For conservatives and Republicans who are wondering what in the world happened to their party, we should recall June 12, 1987. That day, 21 years ago, President Ronald Reagan stood before the wall dividing East and West Berlin and directed his famous appeal to the leader of the then Soviet Union, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Two and half years later, the wall was down and a new chapter begun.
It’s always worth recalling Reagan’s courageous act and words of that time. But we particularly should consider it now in light of today’s Republican conundrums.
I turn to the well-known account by then-Reagan speechwriter Peter Robinson about how it all came about.
The story of Reagan’s Berlin speech, as recounted by Robinson, is about change and fighting the Washington establishment. Exactly the themes we’re hearing almost every day now from our current presidential aspirants.
Robinson wrote the speech for President Reagan, including the famous “tear down this wall” line, and submitted it for review. The opposition to it from the administration’s entire foreign policy establishment was uniform and adamant.
The National Security Council and the State Department were opposed, as was our highest-ranking diplomat in Germany. They felt it was too provocative and too unrealistic.
But, the president liked it.
After several drafts, at a meeting to review the speech, Robinson told Reagan that his words would be broadcast on the other side of the wall, in East Berlin. Robinson asked him if he had anything to say to those people.
“Well, there’s the passage about tearing down the wall,” Reagan said. “That wall has to come down. That’s what I’d like to say.”
Seven drafts later, the establishment was still trying to purge the speech. Reagan was on Air Force One, en route to Berlin, when there was a last attempt to block it. But the speech was delivered, including the historic line, which stayed in, according to Robinson, “solely because of Ronald Reagan.”
Reagan’s leadership established the Republican brand in the 1980s, which stayed in ascendancy throughout the ’90s, even through Clinton’s presidency, when Republicans captured the House.
Bill Clinton himself drew capital off this brand, running as a fiscally conservative “new Democrat.” It was Clinton who told us that the “era of big government is over” and signed into law historic welfare reform in 1996, sent to him by the new Republican controlled Congress.
Now we’ve watched Republicans turn the Congress over to the Democratic Party and it appears likely that they will do the same with the White House.
The “liberal” label is no longer the political death ray it was in the ’90s. Sen. Barack Obama’s record is as left as you can get, yet it is doubtful that Republicans will defeat him by simply pointing this out.
New Gallup polling on party identification shows Republicans or those leaning Republican at 39 percent. For Democrats, the corresponding figure is 52 percent — the biggest gap in party identification in years.
How has the Republican Party managed to thoroughly squander the commanding heights achieved under Reagan’s leadership?
Unfortunately, courage and leadership are rare. Reagan understood and was committed to what this country is uniquely about — traditional values and individual freedom.
Most come to Washington for careers, not to serve. With Reagan’s departure, the risk-averse, career-motivated establishment, which quaked at the idea of the president publicly challenging the Soviet Union, or taking principled stands on anything, began to take over.
Republican politicians have also lost touch with their own base. A Pew Research Center survey shows that Republicans are more religious now than they were 20 years ago. Today’s Republican leadership refuses to acknowledge that the social agenda has increased in importance.
My office in Washington is in the Reagan Building, where a piece of the Berlin Wall is on display. It’s a reminder of a great leader and how the Republican brand has been tarnished by many less principled and less committed.