Despite New Challenges, GOP Still Looks to Reagan

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By Perry Bacon Jr.

The Republican presidential candidates are making their quadrennial journey to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library for Wednesday's debate, where they will try and claim the mantle of one of the party’s most revered figures. But this large group of candidates faces much different challenges than burdened the Gipper when he was in office.

Reagan remains how many conservatives view a successful presidency, as he largely accomplished his two main goals, defeating communism abroad and shrinking the role of government at home. But that has left his party with a quandary that it has struggled with since: What does conservatism look like in a world where the Soviet Union does not exist and the highest income tax rate has dropped from 70 percent when Reagan entered office to 39 percent today?

The two Republican presidents who succeeded Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, tried and failed to create a vision of conservatism that unified Republicans. So Republican presidential candidates in 2008, 2012 and now in the 2016 cycle have invoked Reagan as a model for their presidencies, even though the world they seek to lead is one the Gipper may never have imagined.

"Peace Through Strength?"

On foreign policy, nearly all of the GOP candidates invoke a form of Reagan’s view that the U.S. can achieve “peace through strength.” That framing by Reagan was largely about combating the Soviet Union. It does offer some guidance on how Reagan may have dealt with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and incursions into Ukraine. (He likely would have condemned Vladimir Putin in much stronger terms than President Obama did) and how Reagan might have dealt with Iran’s attempt to develop nuclear weapons (He would likely have been more supportive of military action in Iran than Obama, or at least used rhetoric that suggested he was.)

But many of the questions of modern foreign policy are about how the U.S. should deal with groups that are not traditional powers, but non-state actors like ISIS. Some of the core questions are not about whether the U.S. should deploy troops and use its military strength, but how it should handle crises like the refugees fleeing Syria. And while Republicans regularly suggest they would deploy troops to a number of countries in the Middle East, the reality is that there is limited desire for such military action from voters in either party, still scarred from memories of the Iraq War.

Obama has waged a year-long war with ISIS, despite no formal congressional authorization. This is not an accident: neither Democratic nor Republican lawmakers want to put themselves on the record with a formal war vote.

Domestic Agenda

On domestic policy, the Republicans are also trying to follow Reagan’s model, 35 years after he was first elected. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker unveiled this week a plan that would essentially eliminate labor unions for federal employees, likening it to when Reagan fired air traffic controllers after they went on strike in 1981. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and ex-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush have rolled out large tax cuts plans that would greatly reduce the tax liability of the wealthiest Americans, much as Reagan did.

Former President Ronald Reagan with Lady Margaret Thatcher during her visit to his office in Century City (Photo by Mike Guastella/WireImage)Mike Guastella / WireImage

A group of younger Republicans, dubbing themselves “reform conservatives,” have urged the party to move beyond a Reagan-like emphasis on shrinking the size of the federal government and tax cuts to developing conservative plans that seek to address issues that are traditionally associated with liberals, like health care and education.

This reform movement has had little success so far. The policy plans the GOP candidates have put out so far closely resemble those of Mitt Romney in 2012 and other previous candidates who were running in Reagan’s image.

George W. Bush pushed through a number of changes to federal education policy as president. His brother, dogged by criticism of his previous support for the Common Core education standards, has pledged to decrease the federal role in education policy. Many of the candidates have already pledged not to raise taxes if elected, rejecting the example of George H.W. Bush, who signed a tax increase that helped lead to the balanced budgets of the 1990’s.

The Culture Wars

The biggest challenge in following Reagan’s model is on social issues. Reagan simply did not live in a world in which gay marriage had been defined as a constitutional right, a black president had been elected and re-elected, one of every six Americans is Latino and the favorite to be the next president is a woman.

“For all of the eco­nom­ic anxi­et­ies many Amer­ic­ans still ex­press, the most po­lar­iz­ing con­flicts this year are di­vid­ing the na­tion along lines of race, eth­ni­city, and cul­ture, not class. The most ur­gent ques­tion in 2016 may be how we live to­geth­er in a re­lent­lessly di­ver­si­fy­ing so­ci­ety that, in many re­spects, looks to be re­treat­ing to sep­ar­ate corners,” wrote National Journal’s Ron Brownstein this week.

Reagan did face some of the challenges of a diversifying America. In 1986, he signed a bill that granted legal status to nearly 3 million undocumented immigrants, the kind of amnesty that many conservatives say was a mistake and should not be repeated, even as they still praise the former president.

The 2016 Republican campaign is increasingly about a series of divisive cultural issues that had not yet emerged even at the start of this year. Should Kim Davis, the county clerk in Rowan County, Kentucky, be able to refuse to offer marriage licenses to same-sex couples because she personally opposes gay marriage? Is it appropriate and even ideal for a presidential candidate to speak Spanish as an acknowledgment of America’s growing Latino population, as Jeb Bush says, or essentially un-American, Donald Trump’s argument?

Is James Blake (the African-American ex-tennis player handcuffed by New York police last week despite not committing a crime) or Ben Carson telling the most accurate story of what it’s like to be black in America? Is allowing 10,000 migrants from Syria to come to the U.S. part of a long history of immigrants and refugees bringing “vitality” to America, as Jeb Bush says? The conservative site Brietbart News, disagrees, arguing “the importation of Muslim immigrants through the nation’s refugee program has led to the development of pockets of radicalized communities throughout the United States.”

Many of the GOP candidates say they have modeled their political careers after Ronald Reagan. One of them could be the kind of transformative figure that Reagan was, shaping politics in a unique way for a generation. But to do so may require new approaches, distinct from the Gipper’s, not trying to be the 2015 version of Reagan.