Is Sarah Palin the Next Ronald Reagan?

Sarah Palin and Ronald Reagan appear poles apart in their backgrounds. Before coming to the center stage of national politics, Palin was a small-town mother of five and governor of Alaska, and Reagan, a Hollywood actor and governor of California. But these and other dramatic differences mask surprising similarities, which now appear to merge at the intersection of time and circumstance.

Low Bar of Expectations. Critics contended that Ronald Reagan was nothing more than a third-rate Hollywood actor, who lacked the intellectual depth and educational training to serve successfully as president. And critics now contend that Sarah Palin lacks adequate experience to be one heartbeat away from the Oval Office. Yet, by jumping high over the bar set for her acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Palin has become the "rock star" of conservatism, drawing huge crowds and raising untold campaign cash. Of course, after Senator Barry Goldwater’s humiliating defeat in 1964, Reagan surprised his critics by unexpectedly transforming the lost cause of conservatism into a victorious nationwide movement.

Insurgent Leadership. Just as Reagan became the leader of a conservative insurgency in the Republican Party that ultimately propelled him into the Oval Office in 1980 so, too, has Sarah Palin led insurgent reform movements to become mayor of Wasilla and governor of Alaska. As a reformer she became the perfect fit for John McCain’s image as a maverick challenging Washington’s "Beltway establishment."

Surprising Ecumenicity. In their rise to power, Palin and Reagan demonstrated political pragmatism by reaching out to both Democrats and Republicans. Reagan appealed to the so-called "Reagan Democrats," primarily conservative Roman Catholics in the North, and also to the Democratic Party’s southern evangelicals. He even converted some Democratic members of Congress to the Republican Party. As a reformer Palin crossed over party lines to lead as mayor and governor. Time and circumstance have now bestowed upon her the Reagan mantle of appealing to those same "Reagan Democrats" and southern evangelicals, whose votes were vital to Reagan’s election then and McCain’s election now.

Reserved Religiosity. Both Palin and Reagan subscribe to similar religious beliefs, such as trusting Jesus Christ as their personal savior and supporting the Genesis account of creation. But not with great fanfare. Reagan attended the comfortable Bel Air Presbyterian Church in Hollywood, while Palin left the more emotional Assemblies of God Church to attend the more reserved Wasilla Bible Church. Her personal faith, like Ronald Reagan’s, appeals to the increasingly large and vital evangelical movement.

Instinctive Leaders. Like Reagan, Palin is not a "policy wonk." She does not devote herself to the minutiae of public policy details, but rather she leads by instinct, based upon her guiding principles of right and wrong. When Reagan’s advisors tried to prep him for presidential debates through reading thick manuals, he refused. Rather he brought to the debates a set of well-honed conservative principles, which he used as a grid to filter his answers to policy questions. Sarah Palin’s early campaign speeches, especially her acceptance speech at the Republican Convention, suggest that she is cut out of the same cloth.

"Skin Comfort." As former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown said of Sarah Palin’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention: "Her timing was exquisite. She didn’t linger with applause, but instead launched into line after line of attack, slipping the knives in with every smile and joke. And she delivered it like she was just BS-ing on the street with the meter maid. She didn’t have to prove she was ‘of the people.’ She really is the people." Likewise, Reagan exuded that same comfort with his persona whether delivering major speeches or dealing with members of Congress. In working with House Speaker Tip O’Neill, he demonstrated that despite major partisan differences, it was difficult for political adversaries to dislike him.

Compelling Personal Stories. Reagan and Palin beat the odds. Coming from the small town of Dixon in the midst of flat Illinois cornfields, raised by a very religious mother, whose training led him to become a Sunday School teacher of grade-school boys, a graduate of a tiny and little-known religious college, Eureka, Reagan hardly had the pedigree to become president of the United States. Neither does Sarah Palin. Her small-town background, a degree from the out-of-the-way University of Idaho, and sportscaster start, the same as Ronald Reagan’s first job after college, hardly qualified her to become governor of Alaska, much less a vice-presidential candidate.

Time and circumstance merged for Ronald Reagan. Will they for Sarah Palin?

Dr. Charles W. Dunn, who serves as Dean of the School of Government at Regent University, has taught at Clemson University, Grove City College, the University of Illinois-Urbana, and Florida State University. The author of 15 books, also served as a member and Chair of the United States J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board under Presidents Reagan, Bush I and Clinton.


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