staunchest conservatives.”

That would be former Vice President Mike Pence, who, having been born in 1959, was part of the Reagan Revolution.

“Morning in America” refers to a landmark TV spot in Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign. We’ll come back to that.

As the Times summarized, “The moment captured a rhetorical and substantive shift inside the G.O.P.”

Given the Times’ influence, that summary will be good enough for many: old GOP sunny, new GOP cloudy. But it’s misleading to frame the matter that way.

Mr. Pence may be a Reaganite, but he hardly thinks it is morning in America, and he did not use that phrase in the debate. Mr. Pence is, after all, running for president against an incumbent liberal Democrat, and so by definition, he seeks a major shift in the status quo.

In the debate, Mr. Pence specifically attacked the Biden administration on abortion, taxes, spending, crime and education.

“We need leadership in Washington, D.C., that’ll marshal the resources of the states, marshal the resources of the American people,” he said.

So, to the extent that Mr. Pence believes that with new national leadership, the country will get better, the Hoosier was channeling the Gipper. Mr. Reagan is a great role model. He was, after all, the man who won two landslide presidential elections, in 1980 and 1984, carrying 44 and then 49 states.

Indeed, if one were to rank the U.S. presidents by their cumulative “box score” in the Electoral College, Reagan would rank second — behind only George Washington.

So, any Republican could aspire to that level of success.

But it could be argued that the times were different then, that Mr. Reagan’s message, effective as it was in the 1980s, would not resonate today.

Yes, Mr. Reagan had a nice demeanor, and he smiled. Those are hardly negative attributes in just about any situation this side of Ultimate Fighting.

At the same time, Mr. Reagan had plenty of steel. He needed that toughness because when he entered active politics in the 1960s, he was in a lonely place — a conservative in a predominantly liberal era. Understandably, he was issuing dire warnings from the get-go about America staying the course.

In his nationally televised 1964 speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater, Mr. Reagan said: “If we lose freedom here, there’s no place to escape to. This is the last stand on Earth.”

That’s hardly Mr. Sunshine.

In his acceptance speech to the 1980 Republican National Convention, Mr. Reagan said: “The major issue of this campaign is the direct political, personal and moral responsibility of Democratic Party leadership — in the White House and in Congress — for this unprecedented calamity which has befallen us.”

Strong stuff.

It is true that Mr. Reagan’s 1984 presidential campaign was optimistic. But that was in no small part because conditions had improved substantially; growth and the stock market were up, and inflation and unemployment were down.

The “morning in America” that Mr. Reagan cited was thanks to him and his policies. What a difference four years can make.

If you’re the challenger, you say things are bad, and that’s why we need a change. If you’re the incumbent, you say things are good, and so let’s keep a good thing going. In Mr. Reagan’s case, the assertions that things were bad in 1980 and good in 1984 were both true.

If we cut through the mainstream news media misinterpretation, we see Mr. Reagan’s lesson for presidential candidates today: Blast the status quo, sure. But have a strong vision of how to make things better — and have the personality and the temperament to achieve that vision.

That’s a path to both political victory and historical success.

• James P. Pinkerton served under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He has worked on six presidential campaigns, three presidential transitions, as well as in numerous think tanks and journalistic gigs, including 20 years as a Fox News contributor.

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