Ronald Reagan’s Lesson for Rubio (and Cruz)

In this election cycle, I’ve been happy to support Marco Rubio over Ted Cruz. Both men have solidly conservative records. Both are very smart and very strong. But only Marco has the qualities I saw in my political hero, Ronald Reagan.

I’ve always been proud to be a native-born New Yorker. Ronald Reagan carried my home state -- twice. In fact, it was when CBS’s 1980 Election map of colored New York State blue, I was happy to see Dan Rather’s face turn green. Yes, my millennial friends, in those happy days, the states that Ronald Reagan carried were colored as blue as a California swimming pool. And the states carried by the hapless Jimmy Carter were colored red. As in red-in-the-face red.  The blanched out color white was reserved for states carried by the Independent John Anderson. Happily, there were none of those.

One of the reasons Ronald Reagan was such a political champion is that he united Americans even as liberals sought to divide us. President Carter’s re-election campaign managers had coached him to be sure to touch all the bases of the Democratic base. In their only debate, Carter sought to portray Reagan as a dangerous, ignorant, and even racist man. Ever genial, Reagan simply smiled past the snappy, yappy little terrier act that Carter put forth. “There you go again,” he said, after a particularly nasty Carter exchange.

It was the perfect comeback. The media talking heads didn’t get it. But millions of Americans watching at home did. Especially, American women got it. A disproportionate number of women Undecideds decided over that last week of the often-bitter campaign.

They had watched this decent and amiable man savaged in the media and treated with contempt by a failed President and had seen how he turned the other cheek.

Had Reagan said, “There you go again, Jimmy,” he would have been denounced as disrespecting the high office that Carter himself was disrespecting. But had he said, “There you go again, Mr. President,” he would have put the attacker on a pedestal he did not merit.

By cocking his head to one side, and uttering those mild four words, Ronald Reagan proved to doubting millions that he could respond with dignity but with firmness. The Undecideds concluded, properly so, that this good man could be trusted.

One thing you would never hear from Ronald Reagan was any disparagement of any part of the Union. He thought of the United States as George Washington spoke of us -- as a Sacred Union. That may be a stretch theologically, but it was an important concept constitutionally. If we think of T.R. and FDR as quintessentially New York, of JFK as much a Massachusetts man as the Adamses, we must marvel that Ronald Reagan was at home in every corner of America.

We who worked in his campaigns rejected a divisive red state/blue state election strategy. Ronald Reagan regarded every state as a red-white-and-blue state. He wanted to win them all, and came very close twice. I was happy to work for him in Washington State in 1980 and in Connecticut in 1984. He carried both of those states then.

Reagan wanted to win, of course, but he understood that it was vitally important how you win. He needed to unite a fractured people. Carter would speak of requiring sacrifices of Americans to meet his energy goals. He desperately tried to defend indefensible gasoline rationing scheme. Carter said They -- the American people -- had responded well to his demands.

Reagan spoke of us as We. And he lauded our Constitution as the only one in the world that begins with “We the People.”

One of my proudest moments as a member of Reagan’s administration came on July 4, 1986. President and Mrs. Reagan went to New York City to take a review of the Tall Ships and celebrate with millions of us the splendid re-dedication of the Statue of Liberty. The President and Mrs. Reagan stood on the deck of the U.S.S. Iowa, hands over their hearts, as the nation rejoiced in its newfound unity. We were at peace. We were prosperous. We pursued happiness.

I remember still Ronald Reagan’s inspiring words that day as he welcomed magnificent sailing vessels from all over the world:

“Perhaps, indeed, these vessels embody our conception of liberty itself: to have before one no impediments, only open spaces; to chart one’s own course and take the adventure of life as it comes; to be free as the wind – as free as the tall ships themselves.  It’s fitting, then, that this procession should take place in honor of Lady Liberty.”

No one since has captured the Spirit of America with such eloquence.

But I think Marco Rubio comes the closest. He has participated in every debate, making his points forcefully and intelligently, but never stooping to meanness or personal attacks.

This will be important if he wins the nomination because he will need to unite a bitterly divided party. He bucked the Establishment to win his Senate seat. And he has bucked it again by running against their preferred candidate, JEB Bush. But he has never demeaned JEB or ridiculed his supporters. And Marco knows that if he wins, he will need to work with the Republican Leader of the Senate, whomever he or she may be. Before he can unite the country, he must unite the party.

By pursuing a Reagan-style election strategy, Marco Rubio can save endangered Republican Senate seats. But then, we all hope a Republican President will lead Congress in restoring America’s military strength and repealing and replacing Obamacare.

I hope to see a President Marco Rubio and First Lady Jeannette Rubio, standing aboard a U.S. warship and celebrating the Fourth of July in view of the Statue of Liberty. Seeing these worthy children of immigrants leading the land we love might just cause the Lady in the Harbor to wink!