01/13/2012 07:52 pm ET Updated Mar 14, 2012

Learning the Wrong Lessons from Ronald Reagan

As the race for the Republican nomination heads towards its endgame, every GOP candidate has redoubled efforts to cloak himself in the mantle of Ronald Reagan. Consider: Jon Huntsman kicked off his campaign in the same location as Reagan; Mitt Romney's signature economic proposal is a "Reagan Economic Zone"; Rick Santorum promises to rebuild the "Reagan Republican Party"; and Newt Gingrich says that he'll restore "Reagan-era economic policies." The list could go on.

Certainly, there is much to admire in Reagan's record, but many Republicans are focused on the wrong things. Rather than learning from the things that made Reagan a great political leader, they have instead worked to ape specific policy prescriptions that Reagan himself, as a good conservative, never considered holy writ.

After all, the country that Reagan inherited when he lifted his hand off the Bible in the winter of 1981 was far different from the world of 2012. Consider: back then, the Soviet Union appeared likely to expand its empire forever; inflation spiraled out of control; lifetime cash entitlement welfare programs encouraged social pathology; and crime made people afraid to go out at night. Reagan's policies -- smaller domestic government, a tough-on-crime attitude, an emphasis on a "safety net" rather than a culture of dependency, and a bigger military -- were intended to fight these challenges.

And, as David Frum has pointed out, what worked for Reagan may not work today. Calling for "tight money" is nonsensical when deflation is a bigger threat than inflation. Investing in new weapons systems intended to fight other nation-states is silly when no army could come close to challenging America's. Crime -- down significantly from Reagan's day -- isn't a national political issue at all. Welfare has been reformed. And so forth.

Reagan recognized this. In fact, those who quote Reagan's "government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem" dictate from his first inaugural address almost always leave out that the words that preceded it: "in our present situation." In short, Reagan himself specifically asserted that his policies were a reaction to their times.

In any case, changing polices to reflect current realities lies at the heart of conservatism. Russell Kirk, perhaps the most influential thinker among modern conservatives, identified conservatism as a "negation of ideology" that upholds no utopian vision, and considers no specific policy course a matter of scripture. Treating Reagan's specific policies as unalterable is deeply un-conservative. And it's common sense, anyway: no political leader of the past has all of the specific policy answers for the present.

If Reagan cannot provide specific policy cues, however, he can provide a sterling example of good political leadership. Unlike a large part of the Republican Party's modern Tea Party base, Reagan always portrayed his polices without anger and vitriol. While firm in his convictions, he adhered to the old Washington dictum of friendship after 5:00 p.m. and spent hours swapping stories with his arch-political-rival, Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill.

In short, he wasn't a jerk and portrayed his polices in ways that people outside the Republican base found palatable and even likable. He also tended to pick his battles carefully, with an eye toward making progress rather than pleasing his base: while a staunch pro-lifer himself, for example, Reagan never made serious moves against abortion in ways many Americans (including me) would have liked.

None of the candidates running in today's GOP race possess anything close to Reagan's affable charisma or quick wit. And those can't be copied. Only one of them, Mitt Romney, has any real experience working on hard legislative issues with Democrats. Far too often, today's nationally known Republicans try to ape Ronald Reagan policies that the Gipper himself intended to be transitory while ignoring the timeless lessons that they should learn from his political style.