What Reagan Knew…and Reaganite Conservatives Don’t Always Get

Now that the frustration with RINOism in Congress has set in and hard-core conservatives are walking away from the Republican Party for whatever alternative may crop up (a very healthy development in the long run. They can’t win without us), it’s time for a little reality check on how our hero, the late President Ronald Reagan, actually got the job done. (Hint: it was not by throwing a tantrum, taking one’s marbles and stomping off. He never told a colleague to “Go f— yourself” in public either, although Harry Reid deserved that, IMO.)

To put it mildly, according to multiple reports and sources I’ve read over the years, Ronald Reagan was more or less an outsider in Republican Party. It was not his personality or mannerisms or professional habits that was a problem so much as Mr. Reagan disagreed with the prevailing “wisdom” of the party at the time of his being in office (does this sound familiar?). He simply did not go along with the creeping globalism and increased taxes and government spending that went unchecked during most of the American twentieth century under just about every president other than Coolidge and Kennedy (believe it or not). Ronald Reagan, like Barry Goldwater who started the conservative ball rolling again, believed that the status quo of slowly sinking into socialism was like a millstone around the necks of the people in terms of wealth creation, innovation and keeping us stuck in a battle-less war that was bankrupting our adversary (no one in government other than him thought of that at the time, and in the end, he was right). And during his presidency, Mr. Reagan acted on those convictions to the point that those of us who benefitted from his legacy would like to see it replicated. His formulas for lower taxes and tight fiscal policy leave enough cash in the hands of the people to allow us to prosper and build wealth. (Smaller government was a goal, but not one of Mr. Reagan’s legacies. He did add the cabinet level Department of Education, among other useless entities.)

The problem is, We the People of the Reaganite Conservative stripe aren’t really always cognizant of how he pulled it off, or that he used the much vilified “Inside the Beltway” culture that is blamed for producing RINOs in the process. More or less, he was a player who didn’t get played, but gamed the opposition.

Back before we had 24/7 news, the internet, Rush, Drudge, Fox News, Free Republic, Lucianne, Facebook, Twitter, ConClub and all the rest that have come into being since Mr. Reagan’s years in office, the “MEDIA” was known as The Press and it was largely consolidated into three alphabet soup networks, five major daily newspapers, and the wire services, all of which had Washington Bureaus and all of which had employees who knew – and rarely ever reported – that there is a certain culture in that city that tends to breed insider deals and a sort of incest. It’s come to be known as “Inside the Beltway” mentality and it is loathed by many who live outside the region.

But, as it happens, the little secret about the “Inside the Beltway” cocktail and inbreeding party scene that seems to never be mentioned these days and that the press of old knew and didn’t really discuss then either: other than the lobbyists, among powerful people, the power broker atmosphere is not that different from any other city, and, to be blunt, the Hollywood that produced Mr. Reagan. Money, sex and power are still the goals of those who are and want to be in control and there is a high-stakes game played every day to make that happen and not get caught (which is the “sin” in the game). As Gary North of the TEA Party Economist said in “Why Ron Paul Never Fit In on Capitol Hill” in Washington, as it is here where I live, and most other big, old cities, booze is also a factor (cigars is a close fifth). It’s part of the culture, part of the game. Like it or love it, right or wrong, it just is. And Ronald Reagan, unlike many of his disciples, followers and those who want to see his policies reinstated, participated in it (well, except for the sex). (Ron Paul didn’t, which is part of the reason he did not fit in.) Reagan knew that the game would help him in the end, so rather than eschewing it, he played along. The thing was, he knew what he was doing.

Before Ronald Reagan went into politics, he was a product of old Hollywood, a place that has always taken vice and deadly sins to extremes. Not everyone in Hollywood does this and there are ways to avoid getting caught in the traps of the game, but one has to be smart enough and have the discipline to stay free of the worst of the whirl. By all accounts, Reagan was able to pull that off without the people of Hollywood realizing that he was a lot smarter than they suspected. How? By being a charming, funny, affable, life of the party sort. (The REALLY dirty secret about people like this is that in order to be charming and funny, one has to have a pretty quick brain and keen observational intelligence as well as a storytelling ability, and that certainly never gets mentioned by anyone in the media, especially when it comes to Ronald Reagan.) People who are the life of the party are just not taken seriously, even if they are heads of their own companies. They are considered to be clowns, fun to be around, great for a good time, but not serious in any way. Such people are very much underestimated, and can turn tables when given the opportunity. Reagan was like that. Affable, funny, could tell a story – and knew when and how to lower a punchline, a boom and could turn a negotiation with a single sentence. Those were talents that Hollywood honed. Reagan’s skill in politics (not that much different than business, actually) was most likely another by-product.

