The Republican contenders for the position of US president have something in common: each of them is the most similar to Ronald Reagan.
At a debate sponsored by CNN last September, the candidates invoked Reagan’s name no less than 38 times. God followed with 10 mentions. Of course, the event was held on sacred ground, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California.
It is not hard to understand why Reagan has become the chief icon of the American right. His landslide victory over Jimmy Carter 35 years ago ended the era of liberal dominance that started with the New Deal and began the modern conservative era. Reagan is the most successful postwar president and the most beloved Republican other than Abraham Lincoln. His ideas about cutting taxes, reducing government and maintaining strong defences remain that unassailable core of contemporary conservative ideology. What’s more, he taught his party how to win — by subordinating its internal disagreements and uniting around an effective leader.
But do the candidates who stand a chance of winning the Republican nomination have anything in common with their idol? One might argue that Donald Trump represents the culmination of the merger of celebrity and politics that began when Reagan gave up movies and ran for governor of California in 1966. Mr Trump, too, is a professional entertainer whom few took seriously as a politician until it became impossible not to.
On Mr Trump’s signature issue of immigration, however, his views are diametrically opposed to those of Reagan. “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though sometime back they may have entered illegally,” Reagan said in a 1984 debate. His most famous speech called for tearing down a wall, not building one, as Mr Trump wishes to do. As a resident of southern California, Reagan tended to view a porous border with Mexico as an economic necessity. In terms of personality, he couldn’t have been less like Mr Trump, a boastful, sarcastic bully. Reagan was modest, had genuine wit and radiated kindness.
The candidate running behind Mr Trump in national polls, Ted Cruz, Texas senator, invokes Reagan’s name more than any other. And here one can see a facile comparison: Mr Cruz styles himself a man of unbending conservative principle, particularly when it comes to shrinking government. A couple of years ago, he staged a 21-hour filibuster to protest against funding President Barack Obama’s healthcare law.
But Mr Cruz’s approach of making enemies even in his own party to prove his ideological integrity is the opposite of his hero’s. Reagan was a pragmatist who befriended political antagonists such as Tip O’Neill, the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, and was always prepared to compromise to advance his agenda. “Anytime I can get 70 per cent of what I’m asking for out of a hostile legislative body, I’ll take it,” he once told an aide. Mr Cruz likes to accuse colleagues in his own party of appeasement and cowardice. Reagan popularised the “11th commandment”: Thou Shalt Not Attack a Fellow Republican.
For a candidate who displays something of Reagan’s pragmatism and flexibility, one might think about Jeb Bush, who is stuck near the back of the Republican pack. Here there is less of a gap in views, reminding us that Reagan would be something of a moderate, if not too far left, for today’s party. But Mr Bush, too, seems entirely unlike Reagan in temperament. He has nothing of the 40th president’s infectious faith in the future. Like his father, Jeb Bush likes the substantive work of governing, but is barely able to disguise his grimace at the numbing rituals of campaigning. For Reagan, by contrast, there was little difference between running and governing. Both were about selling his ideas, something he always took pleasure in.
The only Republican who seems to share an element of Reagan’s style is Marco Rubio, whose optimism seems less forced, and would prove perhaps the most electable against Hillary Clinton. Where he falls short of Reagan’s example is in the difficulty he has had getting away with flip-flops and contradictory stances on issues such as immigration and education standards. Reagan used his more advanced age and avuncular fogginess to good effect, leaving the messy details to others. At 44, Mr Rubio cannot get away with that.
Of course, Reagan himself was hardly the Reagan of Republican mythology. He pushed a big tax cut through Congress in 1981 — but raised taxes nearly every other year to mitigate the deficits he unleashed. His role in the peaceful conclusion of the cold war probably owed more to his desire for dialogue with the Soviets and his second-term embrace of nuclear disarmament than the military build-up and hawkish policies of his first term. After nearly dying from an assassin’s bullet, he supported handgun control, another anathema to the contemporary rightwing. Today’s Republican party ignores Reagan the pragmatist and improviser, preferring the image of an unbending conservative ideologue who never really existed.
Jacob Weisberg is chairman of the Slate Group and author of ‘Ronald Reagan’