I argued recently that there’s no Republican equivalent to Bill Clinton because “Republican gatekeepers and, probably, Republican audiences don’t want that kind of thing.”

Andrew Sullivan makes a good point:

Also: their most recent former president was the worst in modern history. And both Bushes had a hard time arguing their way out of a paper bag. 

Here’s one place where presidents really do matter, both in their actions and in the examples they set. But it’s not the Bushes that we need to look to. It’s that other guy, the one that Republicans worship. Parties emulate their successful presidents, and for Republicans Ronald Reagan is their successful president.

It’s hard, for those who remember George W. Bush but not Reagan, to explain the earlier Republican president. See, people called Bush stupid, but I’m convinced that isn’t true (I’ve said this before, but I’ll repeat it: I’ve heard him talk baseball, and he sounded quite intelligent). The thing about George W. Bush is that, in my view, he had little if any interest in government and public affairs, or in politics other than as a competition for office, and given that there were also few incentives within his party for him to sound as if he knew what he was talking about, he didn’t bother.

Ronald Reagan, though…All the evidence on Reagan indicates that he certainly was highly interested in and very much cared about government and public affairs. He didn’t, contrary to what some thought, just want to play the role of president; he really did want to be president, and he really believed in and cared about policy and ideological outcomes.

But Reagan’s relationship with the truth was pretty complicated, and he would regularly say things that were just not true. I mean, regularly: after every press conference someone would have to clean it up (back then they cared about such things). William Safire attributes “misspoke himself” to Ron Ziegler talking for Nixon, but I think (although I could be wrong) it was really popularized for ordinary things with Reagan’s presidency. The thing is that Reagan’s genius was for believing what he wanted to believe, and once he was set on something it was nearly impossible to break him from it.

At any rate: during the Bush years there was a fair amount of pushback by Reagan supporters, but at the time one of the lessons that Republicans learned from Reagan was that facts just get in the way; what you want are politicians with strong beliefs, not a complex grasp of details. After all, Jimmy Carter was well-known as a micromanager; under Reagan, however, someone from his administration once said, everyone in the White House went to work knowing exactly what the long-term goals of the presidency were. There was some truth in that, and indeed the positive side of it really was a significant strength of Reagan as president. It’s just that there was no truth at all in the flip side that facts just get in the way. It definitely caught on, however, and next thing you know perfectly sensible Republican governors are agreeing to give George W. Bush a presidency he was ill-equipped to handle.

If we think about what could change the current GOP antipathy to policy, facts, and the rest of it, the most likely answer would be that they could have a successful president who sets a different example. In part, that would take staring down Rush Limbaugh and the rest of his crowd — something that neither Bush had any interest in. But in part, it would just be by example. Bill Clinton taught lots of young Democrats that his way of doing politics was the right way to do it. A successful Republican president could teach a generation of Republicans that lesson.

However, it doesn’t seem possible to get to be a successful Republican president in the first place by acting like that. So, Catch-22. Especially since, in my view, the kinds of things that make it difficult for Republicans to speak sensibly about policy make it equally difficult for Republicans to develop and implement good public policy. Which means that even a stealth policy wonk Republican who managed to win the nomination and get elected would have some difficulty becoming a successful enough president to be the one who sets the better example. Granted, it doesn’t have to be as bad as George W. Bush. But it really is quite the problem for them.

The other way out of it would be a revolt by the party as a whole against the Becks and the Limbaughs and the rest. That’s possible; it’s just not something that happens very often.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.