Like every other big money business out there, entertainment contracts – the really big ones anyway – and deals are done privately in quiet, intimate settings where minimal distractions are part of the setting. (Reagan would have known this, and some of his talks with figures like Mikhail Gorbachev bear this out. There were visuals released to the public, but the discussions were private.) Negotiations are a give and take that require time and space to digest and get right before any dotted lines are signed. Lawyers are involved. There is proof-reading-and that’s AFTER the subjects agree in principle. Over the years, I’ve worked with and for, and have known, various c-level people (that would be CEO, CFO, COO, etc.) who have used all sorts of different meeting places for such negotiation. I worked for a company president once who explained the rules for doing a business on a golf course, where a lot of give and take happens, and there are no phones, no assistants, no computers, just the players, trees, grass, sand, water and little white balls. No business before the 5th tee and none after the fourteenth hole or something like that, with all sorts of little details in between. An old acquaintance who was the CEO of a mining company was known to take business partners to NFL games in the luxury suites and sign multi-million dollar contracts at half-time. Every major business in town has company seats at Busch Stadium and they are only offered to employees if there are no clients or government people to entertain and solicit. We the People may see a golf course and pro sports games as leisure activities, but the people who know the game of staying in power see them as business and negotiation venues. Business is regularly done over meals, drinks and coffee. The ABC-Disney merger was worked out on napkins in a coffee shop. Every CEO I’ve worked for has had coffee or drinks with other CEOs they needed to get in with. I used to schedule breakfast meetings all the time. The reality is that casual and non-professional environments help develop rapport, and are a way to get past formal office barriers. That was where Ronald Reagan knowing how to play the larger power game helped him get the advantage, even against his own party’s leadership.

Reagan knew that to get anywhere with the opposition, he had to ingratiate himself somehow. An intimate party situation is one way to do that (especially when you nurse a single drink for two hours and an adversary has enough booze to loosen his tongue. That tactic has been used quite a lot in documented cases. Richard Nixon was known to ask sensitive questions late in the evening after the subject had a few). It was not unheard of for the Reagans to attend cocktail parties at the home of Kay Graham, publisher of The Washington Post, while he was in office. Two days later, the Post might publish an editorial against him, but Reagan knew this was the game, and he didn’t take it personally (unlike the Clintons who just did not have that level of savvy or town bronze. For them, it was VERY personal). Mr. Reagan entertained Tip O’Neill, Speaker of the House of Representatives at the time, every week for dinner so that they could talk privately. He had to have done the same with leadership in the Senate. The Democrats had control of both chambers of Congress during his time in office, but by actually ingratiating himself with the people in control and explaining his position without distractions, Reagan managed to get his agenda, at least on the taxes and defense fronts, passed. But it took a lot of work and a lot of time and a lot of consorting with “the enemy.”

The situation of Reagan is not precisely the same as the TEA Party Republicans currently in Washington, as he was president and as such had far more influence, but the need to ingratiate and be the one underestimated while playing the game is no different. And that is where the Ron Pauls and Todd Akins of the Republican Party miss the boat. They might be solid conservatives, but by all reports they don’t know how to kick back and commiserate, and sure as heck do not know how to be the life of the party. The people in both chambers of Congress spend way too much time together not to need unwinding time in each other’s company, just like the rest of us who work in close quarters go out after the office closes (or after we leave the stage). That does not mean relaxing convictions or giving in to temptation – just allowing colleagues to see the real person underneath and developing the bonds that build trust and allow for honest negotiation, discussion and debate, the same way all other friendships are built. Right now, the TEA Party sorts – Reagan disciples – do not seem to be interested in anything other than business, and then only if it goes their way. According to a number of reports, the current Speaker of the House is actually in good faith trying to be collegiate, but isn’t getting anywhere because he takes it all too personally and is playable. (This is why Mitch McConnell ended up doing the negotiating. He’s more hardened.) And no one seems to be taking the time to work on persuading the centrists of either party. (This is based on the reporting available, which is only as good as the information the reporters can gleen from confidential sources.) It’s as if the “solid conservatives” enjoy being on the outside and playing martyr with every defeat. That sure as heck isn’t going to get anything done.

