In Vietnam as a POW, John McCain and his fellow prisoners were cheered by the news that Ronald and Nancy Reagan were constantly advocating for more freedom for the prisoners:
In 1971, the North Vietnamese moved us from these conditions of isolation into large rooms with as many as 30 to 40 men to a room. This was, as you can imagine, a wonderful change, and a direct result of the efforts of millions of Americans, led by people like Nancy and Ronald Reagan, on behalf of a few hundred POWs, 10,000 miles from home.
In his stump speech, McCain calls himself a Reagan Republican and admiringly notes that in 1987 Reagan vetoed a highway bill because it was larded with an excess of pork barrel projects, or “earmarks.” There were barely 100 earmarks—a mere salting by today’s standards, but that was too many for Reagan.
More compellingly, McCain counts Nancy Reagan as a close friend. In his presidential announcement speech, he mentioned Ronald Reagan ten times, and used Reagan to send a message to conservatives who don’t like him: “Let's invite a genuine contest of ideas within our party and with the other party, for conservatism, as Ronald Reagan told us, is not a narrow ideology.” And on Reagan’s birthday earlier this year, McCain e-mailed tens of thousands of Republicans with of a picture of himself and the former president. The implication: Reagan’s tacit, beyond-the-grave blessing has been conferred on McCain.
The anti-Reaganesque knock on McCain is that his instincts are not libertarian; he courts establishment culture and craves its approval. And he violates Reagan’s famed 11th Commandment, which prohibits Republicans from speaking ill of each other. But, generally, McCain can pull it off.
The peril of Reagan comparisons, either implicit or explicit, can be greater for some candidates. Comparing oneself to Reagan is less likely to elevate one’s own Reaganesque attributes than to invite invidious and memorable comparisons from one’s opponents and the media—courting the conclusion that one is barely like Reagan at all.
Mitt Romney ran into this problem early on. To conservatives at a National Review dinner, he allowed that he had changed his position on abortion, and that he had not always been a Reagan conservative. (In fact, in 1994, he asserted, proudly, that he had been an independent during the Reagan years.)
Even Ronald Reagan, Romney averred, had not always been a Reagan conservative. He too, had changed his position on abortion. Reagan “learned with experience,” Romney said.
So—Romney compared himself to Reagan by qualifying Reagan’s "Reagan" essence. That’s hard for Reagan admirers to swallow. Romney also missed the historical point: Mr. Reagan became pro-life against the consensus of his party, and did so years before he was elected president.
Two weeks ago, Romney was honored at something called the Frontiers of Freedom Ronald Reagan Gala in Virginia. Many of its sponsors were campaign supporters, but no matter. He began by saying it was an “honor” to be “associated in a small way with the legacy of President Reagan who fought tirelessly to lift the nation.” But he was fairly circumspect and, to my ears, doesn’t talk about Reagan as much as he used to.