The Real Story of Reagan’s 11th Commandment

Will Rogers, the cowboy philosopher and political pundit of the 1930s, used to joke, “I am a member of no organized party: I am a Democrat.” In those days, the Democrats were America’s party of dysfunction, an unstable coalition of urban Northern liberals and rural Southern conservatives. Occasionally, the two wings worked together, as during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first term, but more often they clashed, right up until the party splintered during the 1960s, as Southern conservatives bailed out to join the Republicans.

At the time, the GOP was the party of comparative coherence. Republicans differed among themselves on various issues, as party members do. In the prewar era, free-traders tussled with protectionists; in the 1950s, Republicans argued about the optimal size of the defense establishment. But the party usually managed to contain the internecine warfare and present a united front to the electorate at large.

Republican decorum was famously characterized by Ronald Reagan as the “Eleventh Commandment,” which declared, “Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.” Reagan credited Gaylord Parkinson, state chairman of California Republicans during the 1960s, with originating the idea, and in his 1966 campaign for California governor, Reagan pledged to honor it.

His insistence that Republicans refrain from criticizing one another was self-serving. As the favorite in the Republican effort to oust Democratic Governor Pat Brown, Reagan hoped to keep his GOP rivals from damaging him before the general election.

But Reagan had a broader vision as well. The 1964 presidential contest had left the Republicans more divided than they’d been in decades. The party’s liberal and moderate wings, supporters of Nelson Rockefeller, blamed conservatives for Barry Goldwater’s disastrous defeat, in which Lyndon Johnson won more than 480 electoral votes as Democrats took two-thirds majorities in both houses of Congress. Reagan had already fixed his eyes on the White House, and he knew he couldn’t get there leading a fractured party.

The Eleventh Commandment played to Reagan’s individual strengths. Attack politics never came easily to him; the persona that served him best was that of the genial, joke-cracking optimist. To be sure, Reagan was no milquetoast. He challenged sitting president Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination in 1976, criticizing Ford for signing the Helsinki Accords and for allowing the fall of Saigon. And Reagan had to beat back George H. W. Bush for the 1980 nomination. He could throw haymakers and zingers at his opponents. But the most telling ones were always directed at Democrats. “A recession is when your neighbor loses his job,” he said in the 1980 general campaign. “A depression is when you lose your job. And recovery begins when Jimmy Carter loses his job.”

Reagan earned a reputation as the “Teflon president,” to whom scandal and criticism never stuck. The reason they didn’t was that voters thought Reagan was a nice guy. Even those who disliked his policies had difficulty disliking him. He survived the Iran-Contra scandal not because people believed his side of the story—polls showed they didn’t—but because they didn’t want to see an amiable old man disgraced.

Fast forward to 2017. The Republicans have become the party of dysfunction. They inherited the Southern conservatives who abandoned the Democrats, and are now as deeply split as the Democrats ever were—even as they hold the presidency, the Congress, and a majority of the nation’s state governments.

And Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment is nowhere to be seen.

During the Republican primary campaign of 2016, candidates said the vilest things about one another, from the relatively benign (e.g. Governor Jeb Bush calling Donald Trump the “chaos candidate”) to the outlandishly slanderous (e.g. Trump alleging that Senator Ted Cruz’s father helped Lee Harvey Oswald murder President John F. Kennedy). Most of the party reconciled itself to Trump after he won the nomination, but manyrespected voices continued to declare him unfit by experience and temperament to be America’s chief executive.

As president, Trump has returned the favor. After the congressional collapse of the American Health Care Act, Trump’s would-be Obamacare replacement, the president called out Republican members of the House who refused to support his proposal—even threatening them with reprisals in next year’s primaries.

He should be careful. Roosevelt attempted something similar in 1938. Frustrated by the stalling of the New Deal, FDR openly campaigned against conservative Southern Democrats who had had enough of the president’s reforms. The Roosevelt “purge,” as it was called, failed miserably, embarrassing the president, weakening the party and leaving the conservatives more recalcitrant than ever. If this could happen to Roosevelt, who was elected by popular landslides, it is all the more likely for Trump, who lost the popular vote in his only election.

Republicans long for the days of Reagan. And well they should, for he was the party’s last hero, their last real vote-getter. But they’re not going to see another Reagan until they revive their Eleventh Commandment and stop beating up on one another. Until then, the Republican Party will look less like Reagan’s GOP than like the Democrats of Will Rogers’ day.

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