Forget The Republican “11th Commandment”
With the first New Hampshire debate tonight, you can expect plenty of fireworks between the candidates. While most of the barbs will probably be aimed at Mitt Romney as the front runner, odds are everyone will get a shot or two at some point in the evening. This will naturally bring cries of “remember Reagan’s 11th Commandment…Thou shalt not attack another Republican”.
Like many things about Reagan, the warm and fuzzy memories are a bit different from the reality. Not even Reagan obeyed his own commandment when push came to shove in a primary fight.
In 1976, Reagan was a former governor challenging an incumbent of his own party — Gerald Ford — for the Republican presidential nomination. Ford, who made no pretense of following the 11th Commandment (he said only that he would “abide by the first ten”), had beaten Reagan in the early primaries. Reagan’s campaign was faltering, and his own advisers urged him to take the gloves off. He did. Campaigning in Florida that March, Ronald Reagan broke the 11th Commandment and attacked Gerald Ford. He accused Ford, who had then been president just 19 months, of presiding over “the collapse of American will and the retreat of American power,” and said Ford “must be held accountable to history for allowing this to happen.” He said Ford lacked “vision,” that he found it “difficult” to trust his leadership. He accused the president of favoring “pre-emptive concessions” in talks with the Soviet Union, and said, “I fear for my country when I see White House indifference to the decline in our military position.”
Most of the time, “Thou shalt not attack another Republican” is a fine idea but the reality is, primaries are the time for hashing out positions and highlighting differences. Most of the GOP field agrees on the broad outlines of the major issues. The key to differentiating yourself from everyone else who favors things like a strong defense, lower taxes and economic group is by attacking your opponents about the times they deviated from Republican orthodoxy.
If you find yourself insisting that some candidate or another observe the “11th Commandment”, it’s probably because they just landed a solid blow against your candidate.
This is politics at the highest level and it’s a contact sport. Let’s not pretend otherwise.