In the Shadow of Ronald Reagan

Written by David Frum on Thursday September 8, 2011

Twenty years ago, historian William Leuchtenberg published a book with the poignant title, In the Shadow of FDR. Leuchtenberg's point: President Roosevelt raised expectations for the modern presidency that his (Democratic) successors could not hope to fulfill. From Truman to Clinton, they were doomed to fail.

You could make an analogous argument on the Republican side based upon the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

Reagan left Republicans wanting another like him. Republicans take the "like Reagan" principle so far that they have even come to valorize Reagan's flaws. Reagan achieved great political success despite his sometimes shaky grasp on facts and despite his disengagement from the details of governance.

In subsequent years, those failings associated with Reagan (failings that nearly brought down his presidency during the Iran-Contra scandal of 1986), have been promoted into irrelevancies - or outright merits.

Mitt Romney's ready grasp of policy has led many conservatives to reject him as a "technocrat."

When candidates like Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, or now Rick Perry are reduced to sputtering incoherence by basic and predictable questions, conservatives are untroubled. Reagan sometimes also had trouble answering basic, predictable questions! Therefore consistent inability to answer basic, predictable questions isn't a bug. It's a feature.

I watched Rick Perry's performance last night and saw a man adrift and unprepared. I'm braced today that many conservatives who saw that same performance will decide: they don't care.