THE BIG IDEA:
— Every Republican wants to be the next Reagan. When the Republican candidates debate at Ronald Reagan’s presidential library tomorrow night, each will try to present himself as a natural heir to the 40th president’s legacy. The shadow of his Air Force One will literally hang over the field.
Philip Rucker and I have a story on the front page of today’s print edition about how Reagan influenced each of the 2016 contenders. We interviewed Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Scott Walker, John Kasich, Bobby Jindal and others about how the Gipper shaped their world views and approach to governing.
For someone like Kasich, elected to the House in 1982, there was a personal relationship. But most of this year’s crop of candidates came of age politically during the Reagan administration: Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio were both nine-years-old when Reagan got elected. Walker, who became a teenager two days before the 1980 election, fondly recalls watching the Republican National Convention in 1976 (when Reagan nearly toppled an incumbent president). Carson talked about voting for Jimmy Carter in 1980 but deciding to back Reagan’s 1984 reelection after listening to him speak. Trump embraced Reagan and reconciled his hardline on immigration with Reagan’s more tolerant view as a western, border-state governor.
Jeb Bush would much rather talk about the Gipper than his brother, even though he campaigned vigorously against Reagan during the 1980 GOP primaries and his father awkwardly distanced himself from Reagan in order to get elected in 1988 (the president’s popularity was sagging in the wake of Iran-Contra). Jeb has an op-ed in today’s Orange County Register calling his tax-reform plan “Reagan inspired,” promising to “lead in the Reagan spirit” if elected. Opening a campaign office in Coral Gables on Saturday, he wore a Reagan-Bush t-shirt from 1984.
candidates either ignore or forget that Reagan, despite leading a conservative political revolution, committed several apostasies that would be anathema, perhaps even disqualifying, to today’s GOP activists.
He signed a law granting amnesty to 3 million undocumented immigrants, worked with Democrats (who controlled at least one chamber of Congress all eight years of his presidency), expanded Medicaid for the poor and denounced the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” while still negotiating with its leaders. Though he cut the top marginal tax rate from 70 to 28 percent, he agreed to raise taxes at various points as both governor and president. During a time when the politics were very different, before Roe vs. Wade, he signed one of the country’s most liberal abortion laws in California. (He later said he regretted that.)
— The way that the candidates talk about Reagan in Simi Valley will highlight continuing tension between the pragmatists and the ideologues over what it means to be a Reagan Republican. This conflict dates back to Reagan’s time in the White House. In reality, Reagan was both. He was a true outsider whose consequential tenure realigned the political order. But he also liked to tell staff that he’d rather get 80 percent of what he wants than go off the cliff flying his flag.
“The problem they’re all dealing with in using Reagan is that there are really two Reagans: there’s Reagan the candidate and then Reagan the president,” said H.W. Brands, the University of Texas historian who came out with a well-regarded, 816-page biography this spring. “Reagan the candidate was an orator – a speechmaker who was 100 percent consistent with their conservative philosophy. There’s hardly a thing that Reagan said in a speech that the most zealous tea party supporter would disagree with. But then as president, Reagan showed a strong pragmatic streak. The point of getting elected was to govern, not simply to score political points.”
As a result of this dichotomy, Reagan has become a Rorschach test. He is whatever you want him to be. That’s why President Obama often cites him in speeches, and all of the Republicans will drop his name tomorrow night.