As the Republican party tears itself apart over the question of what it means to be Republican, the word most commonly thrown back and forth is the sainted name of Ronald Reagan. Each of the candidates looks through the history book, finds a position that the Gipper took which aligns most closely with his own, and thereupon tries to claim Reagan's mantle, and hopefully, his office as well.
Sometimes these debates can seem silly - Reagan did this, so I'm more like him! No, Reagan did that, so that makes me more Gipper-esque! And so on.
Even the Democrats have tried to drag Reagan up on stage with them, as Obama pointed out the (fairly well-recognized) fact that Reagan changed the country and the world in a way that Carter and Clinton didn't; then the Clintons jumped all over him for saying nice things about their hated enemy of the past.
In all of this nonsensical to-ing and fro-ing, however, we've completely lost track of what the mantle of Reagan really is. Some say it is a commitment to low taxes; some say, an opposition to abortion; some, even, a willingness to grant amnesty to illegal aliens, as Reagan did in 1986. But the true meaning of Reaganism is both all these things, and none of them.
Politics is not like flying a commercial jet, where once you have gotten to altitude out over the ocean, you simply punch the coordinates of your destination into the autopilot, and sit back while it takes you where you're going.
Politics is much more like navigating a sailboat in the Caribbean in the days of the pirates. At any given time, you are probably not heading straight towards your destination, because the wind is going the wrong way and you must tack; or, there's a reef or shoal in the way that you must go around; or, you have encountered pirates and must fight them first before you can continue.
So if you look at the heading of the ship, you might think, the captain is wrong-headed! He's going the wrong way!
And sometimes, you'd be right. The maps may not be accurate, or he has made an inaccurate judgment. But much of the time, his heading is for a real reason.
The only way you can know for sure is to compare where the ship started from, where the ship needs to go, and where it is right now. That way you can tell if you are making progress, or not - but only by making a comparison over a period of time. This is called a macro view.
So when we look at politicians in this light, the mantle of Reagan becomes much clearer.
When Reagan entered into politics, the Great Society in particular and liberalism in general were almost unquestioned; there was serious concern that the Soviet Union would actually prevail in the Cold War; and the Carter years had brought "stagflation", a dying economy, and a catastrophic loss of American power and prestige around the world.
When Reagan retired, America's economy was roaring, the foundational principles of the welfare state were crumbling, and the Cold War's victorious end was just around the corner. There can be no doubt that Reagan was a red-blooded conservative, by looking at how he moved the ball.
Reagan did not accomplish everything. Did he outlaw abortion? No - but he made it possible for it to be restricted and opened the door for today's world where even liberals say that abortion should be safe, legal, and rare. We even have pop-culture movies depicting abortions as the abhorrent choice that they are.
Did he end the welfare state? No - but he changed the terms of the debate, making it possible for Bill Clinton to enact welfare reform, removing the absolute right to a government check for anyone who does not wish to work.
Even Reagan's mistakes had good reasons behind them. The great illegal-immigrant amnesty of 1986 has been a disaster for the country, leading directly to ten times as many illegals as we ever had before.
Reagan's bill represented a legitimate attempt at compromise on his part - we'll give amnesty to the illegals already present and secure the borders so we don't get any more. The first happened; the second didn't, due to the bad faith of his political opponents. However, America had not confronted this particular problem before, so it was a reasonable try given what was known. Today's amnesty supporters have no such excuse.
Now, let's take a look at the various candidates. John McCain talks a conservative line - opposition to abortion, to taxes, and so on down the line. But when he has the ball for a play, where does it usually end up? Not rightward, but leftward.
On the other hand, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani have both taken positions that don't sound very conservative. But they governed in extremely liberal places. Were Massachusetts and New York City more conservative, or more liberal, after their tenures? The answer is clear: more conservative by a lot.
The only way a captain can keep his boat on course, even when the heading has to change because of current conditions, is to know clearly where he wants to go. This requires a compass; and in politics, this is often expressed as a moral compass.
Too many politicians have no moral compass; they have nowhere in particular that they feel they want the country to move, and thus, they get blown left under the gale-force winds of CBS, the New York Times, and the rest of the liberal establishment.
The mantle of Reagan is not a policy. It is a fundamental commitment to the principles of conservatism - that taxes and spending should both be lower; that our military should be strong; that the government should leave the people alone wherever possible; that solutions to most problems come best from private individuals, private industry, and local government rather than the federal government; and that every rule that restricts freedom is a step in the wrong direction.
Sometimes you have to move sideways, or even backwards, to get around an obstacle - but the leader with his eye on that goal is the leader with the mantle of Reagan.
Yesterday would have been Reagan's 97th birthday; and so we ask, does anyone wear Reagan's mantle today? Many claim it - but the mantle is demanding. It will not fit just anyone. And if no one is willing to wear it, it still hangs shimmering on its hook, waiting for a worthy American to pick it up.