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“Struggling To Justify A Heresy”: Are Republicans Falling Out Of Love With Ronald Reagan?

The first big Republican presidential primary debate defied expectations in any number of ways. But one of the most surprising things may have been that only five of the 10 candidates invoked the memory of that most sainted Republican, that giant among dwarves, that demigod among mortals, America’s greatest president and a man who walked the Earth without sin. I speak, of course, of Ronald Reagan.

How on Earth did the other five candidates forget to speak his name and clothe themselves in his holy memory?

In the “undercard” debate that took place hours before the main event, the ratio was a bit better — four of the seven candidates invoked Reagan. But the trend still held. Could it be that the power of invoking Reagan is beginning to fade — even if only a bit?

Consider that, with the exception of Donald Trump, the Republican candidates who mentioned Reagan in the prime-time debate — Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, and John Kasich — are all stuck in single digits, as are all the candidates from the undercard. Furthermore, many of the mentions came when a candidate was struggling to justify a heresy, as if to say, “Please don’t be too angry with me about this, because Reagan did it too.”

Defending his switch from pro-choice to pro-life, Trump said, “Ronald Reagan evolved on many issues.” Paul, explaining why he’s not the hawk other Republicans are, said, “I’m a Reagan conservative. Reagan did negotiate with the Soviets.” And Kasich explained his support of the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid by saying, “President Reagan expanded Medicaid three or four times.” Only Cruz offered a good old-fashioned song of praise, when he said with a stirring voice and passion in his eyes, “It is worth emphasizing that Iran released our hostages in 1981 the day Ronald Reagan was sworn into office.” (I won’t bother going over the history of that event, except to say that it didn’t happen because the Iranians were so terrified of Reagan’s steely resolve.)

In a group of people who worship Reagan, maybe there’s little to be gained by reiterating your love for him; it would be like a cardinal saying he ought to be pope because he is in fact a Catholic. Or maybe it’s that a full quarter-century after Reagan left office, even Republicans have a somewhat more realistic view of his presidency than they used to.

I’d like to think that if the importance of Reagan as a totem is fading, it has at least something to do with liberals like me, even if that seems a little far-fetched. We have spent a lot of time not only mocking Republicans for their worship of Reagan, but also pointing out that he was a far more complicated president than they claim. His record even includes a number of decisions that today look downright liberal. He did indeed negotiate with the Soviets (to the dismay of many Republican hard-liners at the time), he raised taxes repeatedly, the deficit ballooned on his watch, and instead of setting out to destroy government entitlements, he partnered with liberals to save Social Security in 1983 (more details can be found here).

That isn’t to say that Reagan wasn’t a strong conservative, because he was. But he was president in another era, when being a Republican meant something rather different than it does today.

Up until the last few years, you could be a Republican in good standing while still being pragmatic. But today’s Republican Party isn’t just more conservative on policy, it has become doctrinaire in a way it didn’t used to be. Compromise itself — regardless of the context or the content — is now held by all right-thinking Republicans to be inherently evil. Far too much is made of Reagan’s alleged friendship with Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill, but it’s true that Reagan could be friendly with his political opponents. Today, every Republican has to express a deep and intense loathing for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton if they hope to win their party’s favor. The Tea Party essentially took over the GOP after Obama’s election, forcing everyone in the party to prove again and again that their hearts are pure and they’d rather lose everything than willingly give an inch on anything. Entire organizations now exist to police elected Republicans for signs of heresy, and punish those who fail to measure up.

So maybe that’s why you now hear Reagan invoked mostly defensively. The one who does it knows that he has transgressed, and hopes that the aura of Saint Ronnie will cleanse him of his sins and bring him before the primary electorate clean and unsullied. But it doesn’t seem to work — Republicans are vigilant for even the faintest whiff of impurity, and no amount of Reagan-invocation will distract them once they’ve caught the scent. If that’s true, we might hear his name spoken less and less often as time goes on.


By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Week, August 10, 2015

August 11, 2015 - Posted by | Conservatives, GOP Primary Debates, Ronald Reagan | , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. Reagan was complicated doing good things and not so good things. On the downside the data supports the widening disparity in income is traceable to his watch . Yet, more jobs were created on his watch than other Republican trailing only Clinton and FDR. On the downside is the Iran-Contra affair, while he deserves kudos for the Berlin Wall ad lib that helped cause its fall.


    Comment by btg5885 | August 11, 2015 | Reply

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