ATLANTA (AP) — Jeb Bush calls his tax-cut plan “Reagan-inspired.” Scott Walker says “the greatest foreign policy president … was a governor from California.” Ted Cruz pitches himself as the leader for a new “Reagan revolution.”
Donald Trump makes time for Ronald Reagan, too, alluding to the 40th president’s support of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal as a defense for his own conservative makeover after years of taking liberal positions.
Even if Wednesday night’s Republican debate weren’t taking place at the Reagan Presidential Library outside Los Angeles, some of the candidates taking part would be likely to mention the GOP hero. And, standing on a stage in front of the giant Boeing 707 that flew as Reagan’s Air Force One, comparing themselves to their party icon was even harder to resist.
Yet amid that scramble to claim Reagan’s legacy, the 2016 candidates sometimes obscure the actual record of the man who won two landslide elections a generation ago.
Reagan was a champion of cutting taxes, but he also raised them. He called the Soviet Union “the evil empire” but forged a productive relationship with his counterpart in Moscow, Mikhail Gorbachev. He appointed conservative Antonin Scalia to the Supreme Court but also tapped Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy — swing votes who protected abortion rights and helped legalize same-sex marriage.
“The more you knew Ronald Reagan, the less you want to speak for him. It’s the people who didn’t know him who find it so easy to say exactly what he would do,” says Sal Russo, a Republican strategist and tea party mastermind who worked as Reagan’s personal aide during his tenure as California governor in the 1960s and 1970s.
The complexities of Reagan’s history went on-air this week when a conservative, pro-immigration group called the National Immigration Forum starting running an ad nationally to chide Trump and others for their positions on illegal immigration.
The ad cited Reagan’s farewell address, in which he described the country as “shining city … God-blessed and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace.”
Before taking his place in the Oval Office, Reagan became the face of outsider conservatism when he nearly toppled President Gerald Ford in the 1976 primaries. Russo said it’s amusing to see Reagan, “who really rocked the boat” in 1976, become “the lodestar even for Republicans who always support the establishment.”
Author Will Bunch said it’s “all part of this canonization process” Republicans have employed for more than two decades to build Reagan into a utopian conservative, while avoiding inconvenient details.
“What we hear going into 2016 is often the mythical Reagan, not the real Reagan,” argues the senior writer at the Philadelphia Daily News and the author of a Reagan analysis, “Tear Down This Myth.”
Take taxes, for example. For much of Reagan’s tenure, several marginal personal income tax brackets had rates higher than today’s top rate of 39.6 percent. The national debt roughly tripled during his two terms.
On foreign policy, several 2016 contenders cite Reagan’s credo of “peace through strength” as they accuse President Barack Obama of capitulating to U.S. enemies. Walker, for example, has urged Obama to cancel the upcoming visit of China’s president and declares that “Iran is not a place we should do business.”
Left unmentioned is how Reagan sold arms to Iranians as part of a plan to aid rebel forces in Nicaragua, and Reagan’s famous summits with Gorbachev.
Russo, even as he, too, criticizes Obama, said Reagan’s philosophy gets twisted. “You have too many candidates who talk about strength so we can go out and win wars,” he said. Reagan “had a bitter hatred of communism,” Russo said, but “was dreadfully fearful … of ending the world with a nuclear holocaust.”
What’s clear is that today’s voters endorse Reagan’s legacy, however they see it.
In a 2014 Quinnipiac University poll, 35 percent of voters nationally chose Reagan as the best president the United States has had since World War II — well ahead of Bill Clinton (18 percent) and John Kennedy (15 percent).
Among Republicans, Reagan was the runaway favorite, with 66 percent picking him as the top president in recent history.
That’s perhaps why opponents of the GOP White House hopefuls are also sometimes eager to stand the candidates up next to Reagan.
In an online ad posted Wednesday, the super PAC backing Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign spliced some of the GOP contenders’ comments into Reagan’s famous “Morning in America” TV ad from his 1984 campaign.
After the narrator from the original ad says, “It’s morning again in America,” the ad cuts to Trump at a podium saying, “Sadly, the American dream is dead.”