Tuesday night in his State of the State address, Gov. Bentley tried his best to sound like Ronald Reagan, the 40th U.S. president who was known as the “Great Communicator.”
Bentley spoke up for the cause of freedom, which, per the governor, was rapidly drying up thanks to Barack Obama and his meddling federal government. Bentley paid homage to the ordinary working man, and toward the end of the speech actually produced one, William Ausbon, a formerly unemployed Wilcox County resident who now has a job thanks in part to the efforts of Robert Bentley, at least according to Robert Bentley.
The governor even managed to quote the Gipper, referring to the “spider’s web of dependency” created by government programs such as Medicaid.
The governor’s speech owed much to Reagan’s “State Of” stylings, yet it was lacking. Call it Reagan without the charm.
This isn’t about the rightness or wrongness of Bentley’s policy prescriptions (or Reagan’s); it is about how they are sold.
In his 1986 State of the Union speech, President Reagan mentioned that nasty, old “spider’s web.” Yet, watching a YouTube video of that 28-year-old State of the Union last week was a reminder of how much Bentley is not Reagan. (To be fair to the governor, Republicans are still looking for Reagan’s true successor almost three decades later.)
Missing Tuesday night in Montgomery was even a fraction of Reagan’s smooth delivery, charisma and graciousness.
Reagan began his 1986 speech by saying nice words about House Speaker Tip O’Neill, who would be retiring from office soon. Hard to imagine any politician — Bentley, Barack Obama, anyone — today offering such a public and seemingly heartfelt salute — yes, a real salute — to a member of the opposite party for, as Reagan put it, O’Neill’s “service to Congress and country.”
Let’s note that not everyone agreed with Reagan’s policies to reduce federal aid programs, then or now. In fact, many current Republicans in Washington are wrestling over these same topics — cutting back on jobless benefits and other federal spending while managing potential image problems associated with being portrayed as heartless.
In recent weeks, high-profile Republicans Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Eric Cantor of Virginia have spoken sympathetically about the plight of the poor in the United States.
Writing for Bloomberg.com, David J. Lynch suggests, “Republicans, looking ahead to the congressional elections in November and a 2016 presidential campaign, are seeking to move beyond an image of indifference to the poor. Romney’s campaign was damaged by his comment that ‘47 percent’ of Americans see themselves as ‘victims’ and depend on the government.”
Or as Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, recently said, “A lot of voters felt that President Obama cared more about them than Mitt Romney did. That was a wake-up call to Republicans that we need a positive approach that gives people reason to believe we want to support policies to create more jobs. And then we can draw the contrasts with the failed policies of this administration.”
“Leadership and compassion” is what’s needed, Republican strategist and former Romney adviser Katie Packer Gage told the National Journal. “Some of the rhetoric in the last few years has caused parts of the electorate to be a little bit disenfranchised. But the core Republican philosophy about increasing opportunity is something that resonates, and we just have to get back to that.”
Anyone who heard Bentley’s speech Tuesday might assume the governor didn’t get the memo about tone.
“Our nation is an overloaded ship, slowly sinking as even more passengers come on board,” Bentley said.
Later he discussed why he’s refusing to expand Medicaid and thereby provide health insurance to 300,000 working Alabamians who are currently without coverage. “It is not my intent to put able-bodied individuals on a government dependency program,” he said. In the meantime, we’d guess Dr. Bentley’s advice for the uninsured amounts to: Don’t get sick.
This seems to miss the universal political lesson offered by Reagan. Doom and gloom and mean-spirited rhetoric won’t inspire Americans. They prefer the positive, upbeat message Reagan sold.
Hear Reagan from his 1986 speech:
“The American dream is a song of hope that rings through night winter air; vivid, tender music that warms our hearts when the least among us aspire to the greatest things: to venture a daring enterprise; to unearth new beauty in music, literature, and art; to discover a new universe inside a tiny silicon chip or a single human cell.”
In contrast to Bentley, it’s obvious one politician mastered the words and the music and another one hasn’t.
Bob Davis is associate publisher/editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: EditorBobDavis.