Jacob Heilbrunn

In Reagan's Shadow

The GOP remains in Reagan's shadow. Ever since the 2008 election, when the presidential contenders vied with each other to stake a claim to Reagan, it's been clear that the Gipper remains the dominant figure in the GOP. Next month marks his 100th birthday, a fresh occasion for Reagan worship.

Roll Call and Talking Points Memo report that Reagan will be feted by a gallery of GOP stars. According to Roll Call,

The Illinois Republican Party hopes to host an all-star lineup of potential GOP presidential contenders at a dinner celebrating President Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday next month.

The fundraising event will be held in Chicago on Feb. 5, the day before the late president’s birthday. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) will sign copies of one of his books before the dinner, and former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, Indiana Rep. Mike Pence and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum have confirmed they will attend, according to an invitation to the event. The party also invited Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and South Dakota Sen. John Thune. The 12 Republican Members of the state’s 112th Congressional delegation will be special guests.

 Would Reagan be pleased by all the attention? Would he have a favorite among the contenders? And can the GOP really reclaim the White House by the equivalent of asking WWRD--what would Reagan do?

There are plenty of reasons to look to Reagan. After all, Barack Obama did during his primary fight, invoking Reagan as someone who changed America's direction. Indeed he did. America was faltering, at home and abroad, when Reagan entered office. But in retrospect Reagan's record was more moderate than his many detractors were prepared to acknowledge. He was loath to send American troops abroad. And he did raise taxes even as he complained about the deficit--which ballooned under his watch.

Reagan represented the sunny side of the street. He wasn't interested in replicating the Coolidge-Hoover wing of the party. He wanted economic growth.

It seems clear that in spirit the Illinois event will replicate Reagan's. It's sure to be a lot of fun. But it's hard not to wonder if the GOP is fixated too much on the past and not enough on the future.

I doubt that the Tea Party has much interest in Reagan. It's looking back to the Founding Fathers. Reagan also has an antiquated feel. How many young voters know much about him?

Nor does President Obama really resemble Jimmy Carter. He's clearly a lot savvier than Carter. Carter would never have cut the budget deal that Obama did. The economy is also recovering. The stock market is up. Obama also is not a shrinking violet when it comes to deploying military might abroad.

So the context of 2012 is going to be different. The GOP is a long way from solving its own identity crisis of establishment versus populist politicians. The primaries will go a long way toward thrashing it out. But invoking Reagan is not going to do much for the GOP other than lull it into complacency about the greatness of the past.