Is Reagan Good for the Republicans' Future?

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When the field of Republican presidential hopefuls gathers at the Reagan Library for Wednesday’s nationally televised debate, two things are certain: 17 Republicans will pay their respects at the gravesite of America’s 40th president, followed by the same 16 men and one woman all trying to be, well, Ronald Reagan.

Such is the burden for Republicans in 2015. Reagan, though out of office since 1989 and deceased since 2004, endures as the high bar his GOP successors hope to clear: confident, optimistic, good-natured and principled – all with a flair for the theatrical.

Yet in the quarter-century since Reagan left the national stage, no Republican has managed to clear that bar, much less replace the man as the party’s avatar. In 2015, movement conservatives discount the two Bush presidencies and the failed presidential campaigns of Bob Dole, John McCain and Mitt Romney much the same way an ex-spouse writes off a failed marriage: some good moments, but heartbreak in the end.

Rest assured that Reagan’s name will come up often in the building that’s a shrine to his life and times (five candidates referenced him during the course of the two Cleveland debates, vs. just one mention of Abraham Lincoln). And maybe it’s not such a good thing that a party looking to adapt its brand image to a changing 21st century electorate is so dependent upon the most influential conservative Republican of the 20th century.

Here’s why.

First, as concerns the presidency, 2016 is a non-incumbent “change” election. Voters in such past contests have tended to prefer a fresh face with a fresh approach. That means both a premium on authenticity and avoiding mimicry. Dole stumbled into this ditch in 1996 (“I’ll be anything you want me to be; I’ll be Ronald Reagan if that’s what you want”). So too did Romney, in characterizing his Massachusetts gubernatorial record as “severely conservative” – “severe” being a word one associates with for migraines and thunderstorms, not a Reaganesque approach to governing.

The second Reagan-related problem: generational disconnect.

Ronald Reagan last ran for office in 1984; those 18-year-olds who cast their first ballot for “Morning in America” will turn 50 next year. According to the 2012 U.S. Census, nearly 102 million Americans were age 50 or older three years ago. Politically, they came of age in the Age of Reagan. However, another 103 million Americans in 2012 fell between the ages of 20-45. They’re too young to have voted for Reagan. Where’s the sense in 2016 candidates reciting the greatest hits of the 1980s – firing air-traffic controllers, staring down the Soviets – for a demographic that likely wasn’t paying attention?

For years, Democrats labored under the same challenge of hero-replacement as today’s Republicans. Their avatar: John F. Kennedy. From 1964 to 1992, no post-Camelot Democratic nominee could match JFK for charm, rhetorical firepower or ease in front of a camera (the same assets that served Reagan so well).

A cartoon that ran on the op-ed pages of The Washington Post – ironically, during Reagan’s presidency – underscored the point. “Washingtoon” lampooned the activities of Congressman Bob Forehead, aka “Chairman of the JFK-Look-Alike Caucus.”

How’d the Democrats fill their JFK void? Credit Bill Clinton. In 1992, he embraced the 35th president (you might remember the commercials showing the two shaking hands) yet evinced policies that made Clinton a unique Democratic brand (welfare reform, free trade, capital punishment). In 2008, Barack Obama repeated the formula, accepting the endorsements of Edward and Caroline Kennedy and their living links to Camelot, all the while calling for new directions in domestic and foreign policy.

Here’s a suggestion for the Republicans taking the stage on Wednesday. In the Reagan Library, it’s entirely appropriate to laud the great man for his service and his accomplishments (just don’t overdo it by proposing a place for Reagan on Mount Rushmore or the $50 bill). But like Reagan and his political journey from Trumanite to Thatcherite, dare to show evolved thought. Be bold enough to take the GOP in directions beyond its present conservative straightjacket – i.e., like Bill Clinton in 1992, defy Republican stereotypes.

The winner of this debate? That would be the Republican who wins one for the Gipper – by doing his or her best to avoid coming across as a pale imitation of Ronald Reagan. 

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow who follows California and national politics. He can be reached at whalenoped@gmail.com.

 

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