When legendary University of Michigan football coach, Bo Schembechler, retired in 1990, many people saw the end of a golden age; that Michigan, the most winning program in the history of Division I college football, would never achieve that same glory. But Bo was replaced. The football team claimed more victories and more championships. Football, like life, went on. Bo never would have wanted Michigan to live in the past.
The Republican Party has not learned this lesson about its own team. We are still waiting for our beloved head coach, Ronald Reagan, to come out of the locker room and lead us to another victory.
Anyone who tries a different approach is questioned and doubted – “that’s not how Ronald Reagan would have done it.” This is not the way to build a winning team.
If Republicans want to win big victories again, the first lesson is a painful one: Ronald Wilson Reagan is dead and he’s not coming back.
A disturbing trend has emerged in Republican presidential primaries and is threatening the GOP’s White House prospects in 2016. I call it O.R.D. – “Obsessive Reagan Disorder.” It is the insistence that any presidential candidate verify that he is Reagan’s stylistic and ideological twin.
In 2008, John McCain and Mitt Romney fought for the title of “true heir to Ronald Reagan.” A McCain ad ran an old clip of Romney seeming to disparage the Reagan administration. Then an announcer asked, “If we can’t trust Mitt Romney on Ronald Reagan, how can we trust him to lead America?” Four years later, McCain praised Romney, saying “Mitt Romney has the same instincts as Ronald Reagan.”
But, what does any of this have to do with the GOP of the 21st century?
The Reagan administration has been out of power for decades. Our culture has changed enormously. Reagan did not live in the era of the Internet. He never Googled himself or watched YouTube. He had no position on ObamaCare, stem-cell research, or the high costs of prescription drugs. An entire generation has been born since he’s been president. The idea that Republicans must be Reagan clones looks pathetically out of touch.
Ironically, this is the last thing the forward-looking, modest, and practical Reagan would want.
The truth is that Ronald Reagan was imperfect. He stumbled in debates, lost his place at times, and fell asleep in meetings. He was in danger of losing the presidential nomination at one point in 1980 to George H. W. Bush. In 1984 he stumbled badly in a televised debate against Democrat Walter Mondale.
Like any politician, Reagan changed his mind. As Governor of California, he signed pro-choice legislation into law that he later regretted. He supported a tax increase to balance the state budget, then ran against tax increases. As president, Reagan supported the equivalent of amnesty for illegal immigrants. He rejected Republican supported plans to invade Panama and Lebanon to protect American national security.
If he were starting out as a candidate today, the real Ronald Reagan could not measure up to the Ronald Reagan of myth.
None of this is meant to diminish Reagan’s many accomplishments, but to put them into proper context. When we create a false image of Reagan as the flawless Republican, there’s no way any other Republican will compare.
Ronald Reagan was a great man. He was a wise man. He was in many ways an ideal leader for his times. But he is gone. Let him rest in peace. Let other coaches rack up wins for the GOP.
Ford O'Connell is a long-time Republican strategist and frequent guest on Fox News and CNN. He was an advisor to the McCain-Palin presidential campaign and author of Hail Mary: The 10-Step Playbook for Republican Recovery, out Tuesday, November 19, 2013.