Ronald Reagan Is a GOP Icon, But Would He Win the 2016 Nomination?
Ronald Reagan cultivated his image as a Western cowboy, a John Wayne-type common-sense, no-nonsense guy, as seen in this poster in the Reagan Library. (Scott Shafer/KQED)
Here’s a drinking-game idea for next week’s debate among the 15 Republican candidates for president at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley: Every time Trump, Bush, Carson and others mention Reagan’s name, down a shot. Just be sure you don’t have to drive afterward, because unless you can really hold your liquor, you’ll be a little bit blitzed.
Reagan, of course, is the GOP’s modern-day icon (Sorry, Abe -- you had your time). And he’s regularly near the top of polls asking Americans to name the greatest U.S. president.
At the Reagan Library this week, CNN was building a multimillion-dollar stage next to Air Force One -- the retired presidential plane on exhibit there. As schoolkids and adult visitors streamed in, Jim Hicks from Riverside County was posing for a photo next to a statue of Reagan holding a cowboy hat.
I asked him to name the first thing that comes to mind when he thinks of Ronald Reagan.
“First thing?” he echoes. “Well, that he was the staunch Republican -- conservative Republican. Staunch on military and smaller government.”
That’s a typical answer visitors to the library give me. Over a quarter-century since Ronald Reagan left the White House, no person is more beloved -- and invoked -- by Republicans.
“His philosophy is really at the core of what Republicans think today and what I think they believe is important for tomorrow,” says John Heubusch, executive director of the Ronald Reagan Foundation and Library.
“I think the name of Ronald Reagan gets invoked because people understand his popularity and just what a positive force he was for the country," he says. "And they want to identify with it themselves.”
Reagan, his image-makers and speechwriters did an outstanding job cementing his reputation for tough talk -- at home and abroad. It started on Day One of his presidency, when he inherited extraordinarily high unemployment, inflation and interest rates.
At his first inaugural address in 1981 Reagan said, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.”
On that day, the newly minted 40th president repeated conservative themes from his campaign -- promising lower tax rates and less government spending at home and a stronger military presence abroad.
In his eight years as president, Reagan did and said the kinds of things that many Republicans running for president today vigorously criticize.
In 1986 he signed the Simpson-Mazzoli Immigration and Reform Act. At a time when the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now ICE) estimated there were some 4 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally, Reagan signed the bill to make them legal.
“I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though some time back they may have entered illegally,” Reagan said at the time. Forget about a “path to citizenship.” He called it amnesty straight out.
At the recent Republican debate on Fox TV, Donald Trump, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and others argued over who opposed amnesty the most.
“We need to build a wall -- and it has to be built quickly,” blustered Trump.
“A majority of the candidates on this stage have supported amnesty,” shouted Cruz at the time buzzer sounded. “I have never supported amnesty.”
That’s a bit out of sync with what Reagan did, but on immigration, Reagan Library director Heubusch says the president was duped.
“The immigration proponents got what they wanted -- amnesty -- but President Reagan and his cabinet didn’t get what they wanted, which was security of the border,” Heubusch says. “ So now people are particularly sensitive to the topic.”
And if The Gipper got taken on immigration, he may have made the same mistake on taxes. Reagan did slash the top income tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent -- but he also agreed to raise taxes numerous times.
“I talked to him about that at one point,” says former Reagan speechwriter Ken Khachigian by phone this week. “I think he felt he was misled.
“He thought he was going to get $3 of budget cuts for every dollar of tax increase,” Khachigian adds. “Instead, for every dollar of tax increase he got $1.30 or $1.40 of budget increases, so he felt he was sort of taken on that one.”
But there's more. Reagan supported the Brady Gun Control Law after his near-assassination. And his administration held secret talks with Iran. (Remember the Iran-Contra scandal?)
And during his presidency, the national debt more than doubled -- and Reagan agreed to raise the government debt ceiling over and over again.
Compare that with today, when Republicans use the issue of raising the debt ceiling to threaten shutting down the government -- as they did twice when Bill Clinton was president and once so far under President Obama.
That would never have happened with Ronald Reagan in charge, according to Willie Brown, who served in the State Assembly for Reagan's eight years as governor.
Brown says that Reagan was generally not an ideologue.
“Reagan was an interesting character in that he was totally practical,” Brown reminisced in his office recently. “He was a dealmaker, period, within the context of this democracy.”
Brown also recalled Governor Reagan signing a bill that liberalized access to abortions in California (another regret, Reagan later said).
“I mean there's just a whole series of things Reagan did -- nobody mentions those things," Brown says. “Seventy percent of the people got no idea what the Reagan years were really like.”
So what's going on? Why do today's Republicans now rail against some of the very same things their hero did three decades ago, like amnesty for illegal immigrants?
“So Republicans come at this issue (immigration reform) in a much different way than they did in the 1980s, just as Democrats come at the issue of trade or welfare reform, for example, in a much different way than they did when Bill Clinton was president,” Schnur says.
Democrats and Republicans he adds, remember history in a way to preserve the image of their political heroes -- until they find new ones.
“No question both parties are continuously, constantly searching for their next Reagan, for their next Kennedy, for their next seminal leader,” Schnur says. “There’s no question Republicans would benefit from finding their next Reagan, just like Democrats would benefit from finding another Kennedy.”
Republican political consultant Stuart Spencer's relationship with Reagan goes back to his first campaign for governor of California. Reached at his home near Palm Springs, Spencer, now 88, said none of the current crop of candidates reminds him of Reagan.
And as for invoking Reagan's name in the debate, Spencer has some advice.
"They're not Ronald Reagan, they should run as who they are," Spencer said. "They got strengths, they got weaknesses, and they gotta deal to their strengths. And go out and do the best job they can do, and not imitate Ronald Reagan."
But standing on that stage at the Reagan Library next week, how many of those Republican candidates will really be able to resist comparing themselves with the guy who rode off into the political sunset 26 years ago?