'Reformists' and 'Retros' Battle for the GOP

The Republican primary pits candidates who openly seek to update Reagan-era ideology against those who deny the extent to which they are revising it.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Reporters often divide the Republican presidential field into “establishment” candidates and “conservative” ones. Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Chris Christie fall into camp number one. Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, and Ben Carson fall into camp number two. Scott Walker may have a foot in each. Rand Paul stands closest to the second, even if his libertarian inclinations set him somewhat apart.

But listen carefully to Cruz’s announcement speech on Monday and it becomes clear there’s another way of splitting the field, which may more accurately capture the GOP’s internal divisions heading into 2016. Call it reformists versus retros.

Reformists start with the assumption that Reagan-era conservatism is out of date. It doesn’t appeal to minorities, to single women, to the young. It doesn’t account for the changing politics of gay marriage, marijuana legalization and criminal justice reform. It focuses too exclusively on economic growth at a time when economic growth isn’t benefitting the poor and working class. It tells Americans that government must get out of the way when even many Republican-leaning voters want government’s help.

Rand Paul is as bold as any reformist in the race. He says the police in Ferguson are overly militarized. He chides his party for making it harder for blacks to vote. He’s challenged the national security state at Berkeley. And he talks endlessly about the need to reach out to people with ponytails and tattoos.

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.

But if Walker and Cruz are running as paleo-Reaganites against neo-Reaganites like Paul, Bush, and Rubio, it’s worth noting that in hewing to a contemporary right-wing vision of who Reagan was, Walker and Cruz are modifying the Gipper, too. In his announcement speech, Cruz made his father’s embrace of Christianity the emotional climax of his personal story. “There are people who wonder if faith is real,” he declared. “I can tell you, in my family there’s not a second of doubt, because were it not for the transformative love of Jesus Christ, I would have been saved and I would have been raised by a single mom without my father in the household.” Walker talks frequently about being a minister’s son, and last year tweeted “Philippians 4:13” from his official governor’s account. The passage reads: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” In his 1979 announcement speech, by contrast, Reagan offered no personal testament of faith. In fact, he didn’t even utter the word “faith.” Nor did he utter the words “Christian” or “Jesus Christ.” In his announcement speech, Cruz vowed to abolish the IRS. Reagan’s didn’t even mention it.

No Republican presidential candidate can be fully faithful to Reagan. Both America and the GOP have changed too much in the intervening decades. The real argument between candidates like Bush and Paul and candidates like Walker and Cruz is less about whether to modify Reagan than whether to admit that they are doing so. It’s between recognizing that today’s challenges require this crop of GOP presidential candidates to think for themselves, and pretending that they don’t.