The Gipper didn’t always follow his own commandment. I’ve appreciated Newt Gingrich’s attitude during the 398 Republican Presidential debates. You know, his approach of refusing to attack his opponents.
He will, necessarily, change that approach a bit on the stump, but it’s been very effective so far. As Gingrich might put it, anyone on this stage will do a better job than Barack Obama.
And he’d be right.
But being right about that doesn’t mean candidates don’t have an obligation to show voters why they’re preferable to their opponents.
Since Ronald Reagan handed down the 11th Commandment—thou shalt not speak ill of thy fellow Republicans—every Republican seems to hide behind it.
“You can’t talk about the people I poisoned! It violates the 11th Commandment.”
First there’s a practical problem with that approach. Some candidates have serious baggage that needs to be vetted. If a candidate doesn’t disclose his or her potential issues, who will?
The press? Well, the press might, but only if the candidate with the baggage is to the left of the others. In other words, you’ll hear about Romney’s baggage only if his remaining opponents are to his left.
But there’s also a theoretical problem with the 11th Commandment. Reagan blew it to smithereens in 1976. At least, Reagan violated the modern interpretation of the 11th Commandment.
In that year, Gerald Ford, a Republican, was struggling to hold together a party ravaged by Watergate. Ford, an Establishment Republican and good man, took over the White House after Richard Nixon resigned.
Reagan had just ended two wildly successful terms as governor of California. And Reagan was fed up with Ford’s handling of the Soviet Union:
Disgruntled with Ford’s pursuit of détente with the Soviets, Ronald Reagan in 1975 decided to seek the seemingly impossible: to challenge the incumbent president from his own party, thereby breaking Reagan’s own “Eleventh Commandment:” “Thou Shall Not Speak Ill of Another Republican.”
Nothing speaks more ill of another Republican than running for President against that Republican who already occupies the Oval Office.
Nor was Reagan mild in his attacks on Ford.
Reagan hit détente so hard throughout the campaign that there was a consensus that President Ford stopped using the term because Reagan had made it a dirty word. So successful was Reagan that the New York Times, in a May 14, 1976, editorial titled “Mr. Reagan’s Veto,” claimed that the former California governor had “won something approaching veto power over the Ford Administration’s foreign policy.” As Reagan did, Ford dropped in the polls. In another editorial, titled, “President Under Seige,” The Times opined: “Governor Reagan has become a credible candidate while President Ford has slipped from almost certain victor to underdog.”
In fact, Reagan even carried politics beyond the water’s edge. He challenged Ford largely over foreign policy.
In reality, Reagan’s 11th Commandment was far different from the modern wounded Republican’s definition.
Reagan referred to personal attacks, like Pat Brown calling Reagan a dumb actor. Reagan never opposed airing of policy differences. And, based on his fury at a debate in Nashua, New Hampshire, in 1980, campaign tactics were in play, too:
Never let blind allegiance to a misunderstood principle prevent the people from knowing their choices.