6 min read

GOP debates in Reagan’s shadow

As the Republican field assembles at the Reagan library, a look at the Gipper’s legacy in today’s GOP.
GOP debates in Reagan’s shadow
Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump, 1987. (National Archives)

Good morning! It’s Wednesday, September 27, 2023. The 2024 elections are 405 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

Within the Republican Party, there is little ground as hallowed as Ronald Reagan’s presidential library in California.

The GOP has held at least one presidential debate there during every contested primary cycle since 2008, a quadrennial opportunity to honor the Gipper in the same pavilion that features his old Air Force One plane. Most of this year’s candidates — along with other top Republican rising stars — have also dutifully trekked to the library to deliver speeches about their vision for the party, auditioning for the nomination in front of various party elders and Reagan alumni.

One candidate, though, has not been invited to give such a speech; he also won’t be present for tonight’s Simi Valley debate, thumbing his nose at the Reagan legacy.

The mutual snubbing is partly personal: the Reagan library board is stocked with Trump antagonists like Paul Ryan (and chaired by the recently departed CEO of the Washington Post, another institution Trump dislikes). One library board member anonymously called Trump a “spoiled brat in a sandbox” in a recent interview with Politico.

But there is also a policy struggle at play, as Trump battles Reagan for the ideological mantle of the GOP. Increasingly, Trump is winning.

Consider some of these statements from Reagan, once the party’s patron saint.

On immigration:

“Illegal immigrants in considerable numbers have become productive members of our society and are a basic part of our work force. Those who have established equities in the United States should be recognized and accorded legal status.” — Reagan in 1981

On foreign aid:

“You know the excuses: We can’t afford foreign aid anymore, or we’re wasting money pouring it into these poor countries, or we can’t buy friends — other countries just take the money and dislike us for giving it. Well, all these excuses are just that, excuses — and they’re dead wrong.” — Reagan in 1987

On compromise:

“If you got seventy-five or eighty percent of what you were asking for, I say, you take it and fight for the rest later, and that’s what I told these radical conservatives who never got used to it.” — Reagan in 1990

Imagine a Republican candidate on stage tonight hawking some of these lines, praising illegal immigrants or condemning conservatives who refuse to compromise. You might hear some of the candidates parrot Reagan on foreign aid, referring to Ukraine, but it won’t be any of the highest-polling candidates.

Those weren’t just empty words from Reagan, either. In office, he signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which gave amnesty to nearly 3 million undocumented immigrants. He also championed foreign aid legislation and created the National Endowment for Democracy with the goal — in his words — of fostering the “infrastructure of democracy: the system of a free press, unions, political parties, [and] universities” in other countries.

And, famously, he was happy to knock back a few beers with Democratic House speaker Tip O’Neill and work out a compromise. “We’re all friends after 6 o’clock,” Reagan and O’Neill used to say, a sentiment it’s hard to imagine Trump and Nancy Pelosi or Biden and Kevin McCarthy repeating (and not just three of those four are teetotalers). In the context of the spending battles taking place in Congress right now, Reagan’s call for compromise — going unheeded by Trump and his allies on the Hill — feels especially relevant.

We have ventured a long way away from 2008, when the GOP candidates paid homage to Reagan almost 20 times during their Simi Valley debate, taking turns praising the late president under the watchful eye of his widow Nancy.

Conversely, at the first GOP debate, Reagan’s most notable invocation was more of a dig than anything. “It is not Morning in America,” Vivek Ramaswamy said, citing Reagan’s famous line as he tangled with Mike Pence. “We live in a dark moment, and we have to confront the fact that we’re in an internal sort of cold, cultural civil war.”

As the New York Times put it:

“Extolling Ronald Reagan used to be the safest of safe spaces for an ambitious Republican. Yet here was an upstart candidate, with no record of public service, standing at center stage in a G.O.P. debate and invoking Mr. Reagan’s famous 1984 ‘morning in America’ theme not as an applause line, but to mock one of the party’s staunchest conservatives — an original product of the Reagan revolution — as out of touch with America’s true condition.”

It is not as if the Reaganite faction of the GOP is absent in today’s field. Pence attributes Reagan’s influence to bringing him into the Republican Party fold (just as Reagan himself switched from being a Democrat to a Republican decades before). He also frequently recounts meeting with Reagan at the White House in the 80s; at the last debate, he noted that he took the vice presidential oath of office on the Reagan Bible.

Asa Hutchinson actually served in the Reagan administration as a U.S. attorney, although he won’t be on stage tonight after failing to meet the criteria. Then there’s Tim Scott, who quoted Reagan when calling to fire striking workers just last week (in contrast to Trump’s praise for the UAW), and Nikki Haley, whose campaign has frequently highlighted her similarities with another former UN envoy, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, a leading Reagan foot soldier.

But it is the three more Trumpist candidates — Ron Desantis, Ramaswamy, and Trump himself — who command three-quarters of the GOP electorate (with one member of that trio doing the heavy lifting to get there).

Trump has his similarities with Reagan, too: both were party switchers and political outsiders, both used the slogan “Make America Great Again.” But, like he has with other GOP heroes, Trump has happily thumbed his nose at Reagan’s legacy, and frequently diverged from him on policy. Throughout this campaign, Trump has danced around his stance on abortion; if he is nominated without a firm pro-life position, it will be a sign that the final leg of Reagan’s three-legged stool (social conservatives, fiscal hawks, and foreign interventionists) has toppled and the party has been remade fully in Trump’s image.

Already, 45 is gaining on 40 for a title the latter has long boasted: Republicans’ favorite president.

According to a Pew Research Center poll last month, 41% of Republicans say Reagan was the best recent president, while 37% say it was Trump.

The crosstabs on this are fascinating: Republicans under the age of 50 say Trump, Republicans over 50 say Reagan. Members of the groups Trump has brought over to the GOP — Hispanic voters, those without a college degree — say Trump; Republican mainstays like white voters and those with college degrees answer Reagan.

A bar chart that shows older Republicans are far more likely than younger Republicans to name Reagan as best recent president.

It doesn’t take a polling expert to see where the trends are going. All it will take is a few more years — a few more voters under 50 aging up, a little bit more of the party diversifying on educational and racial lines — and Trump will have overtaken Reagan for the GOP crown before long.

Tonight’s debate will air at 9 p.m. ET on Fox Business News and Univision. You can stream it online here. I’ll have post-debate analysis for you in tomorrow’s newsletter — and you can tune in to NPR to hear me talk about the showdown from 10-11 a.m. ET tomorrow.  

More news to know.

Congress: “House Republicans voted to advance four appropriations bills to the chamber’s floor late Tuesday but Speaker Kevin McCarthy's team continued to struggle to round up the votes needed to avert a looming government shutdown.” — Axios

Trump: “A judge ruled Tuesday that Donald Trump committed fraud for years while building the real estate empire that catapulted him to fame and the White House, and he ordered some of the former president’s companies removed from his control and dissolved.” — AP

Menendez: “A stampede of Senate Democrats led by some of the party’s most endangered incumbents rushed forward on Tuesday calling for Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey to resign, a day after he defiantly vowed to fight federal corruption charges and predicted he would be exonerated.” — NYT

Antitrust: “The U.S. government and 17 states are suing Amazon in a landmark monopoly case reflecting years of allegations that the e-commerce giant abused its economic dominance and harmed fair competition.” — CNN

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