Reflecting on the GOP debate, candidates should have asked, ‘what would Reagan do?’

The Reagan Presidential Library was the ideal setting for tonight’s Republican presidential debate.  It was an opportunity to bask in the glow of the shrine to their anointed messiah of conservative values. They had a chance to take the opportunity to reflect on the Reagan presidency, particularly on a focus of tonight’s debate: foreign policy.

For most non-incumbent presidential contenders (with the exception of those serving on congressional foreign affairs committees or previously in the State Department), foreign policy can be a real struggle. Odd places, ever-changing casts of characters, dizzying factional strife are enough to make any non-expert cringe.

However, there is one aspect of foreign policy that is straightforward and easy to comprehend (if difficult to execute): the need to balance firm and delicate. Ronald Reagan was a master of this balance. Either through word or action, Reagan recognized when the state of international affairs called for bold, direct, or aggressive rhetoric. We all remember Reagan’s speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. Reagan demanding that Gorbachev “tear down this wall” was a prime example of that bold language.

However, what that one moment overshadows is a years-long effort between the White House and Kremlin, with assistance from the State Department and US intelligence services, to walk a fine line, to say the right things at the right time, in order to facilitate the desired outcome: regime change in the Soviet Union.

Behind the scenes and even in front of cameras, Mr. Reagan understood that how a president delivers a message is as important as the message itself. Foreign nations, political parties, dissident groups, NGOs, and others require thoughtful, careful, strategic handling. The next president—and any president—must be sensitive to those realities.

Tonight’s debate featured a combination of fiery rhetoric and thoughtful strategy. In the context of foreign policy, voters and viewers should think as much about the tone of that message. They should ask themselves, as they think about candidates’ performance, positions and rhetoric “would Ronald Reagan have said that?” It’s an important question to ask, and one that any Republican should be comfortable reflecting on.

Yes, the bombastic rhetoric from some GOP candidates is entertaining and attracts viewers. Yes, it makes for good headlines and easy copy in newsrooms and on blogs. Yes, it earns a laugh or a cringe or a gasp when a candidate flies off the handles and pushes back against the politically correct. When a candidate like Ted Cruz talks about “tearing up the Iran agreement” on the first day of his presidency, it is an easy position to take, but one that ignores that consequences of those actions, and Ted Cruz was not alone. Governor Huckabee invoked almost a secular and political Book of Revelations: “this is about the survival of western civilization. This threatens the entire Middle East and the United States of America. We must make it clear; we will not honor [the Iran agreement].” 

Yet, foreign policy asks for something entirely different. It asks for strategy, planning, and being sensitive to realities. It may well be foreign policy in which political correctness is most important, and any candidate who believes that off-the-cuff, flippant rhetoric is the way to run a president’s foreign policy would pose a serious threat to national security and the stability of our foreign relations.

We saw examples of that thoughtfulness. We saw it from moderates like Ohio Governor John Kasich who noted on America’s role in the world, “you have to be steady; we are stronger when we work with our friends” noting a good strategy “slow, steady, and firm.” We also saw that rhetoric from libertarian conservatives like Rand Paul who reacted to other candidates’ desire to cut off communications with other nations: “think about if Reagan said that in the Cold War.” He talked about the importance of talking to nations around the world, whether they are friends or enemies.

When reflecting on tonight, ask yourself: What would Ronald Reagan do? He would surely be entertaining. He would certainly be a more effective communicator than the people we saw on the two stages tonight. But he would also support a strategic foreign policy that advanced America’s interests, reserving bombastic rhetoric only for the rare occasions where it is necessary and effective. There were plenty of candidates on this stage for whom he would have had a profound distaste. Reagan, in an era where relations with the Soviet Union posed as much or more of a strategic threat as any extremist group we face today, understood foreign policy differently than many candidates who proudly invoke his name

In reality, most foreign policy communication—even foreign policy in the tradition of Reagan—is careful and boring. Such communications look more like a game of chess than a boxing match.

GOP primary voters shouldn’t pass off boring or calm or deliberative as negatives. When it comes to foreign policy—and frankly any policy, you want to elect the chess master, not the boxer.