What Reagan Can Teach Bachmann Supporters

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As a first-term governor, he signed a law that liberalized abortion. The reason for what he regarded as a significant mistake? Inexperience.  

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Early in Ronald Reagan's first term as governor of California, the legislature passed a bill that had him flummoxed. It sought to reduce the number of backroom abortions, and significantly increased legal access to the procedure. Would he sign or veto? "I have never done more study on any one thing than on the abortion bill," Reagan later said, acknowledging that for a time he didn't even know the answer. Among his advisers and the people he consulted, the Catholics were most staunchly against it, while some Republicans in the legislature were urging him to affix his signature. "In his heart, Reagan agreed with Cardinal McIntyre," Lou Cannon writes in Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power. "He subordinated his personal feelings to the commitment he had made to Republican legislators to sign the bill. He wasn't happy about it."

It's a story that most people have forgotten, but it ought to be studied by social conservatives as they rally behind Michele Bachmann, another candidate whose heart they regard as being in the right place. As a result, they're unconcerned about how her inexperience might affect her ability to govern. What evidence is there that executive experience matters? Ask history's most successful conservative president:

"Those were awful weeks," Reagan told me a year later. He added that he would never have signed the bill if he had been more experienced as governor, the only time as governor or president that Reagan acknowledged a mistake on major legislation.

It's impossible to know exactly how Bachmann's inexperience would manifest itself were she is elected. She certainly won't sign legislation liberalizing abortion laws. But is there anything in her background to suggest that she'd effectively steward a Supreme Court nominee through the confirmation process? Or make the right decision about whether or not to negotiate with a foreign leader or launch a war? That there isn't is just one of the shortcomings her supporters are ignoring.

In order to explain why, Daniel Larison channels their mindset. As they see it, "she is 'one of us' in terms of her religious affiliation and political assumptions, and she thinks like 'one of us' in the public positions she takes," he writes. "Bachmann can appeal to conservatives on the basis of biography and religious belief, and she can also credibly say that she has been a conservative activist and legislator. For many conservative voters, it is so rare to have a presidential candidate who fits that description and appears to be somewhat competitive. Rejecting someone like Bachmann because she isn't qualified for the position is much harder to do than it might seem at first."

These voters need to show maturity and reject her anyway. It's in their interest to do so, both to increase the chances that President Obama faces a plausible challenger, and because even if Bachmann were elected, she'd likely prove ineffective at running the executive branch, shaping foreign policy, and even pushing a program of conservative reforms through Congress.

One hates to participate in the canonization of any bygone politician, but Reagan is again relevant, for he is the last president who performed effectively by the lights of many Bachmann supporters. How does her resume compare to his when he was sent to Washington, D.C., in 1980? 

Though he didn't serve overseas in World War II, Reagan did have military experience, rising to the rank of captain in the First Motion Picture Unit, where he helped produce scores of training films for the Allied war effort. During his post-war acting career, he became president of the Screen Actors Guild, serving eight one-year terms during contentious times: he presided over the union during labor disputes and the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. He also worked for General Electric, where an ongoing obligation to give speeches before factory workers helped him hone his oratory skills. At this early point in Reagan's career, he already had more military knowledge and leadership experience than does Bachmann!

Elected governor of California in 1967, he made what he regarded to be an error on the abortion issue, then went on to serve two largely successful terms. In 1976, he mounted a losing bid for the presidency, challenging Gerald Ford in the GOP primary. Jimmy Carter rose to the White House that year. In The Weekly Standard, Noemie Emery described what happened next:  

When the messiah from Plains put his hand on the Bible, Reagan had been running for president for a little more than two years... He had done this mainly by speaking and writing, following a program devised by three of his aides as he was about to step down from office, designed to keep him in the public eye when he was no longer governor, and establish him as the country's premier conservative voice.

The plan, an idea of radio producer Harry O'Connor refined by Reagan aides Peter Hannaford and the late Michael Deaver, called for a five-minute radio address five days a week and a twice-weekly newspaper column based on those addresses, appearances on Meet the Press and other interview programs, and two to three speeches a month. In time, Reagan's radio talks were carried on 286 stations while his column appeared in 226 papers, giving him regular access to a national audience of about 20 million people a week. He began this regime days after he stepped down as governor, stopped it in November that year to run against Ford in the primaries, resumed it in September 1976, weeks after the convention ended, and then suspended it permanently three years later, when he began his second, and this time successful, campaign. In this program, the radio talks would emerge as his principal weapon.

The personal campaign machine that Reagan built and ran from 1975 to 1979 was his pathway to the presidency," wrote two of his editors. "His speeches and columns were important and necessary, but his radio commentaries were the driving force." "His radio talks were ways of both keeping himself before the voters and developing the arguments that he would later put before the American people," said John O'Sullivan. "He later remarked that he developed his political views .  .  . mainly by writing and so having to think his way through problems. Several aides testify that they could recall him losing his temper only when he was interrupted while trying to finish a column or speech." In these years, he would think his way through nearly 1,400 addresses as he refined his philosophy, while establishing himself as the country's leading Republican.

In just a single year of writing those commentaries, Reagan exhibited more considered, coherent thought about public policy than Bachmann has ever shown. Does anyone imagine that she'd be capable of writing her own newspaper column and weekly radio commentary for several years and emerge without having done grave damage to herself with her own ill-considered remarks? More to the point, Bachmann supporters should recognize the importance of leadership experience, adeptness at persuading people, and deeply reasoned rhetoric -- and the folly of thinking that you can know a politician's heart, or that it determines policy outcomes.

Even for St. Reagan, experience mattered.

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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