Ronald Reagan was the most successful president in the last century and, probably, the most successful president of all time. Reagan may, indeed, have been the greatest political leader the West has produced in modern history.
As an example of how deeply Americans revered President Reagan, when he died thirteen years ago, despite having been out of the public eye for almost sixteen years, tens of millions of Americans spent hours waiting in line just to share a few moments with him before he was interred. No president who has been out of office for years has ever had anything remotely approaching that outpouring of genuine respect and heartfelt grief.
Reagan was an incredibly successful president. On the first day of his presidency, Iran returned the Americans it had taken hostage, and soon thereafter, Reagan had completed much of his agenda – tax cuts, regulatory reform, defense buildup, broad support of social conservatism, and a revival of federalism. He had a limited number of objectives, and he pursued them relentlessly.
Obama, though he disagreed with almost everything Reagan had done, correctly saw Reagan as a transformative president, the sort who comes along only every fifty years or more. John Kerry, who had despised Reagan's presidency, felt compelled to pay homage to Reagan at his casket.
Reagan could teach a lot to Donald Trump.
Reagan, like Trump, dealt with lots of RINOs – and most of these were far more leftist than RINOs today – but Reagan tamed them by first reminding Republicans of his 11th commandment: Thou shalt not speak ill of any Republican. He honored that, and he insisted that other Republicans follow suit. They did, largely because his respect for that maxim left them no choice.
Regan also declined to personally attack Democrats. This did not mean agreement with them politically, but rather that Reagan deliberately took the initiative in removing personal attacks from his policy objectives. One great example of that was his open friendliness to Speaker Tip O'Neill, who never supported Reagan's policies but found it hard to personally attack him.
Even better was Reagan's decision in early January, after Democrats lost the Senate for the first time in a generation, of going to the Senate and personally telling Senate Democrats that he was reappointing Mike Mansfield to be ambassador to Japan. Mansfield has been Democrat floor leader in the Senate for 16 years and had been an opponent of almost every idea Reagan supported. But Mansfield was an excellent ambassador and a decent and honorable man. Senate Democrats gave Reagan a standing ovation and agreed that he could have done nothing better to gain their respect.
Reagan remained both firm and friendly throughout his presidency. Democrats soon learned that attacking Reagan personally was bad politics, and even RINOs understood that if they wished to have any leadership role in the Republican Party, they should not attack the president or frustrate his policies.
As for our current president, Trump needs to focus on a few important items and pursue little else until those items are achieved. Everything is not equally important, and winning major victories enhances his political clout. Reforming the tax system would be a major coup, but it cannot be done if Trump is pulling folks in a dozen different areas and engaging in tweet attacks almost every day. Petty attacks by a president over time earn nothing but apathy and annoyance.
Second, Trump needs to understand that attacking Republicans publicly gains him nothing at all while it creates the opportunity for Republicans to attack him, and he can do little about that. His problem with Republicans is largely self-inflicted and does him absolutely no good. He needs them more than they need him.
Third, Trump should grasp that olive branches to Democrats makes him look good and make it harder for Democrats to attack him. That costs him nothing and gains him a perceptible edge if Democrat leaders keep demonizing him. Obama grasped that and used it against Republicans with appalling ease.
President Trump still has time – but probably much less time than he imagines – to go down as a good and successful president. We ought to hope he does, because much is at stake, but the track record so far is not encouraging. It is really up to Trump to see his mistakes and quickly learn from them. If he does not, expect his support to melt like ice on a hot August sidewalk.