Well, maybe it is time to ask the question: What Would Reagan Do? Would he separate himself from the adversary or ingratiate himself and work toward convincing his colleagues that his ideals and goals are right for the country and not evil or a plot to control citizens? Would he only see his colleagues in professional settings or sit down with them without a suit jacket, roll up his sleeves, loosen his tie and discuss the Nationals pitching situation over a cold one to help reduce tension? Would he just hurl invectives at the opposition, or gently ridicule it? It’s all well and good to have firey speeches from the House and Senate floors and say what needs to be said that plays well in the heartland, but in order to get anything done IN WASHINGTON two things need to happen: the TEA Party needs to get more people elected (maybe without the help of the Republican Party) and the TEA Party reps already there need to convince more of the people not buying in that our convictions are best for the country in the long-term. In the current situation, what would Reagan do? (Does this remind us Christians of anyone?)

Answer: Use the Inside the Beltway culture, but don’t fall for it and certainly don’t get caught (let the Democrats fall into that trap) and don’t outright dismiss candidates who come from the world where business is done on a golf course. There are those who are small government and lower taxes sympathizers, it just may not be worn on the sleeve. These are the people who know how to get the job done. These are the sorts that need to be recruited.

Now that we conservatives are awake and are remembering Reagan, it is time to remember ALL of him, not just his politics. Ronald Reagan happened to be the right person at the right time with the right attributes and the right attitudes toward working with adversaries to make his agenda a reality. It’s not just the politics, but the attitude and attributes that we need to find in our candidates. Town bronze and savvy are not evil, but tools to be used in the game that the power brokers play. Doesn’t make it right or wrong, just the way it is. Time for some TEA Party candidates to be real players, not just people who play them on TV.

Other reading this week: Jerry Bowyer’s The Next Big Thing from the Official Who Predicted Communism’s Demise

Categories: Conservatives, Politics, TEA Party

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

6 replies

  1. In my estimation, with some experience in business as well, you are exactly right here. If you spend all of your time demonizing and sermonizing, you’re not going to make progress.

    Yep, golf course, cafe, bar, backroom, out on the steps with a cigar-that’s where the real work gets done-the meeting and such are just to get it on paper, it’s already a done deal.

    • This is one of those things that if you’re not exposed to it somewhere along the line, you just don’t get it. It’s kind of frustrating in the current fight, to be honest, to have to explain. But, since multiple comments on many sites have conservatives saying nasty things about cocktail parties, it had to be said. It’s part of the game.

      • It is, not least because it’s informal and verbally amongst principals involved a lot can get done. If you try to do it out in public someone is going to get offended and blow the whole thing up.

  2. Perhaps the means for using power are subject to the same cultural shifts that tend to alter the locus of that power. To me, Congress has been ceding power to the Executive for a while, for instance. Republicans, for all their House majority, are bleeding voters in plain sight. And the major media are now in the game rather than serving as umpires. It’s not obvious to me that Obama is very collegial or that a mass firing of committee chairs represents that.

    Reagan was a gifted schmoozer, the Great Communicator” for a reason and as you emphasize, heavily underestimated. Now, we get Obamas.

    The more coherent, less split prior culture permitted and rewarded more cohesive modes of operation; I’m not sure those would function so effectively in today’s post Christian, post good manners and post respect milieu. But maybe that’s just pessims… ,

  3. President Reagan had nothing to do with the creation of the Department of Education, though he would have agreed with your statement that it was a useless entity. Hence, he campaigned in 1980 on abolishing the department altogether though his efforts never gained momentum in his presidency due to the headstrong wind he was tacking into with a Democratic controlled congress. The department was created when Jimmy Carter signed the Department of Education Organization Act on October 17, 1979. The bill only passed the House by 14 votes.

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