Neither Gingrich Nor Romney Has Much Claim on Ronald Reagan

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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.

But while Gingrich spent much of the 1980s pushing the GOP rightward and attacking the president when he tacked toward the center, the hard conservative pose was a new one for the Georgian. Reagan was of course the political progeny of Barry Goldwater. Gingrich recently suggested he'd supported the Arizona senator during his ill-fated 1964 presidential campaign, and while that might be true, it's established fact that four years later, he was southern regional director for Nelson Rockefeller, the man ran against Goldwater in 1964 and whose name has become synonymous with moderate, East Coast Republicanism; he said in 1989 that he'd spent "most of [his] life" in that more centrist wing. Ed Kilgore reported last March that during Gingrich's first two (unsuccessful) runs for the House, he actually attacked the Democratic incumbent from the left, before moving right in time for his victory in the 1978 race.

(In the same 1989 interview, Gingrich blasted Reagan's handling of the black vote. "One of the gravest mistakes the Reagan administration made was its failure to lead aggressively in civil rights," Gingrich said. "It cost the Republican Party. It helped cost us control of the Senate in 1986.")

Recently, of course, the former speaker's attacks on Romney's work at Bain Capital have raised the eyebrows of conservative critics upset that Gingrich is attacking his rival from the left.

On the other hand, the Gingrich campaign is promoting a Nancy Reagan statement from 1995 -- it might not be direct from the Gipper, but is the next best thing:

The dramatic movement of 1995 is an outgrowth of a much earlier crusade that goes back half a century. Barry Goldwater handed the torch to Ronnie, and in turn Ronnie turned that torch over to Newt and the Republican members of Congress to keep that dream alive.

It's hard to imagine, furthermore, that this is a winning battle for Romney, and not just because of his reputation as a moderate. Because he was working in the private sector in the 1980s, he didn't have the chance to work with (or against) Reagan, but during a debate against Sen. Ted Kennedy in 1994, then-Senate candidate Romney disavowed the former president is fairly clear terms. "Look, I was an independent during the time of Reagan-Bush," he said. "I'm not trying to return to Reagan-Bush."

The irony in this fight over Reagan's legacy is that -- as Andrew Romano explained in Newsweek two years ago -- the real man wasn't as doctrinaire nor as conservative as partisans on both sides remember him (a fact Gingrich's many attacks from the right above demonstrate). So the Republican race has turned into a contest between two candidates who used to be to the left of Ronald Reagan attempting to represent a party that has since moved to the Gipper's right.

Images: Reuters

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David A. Graham

David 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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