What Putin could teach Republicans

The Russians have their man in prime minister Vladimir Putin. And they know why he’s the one. Americans browsing our own presidential aspirants, especially the Republicans, should be so astute. America needs a strong new leader to remove a weak one. Will we give primacy to strength, or will we lapse into soft-headed longing for someone who makes us feel good about something that doesn’t really matter?

Regular readers will recall that I spent several weeks in Russia, riverboat touring from St. Petersburg to Moscow. Every few days my traveling companions, mostly Americans, would have an opportunity to engage our Russian guides in conversation. The sessions were ostensibly about Russian history and culture, but as time went by the talk often turned to contemporary politics. The Americans most often wanted to know about Putin. The questions were typically laced with negativity, as in, “How do you put up with Putin?” Few seemed to know much about or care to ask about President Dmitry Medvedev. Some Americans would really get confused when the Russians seemed to characterize Putin so favorably in comparison with Mikhail Gorbachev. “Wasn’t Gorby the good one, with Reagan and all?” “Didn’t he democratize Russia?” “Why don’t you like him?”

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Long conversations finally straightened all this out. Russians are voting for the man who best fits the situation and national need, as compared to Americans, who vote for the candidate who makes us feel better about something. One of the guides presented some polling that illustrates the Russian approach. Upon returning, I found these data in a five-year-old Pew Research Center report. A 2006 poll of Russians showed that 61 percent preferred a “leader with a strong hand,” versus just 29 percent who wanted a “democratic form of government.” The Russians spoke disparagingly of the chaos that attended the Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin years that introduced democracy. After that, they needed, and still need, some discipline, but just not as much as in the darker days of Josef Stalin or Leonid Brezhnev. Pew’s analysis deftly notes that “Putin has proven to be a master at mixing what his harshest critics see as old-style Soviet repressiveness with the trappings and techniques of 21st century populism.” Exactly. The Russians know it and approve. It’s what that nation needs now.

Many of my American friends struggled with this. Some even pointed out that Putin gets low marks in American polls, with typically about two-thirds holding unfavorable impressions of the Russian leader. One Russian guide asked philosophically, “What do you think is more important, that a leader be respected in other countries or his own?” The question was remarkable in several ways, but most importantly because it focused on a leader’s respect instead of likability. Respect is more about satisfying outward national needs. Likability is purely about inward and personal needs. The Russians might have figured something out that eludes many narcissistic Americans.

All this made my mind drift to the Republican fetish for Reagan nostalgia. Remembering Reagan could be a good thing, but we cheapen it. Instead of recognizing that Reagan’s magic was a quiet and determined strength to reverse the tide of socialism, we minimize the man by remembering him for little more than tax cuts (that benefited us personally) and misguided notions of “morning in America.” What was that morning all about? Was it a new strength and resolve, or just some cheap talk-show rhetoric about drowning government in a bathtub?

Americans need to look at the nation and what we need, rather than asking, “What’s in it for me?” We desperately need strong national leadership to get most everything headed in the right direction, regardless of how that affects us personally. If Republicans take that into account, we might get another Reagan.

David Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.