The Perils of Reagan Republicanism

Candidates who invoke the spirit of Reagan may live to regret it

A fetish for Ronald Reagan is a common quirk among the Republican presidential candidates. But invoking Reagan as a totem in one’s campaign isn’t always savvy.

The benefits seem concrete enough. Reagan was the last popular Republican president; he united the party; he inspired good feelings in all but the most partisan of his detractors; he was deified after he left office, and to Republicans he looks much better than anything they’ve produced since.

Today, many Republicans are embarrassed to be Republicans: the 109th Congress, Katrina, President Bush, Iraq, surveillance, social moralism, Democratic victories, bloated government, pork—the whole rigmarole. Their wilderness is much like the hot desert that greeted the Democratic Party after the Vietnam War and the cultural fracture of the 1960s.

It’s the idea of Reagan that’s attractive today—just as it’s the idea of Barack Obama that’s irresistible to Democrats who worry about his experience.  Reagan confronted a rootless enemy and "won." He needled Democrats and liberals, and his political team gleefully exploited that party's widening fissures. The modern Republican Party fused its manifold factions and began to grow and expand, filling in much of the contested middle ground between the two parties. Republicans under Reagan found that history had a direction, that America could fulfill its twin destinies: it could be a shining city upon a hill—and still lower its taxes!

So with the frame of the 2008 presidential race in view, what is a Reagan Republican?

I asked Republican activist Grover Norquist, the man behind the Reagan Legacy Project—an organization dedicated to renaming prominent landmarks after Reagan. He e-mailed me a few thoughts.

“Reagan is the new Lincoln,” Norquist wrote. “He defines the modern Republican party.” The principles of Reagan, he explained, are the principles of the ideal Republican party:

Lower taxes.

Limited Government

Strong military that you don’t use promiscuously.

Less regulation.

That’s one way to look at it.

David Brooks, in his Sunday New York Times column, finds this hagiography "simplistic." He believes the candidates are projecting onto Reagan a closet full of "rigid" attributes that ignore Reagan's fundamental policy flexibility, his imagination, his crowd-pleasing interpretation of his times.  Reagan fit the times. He was aspirational and inspirational.

None of these guys except for Fred Thompson is an actor who fits the part, actually, although Romney, with his Reaganesque hair, looks like Reagan from a distance.

Rudy Giuliani, a Reagan Justice department appointee, certainly qualifies for consideration here; he led the country's spiritual recovery after 9/11, but he has yet to make Republicans, aside from a few authors and columnists, feel proud to be Republicans.  Like Reagan, though, Giuliani has an indelible connection to the evil of our time; one of the reasons evangelical Christians  are drawn to him is because the war on terror has a religious and even eschatological dimension. This isn't a joke, and the debate over earthly measures—terrorist surveillance programs and the like—are irrelevant to these voters.

There's a difference, though. Reagan may have been a premillennialist, and that may have drawn the bright lines of his belief against the evil of the Soviet Union, but he negotiated with Mikhail Gorbachev and allowed the Shah of Iran to die a dignified death in the U.S. over the objection of most conservatives.  On terror, Giuliani brooks no such nuance, and Mitt Romney went so far as to deny a former Iranian president a security detail, under the logic that a man associated with such a country does not deserve the dignity of his life, even in the United States. Occasionally, Reagan worked against type: in 1968, California put to voters a proposition to ban gays from becoming teachers. Reagan campaigned against it. He wasn’t pro-gay; he was pro-privacy.

I asked Craig Shirley, a Republican consultant and historian, and the author of a forthcoming book about Reagan's 1980 election, to tell me what he thinks the current Republican field is missing about Reagan. He responded:

That quality which they seek but cannot find is because they don’t understand it. Reagan’s essential quality was a belief in the future via his sunny optimism.  He was not interested in polling data or focus groups.  He did not talk about the “politics of politics.” He barely knew most of his staff.

Shirley continued, “Reagan was about the expansion of freedom and they are about the expansion of power; two totally opposing views of the world.”

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.

Of course, Romney can legitimately claim Reagan as a model and a political hero today. But he is not a Reagan Republican:  when it counted—during Reagan’s presidency—he rejected that label. The more he claims that identity now, the more he has to fight for it.

On a broader level, Republicans who try to use Reagan to guide their thinking on policy fall victim to an historical fallacy at the heart of any attempt to use Reagan to guide policy today. The war on Islamic terrorism is simply not the Cold War, but Republicans often invoke the analogy when they want to challenge Democratic policies on defense and national security. The more one tries to model an election on a president who left office nearly 20 years ago, the fewer corners one can  actually see around.

And the politics have changed, too: Reagan-era battles about the size of government have put Republicans on the defensive today. Voters now see Republicans as the profligate party, not the Democrats.

Moreover, the qualities that contributed to Reagan’s global leadership skills might not be relevant today either. George W. Bush is principled, uncurious and resolute; even some of his closest friends believe he is convinced his policies are sanctioned by God.  But over the past few years, several of the Republicans now running for president say that a more subtle approach to the world might have helped.