In more cautious ways, Jeb Bush is a reformist, too. He supports comprehensive immigration reform. He reaches out to Latinos in Spanish in a way conservatives might once have derided as identity politics. He focuses his economic message on helping the poor rise. He hires gay and pro-gay staff.
Marco Rubio is likewise a reformist. He designs “federal wage enhancements” to bolster poor Americans’ incomes. Like Jeb, he supports comprehensive immigration reform, and he makes expanding the Republican tent a central part of his campaign pitch.
But while many GOP elites support these efforts, it’s less clear that party activists actually want to see conservatism reformed. And that creates a constituency for “retro” candidates: candidates who seek less to update Reagan than to mimic him.
Scott Walker is one such candidate. Walker not only opposes comprehensive immigration reform. His breakout speech in January to the Iowa Freedom Summit didn’t even include a nod to the blessings of legal immigration. Instead of reaching out to minorities, he brags about Wisconsin’s voter-ID law, which many African American and Latino activists see as racist. And while Jeb speaks bluntly about the class divide, declaring that “while the last eight years have been pretty good ones for top earners, they’ve been a lost decade for the rest of America,” Walker declares—with Reaganesque sunniness and Reaganesque imperviousness to the facts—that “in America, the opportunity is equal for each and every one of us.”
As his announcement yesterday makes clear, Cruz is in the retro camp too. Unlike Paul, who delights in speaking before non-Republican crowds, Cruz launched his campaign in the hardest of hard-right bastions: Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. Despite being the son of a Cuban father, he made no overture to Latinos. He said nothing about America’s eroding income mobility, its escalating income equality or the special challenges of the poor. And his account of the great struggles in American history included the Revolutionary War, the Great Depression, World War II, and Reagan’s 1981 tax cut—but not the Civil War. Despite calling school choice “the civil-rights issue of the next generation,” he didn’t mention the civil-rights movement itself.
Like Walker, who recently noted that he felt a “shiver” upon touching the Reagan family bible and boasts that his wedding anniversary falls on Reagan’s birthday, Cruz is trying to stick as close to Reagan as he possibly can. He’s said “I’ll go to my grave with Ronald Wilson Reagan defining what it means to be president.” And the video he released to coincide with his campaign launch, which featured rolling fields and countless American flags, clearly aimed to evoke Reagan’s iconic “Morning in America” ad. In fact, when I showed Cruz’s video to my students, two of them shrewdly noted that it did not contain a single image unique to the 21st century.