During the 1988 vice-presidential debate Senator Lloyd Bentsen, the Democratic nominee, famously told then-Senator Dan Quayle “I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” This snarky response was Bentsen’s reply to Quayle’s comparison of himself with JFK. Quayle was attempting to deflect criticism of his relative youth and short service in Congress by comparing his credentials with Kennedy when he ran for president as a senator in 1960. The comparison was actually pretty accurate, but Quayle’s words were still used against him.
Ever since Donald Trump became the GOP nominee last summer, many conservative commentators have likened Trump’s triumph to the rise of Reagan. Trump’s outsider approach and irreverent disposition have been hailed as displays that Trump is the new Reagan and is the next “Great Communicator.” At risk of sounding anything like the liberal Lloyd Bentsen, I have to say that I have studied Reagan, read Reagan’s speeches, and watched Reagan’s press conferences. Donald Trump is no Ronald Reagan.
This is not to say that there are no parallels between the 40th president and the 45th, but they are limited. This is not to say that I do not believe Trump has done some great things his first month in the White House; he has assembled an all-star team to serve in the Cabinet, he has appointed a conservative superstar to the Supreme Court, and he is aggressively rolling-back job-killing regulations. This being said, Trump’s communication style is nothing like Reagan’s, and it will be a liability during his presidency.
While Donald Trump may have written The Art of the Deal, he is no better deal maker than The Gipper. Reagan combined the power of his convictions with the sway of his charm, which could convince even his political enemies to support his proposals. There is no better example of this than his ability to pass the largest tax cut since the 1960’s through a democratic House of Representatives controlled by arch-liberal Speaker Tip O’Neill. O’Neill became convinced that open warfare with Reagan was political suicide after Reagan took his case for tax reform directly to the American people.
Reagan’s style at press conferences and political rallies combined a wonderful sense of humor with serious arguments for his agenda, all wrapped-up in a smile and a nod. He did not lash-out at everyone who challenged him or questioned his ideas. Instead, he convinced them of the merits of his argument and the integrity of his character. As a result, he was remarkably successful in fundamentally changing Washington and reinvigorating America.
Ronald Reagan shifted the American political landscape through the power of his personality. Because he was the “Great Communicator,” he maintained an approval rating average of 54% during his eight years in office, and left office in 1989 with a 65% approval rating. By comparison, George W. Bush had an average approval of 49% and Barack Obama of 47% over their two terms. President Trump’s present approval ratings do not project the sustained popular approval that marked Reagan’s eight years in office, and this could hamper his agenda going forward.
Like Trump, Reagan had to deal with a hostile media and outbursts from liberal actors and entertainers. Unlike Trump, Reagan also had to contend with a democratic congress when he came into office. Even faced with such opposition, Reagan was the happy warrior who challenged the media, ignored the entertainers, and still got his agenda through a liberal congress. After watching President Trump’s press conference this week, I hope he and his team will take a page from Reagan’s communications playbook. Trump’s agenda can make America great again, but he has to start by communicating in a way that it is likely to lead to a successful presidency.