It's a rite of passage for Republican White House aspirants to invoke Ronald Reagan
Conservatives see his presidency in the 1980s as a golden age
But does Reagan now serve as a crutch for up-and-coming candidates looking for an easy shortcut into the hearts of conservative voters?
Program note: This story was originally published in 2015. Explore the decade that continues to fascinate us today: CNN Original Series “The Eighties” airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET on CNN.
It’s been a quarter of a century since Ronald Reagan rode off into the California sunset, but the Republican Party has never stopped hankering for his heir.
The next generation of GOP White House candidates will battle for that long-vacant role Wednesday night, as they gather alongside Reagan’s restored Air Force One at his presidential library for a pair of CNN presidential debates.
It’s a rite of passage for Republican White House aspirants to invoke Reagan. Conservatives see his presidency as a golden age during which their movement slayed communism, restored America as a “shining city on a hill” and delivered 44 and then 49 states in successive presidential election routs. Many conservatives believe the two Bush presidencies that followed Reagan, as well as the subsequent GOP nominees, failed because they were not sufficiently faithful to the 40th president’s ideoogical road map.
But some difficult questions lurk in the huge shadow Reagan casts over the Republican Party.
To begin with, is it healthy for a party – trying to reinvent itself for a new century and America’s new demographic realities – to continually define itself according to an idealized image of a man who left office in 1989 and who faded from public life before most young voters were born?
Reagan does not have a “magical glow” for many young voters, said Michael Schaller, a history professor at the University of Arizona who wrote a book about the former president, though he argued that his imagery could still be powerful for an older generation. “I don’t think the Reagan label has any particular pull on them and I don’t think that is a great formula for party building, but I think it is still enough for those who have memories of the ‘80s that seem to have been pretty good.”
Of course, Reagan was not just an ideologue; he had a pragmatic streak that allowed him to cut deals with Democratic foes on Capitol Hill. Despite his reputation as a driver of economic growth, his policies produced large deficits. He presided over tax increases that would be out of the question for conservatives now, and he extended an amnesty to undocumented immigrants, a step no GOP candidate could contemplate today.
Reagan, though an anti-communist to his core, also recognized that sometimes it pays to talk to America’s enemies – seeing in Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev a man with whom he could hasten the end of the Cold War. While Republicans slam President Barack Obama for making concessions to Iran, it’s often forgotten that the Reagan administration sold arms to Tehran to win the release of hostages in Lebanon.
Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which hosts the annual CPAC conference that Reagan put on the map, said that Reagan deserves the plaudits and that his example is one that has important lessons for today’s would-be presidents.
“He deserves this lofty platform he is on, where people want to refer to him, they want to compare themselves to him. I think that is all positive,” Schlapp said.
“At this moment, we need a conservative who speaks not in pale pastels but bold colors,” Schlapp said, reprising a famous Reagan line from a 1975 CPAC speech on the need for the party to chart a clear contrast with Democrats.
Schlapp said Reagan’s success showed the potential for a modern conservative who “will be plain-spoken, be philosophically grounded, and also be reality-based in terms of what can get done.
“Part of it is convincing the American people they need to try a new path and part of it is being stubborn in pushing through your policy proposals,” he said.
Schaller said the movie star-turned-politician serves as a “magic talisman” for Republicans who portray his epoch as a time of simple truths compared with the scary complexity of issues, such as how to deal with ISIS, that vex today’s political leaders.
“You might say it is superficial, (but) the memory is of when America stood tall, Reagan looked good, inflation came down, the Cold War ended,” he said. “What was not to like? It makes things simple.”
Democrats less nostalgic for Reagan
While Democrats who don’t have fond memories of the Reagan administration would quarrel with the right’s nostalgia over his presidency, current Republican candidates revere it, and almost all have tried to attach themselves to his persona and memory.
On Saturday, Jeb Bush opened his shirt at a campaign event in Florida to reveal a 1984 Reagan-Bush T-shirt.
“That team took out the Soviet Union because we were strong and insistent. With Ronald Reagan our friends knew that we had their backs and our enemies feared us. And we were strong and resolute,” he said.
Bush is not the only candidate keen to draw personal connections to the Gipper.
For Marco Rubio, Reagan was a childhood hero.
“Those are very important years, fourth grade through high school – they were the years that formed so much of what today I believe and know to be true about the world and about our nation,” he said at the library in 2011.
Donald Trump also portrays himself as an heir to Reagan, saying the conservative pioneer’s repudiation of his long support for the Democratic Party also helps explain his own past dalliance with center-left politics.
Still, Michael Reagan, the former president’s son, told CNN this weekend that of all the 2016 Republican White House hopefuls, Trump is the least like his father.
Other candidates draw parallels between Reagan’s time and our own, using him as a political tool. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz believes America is cursed now, as then, by a “feckless, naive foreign policy” and a sense its power is waning in the world.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said “2015 reminds me of 1979” and, according to a report on NJ.com, recently named Reagan six times in a minute.
Sometimes, the Reagan fervor can stretch to questionable lengths.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker once said Reagan’s firing of striking air traffic controllers was “the most significant foreign policy decision” of his lifetime, because it sent a message to the rest of the world not to mess with the new U.S. president.
While no one doubts Reagan’s importance to the conservative movement, some political figures wonder whether the revolution that he spawned has changed to such an extent that he’d feel uncomfortable in the current Tea Party era.
“Reagan couldn’t have made it,” 1996 GOP nominee Bob Dole told Fox News Sunday in 2013 when asked whether the conservative icon would fit in today.
Jeb Bush, who has warned that Republican candidates must not so shackle themselves to conservative orthodoxy that they struggle to attract more moderate general election voters, has voiced similar concerns.
Reagan’s willingness to cut a deal
Critics of today’s absolutist GOP on Capitol Hill often point to Reagan’s willingness to make a deal that got him 80% of what he wanted – even if he had to give Democrats 20% of their wish list.
That contrasts with sectors of today’s conservative movement, which is in turmoil over a belief among the grassroots that leaders such as Mitch McConnell and John Boehner – who are seen as obstructionist by Democrats – have cooperated too much with Obama.
Still, the idea that Reagan would not make it in today’s Republican Party ignores two factors – his formidable political skills and his own history as a revolutionary conservative who transformed his party to the chagrin of party elites.
He’s often remembered now as affable. But he challenged sitting Republican president Gerald Ford in 1976. Twelve years earlier, the televised speech that launched Reagan as a national figure, for 1964 GOP nominee Barry Goldwater, remains the most eloquent blueprint for the enduring conservative values of small government, personal freedom and a hawkish foreign policy.
“This is the issue of this election: whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves,” he said then.
Such rhetoric leads Schlapp to scoff at the idea that Reagan would perish in today’s GOP.
“Anybody who thinks that if Ronald Reagan was alive today and in his prime that he wouldn’t be accepted by his Republican primary electorate, I would invite that person to run against him,” he said. “He would clean their clock.”