Neither Gingrich Nor Romney Has Much Claim on Ronald Reagan

Two candidates who used to be to the left of Ronald Reagan are vying to represent a party that has since moved to the Gipper's right.

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The Reagan Wars are finally underway, and Newt Gingrich is getting called on his shamelessly frequent dropping of the Gipper's name. It makes sense for the candidates -- none of whom has been able to make the Republican base fall in love with them -- to make such a nostalgia appeal, but there are risks to it for both frontrunners.

As Jeffrey Goldberg noted Wednesday, former Reagan assistant secretary of state Elliott Abrams lashed out at Gingrich in National Review: "He voted with the caucus, but his words should be remembered, for at the height of the bitter struggle with the Democratic leadership Gingrich chose to attack... Reagan." Meanwhile, the Restore Our Future PAC, run by a former close aide to Romney, has released an ad that features a quote from the former president attacking Gingrich and noting (rather pettily) that he only appears once in Reagan's diaries.

There's some truth to these attacks. A quick swing through news archives shows how often he criticized the president. Abrams highlighted this quote from 1986: "Measured against the scale and momentum of the Soviet empire's challenge, the Reagan administration has failed, is failing, and without a dramatic change in strategy will continue to fail.... President Reagan is clearly failing." He also cited Gingrich calling Reagan's 1985 summit meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev "the most dangerous summit for the West since Adolf Hitler met with Neville Chamberlain in 1938 in Munich."

That's just a start. Here are a few selections from the vault, which seem more meaningful than scanning the index of Reagan's diaries:

  • In 1982, he was furious at Reagan for agreeing to tax increases. "As recently as April, he said, 'I wasn't sent to Washington to raise taxes.' Now he's going on television to explain why he didn't mean it."
  • That same year, White House adviser Lynn Nofziger charged that Rep. Jack Kemp, the leader of a guerrilla band of House conservatives, was "hurting the president and the presidency." A gleeful Gingrich retorted, "If Kemp went to Argentina tomorrow, we the rebels would go on." He also said, "Maybe they can beat us by the sheer weight of the White House, but they do so at the cost of Reagan's natural base."
  • Also in 1982, Gingrich found himself writing a handwritten apology to White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker, after he blasted Baker for harming Republican chances at the polls in that year's midterm elections.
  • Here he is in 1985, complaining that Reagan's tax plan was much too far left: "The secretary of the treasury decided to make an alliance with a Chicago Democrat, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, in effect pitting the president of the United States against the very people who gave him a 49-state victory."
  • Gingrich in 1987, commenting on Reagan's spending plan: He "is now making, domestically, the biggest mistake of his second term."
  • In 1987, after Robert Bork's Supreme Court nomination was defeated and nominee Douglas Ginsburg was forced to withdraw over revelations that he had used marijuana in the past, Gingrich blasted the Reagan administration: "We currently have no strategy, and we're looking dumb."
  • Gingrich on the Iran-Contra Affair: "He will never again be the Reagan that he was before he blew it. He is not going to regain our trust and our faith easily."

Gingrich spent much of the 1980s dispensing effusive praise for a supply-sider GOP presidential nominee of the decade. Here's one quote:"the most important Republican since Theodore Roosevelt, the first Republican in modern times to show that it is possible to be both hopeful and conservative at once." Damningly, however, he wasn't talking about Reagan: he was referring to his friend and House colleague Jack Kemp.

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David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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