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!

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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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