Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate will occur in the shadow of former President Ronald Reagan — making the setting a vivid reminder of how today’s Republicans have in a lot of ways abandoned his legacy.
Reagan, president from 1981 to 1989, redefined not only the mission of his party, but the mission of the federal government.
Taxes were cut dramatically. The military was strengthened. The president talked tough and won the Cold War. The role of government as an economic safety net began to erode. Social issues such as abortion rights became prominent federal issues.
Today, former President Donald Trump, the current 2024 GOP front runner, and his no-compromise allies dominate the party as they promote limited government and social issues.
Trump is skipping Wednesday’s debate. The debate, which is expected to feature six other candidates, will be moderated by Fox News Media’s Stuart Varney and Dana Perino and Univision’s Ilia Calderón. The debate will be held at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. The two-hour debate will begin at 6 P.M. PDT.
Trump’s style is hardly the Reagan style. Reagan was a seasoned politician when he took office. He had been active in conservative politics since the late 1940s and governor of California for eight years. He understood that political success meant giving the opposition something and settling for 80% of what he sought.
“He would explain that we’re not going to get everyone to agree with what we’re saying,” said Sal Russo, a veteran Sacramento-based GOP strategist and aide to Reagan as governor.
Russo recalled Reagan would explain “You have to win. You’ve got to pick your issues and not pursue issues doomed to failure. You’ve got to stay with things we can get done.”
The fading spirit
Today, bitterly divided congressional Republicans are struggling to keep the government funded past Sept. 30 and grapple with abortion policy, issues that are tying up the House and Senate.
Fading is the 80% rule. Fading is the legacy of Reagan’s tough stand against Russia.
He was a fierce anti-Communist, famous for telling Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 to “tear down this wall” that divided East and West Germany and for pushing a huge defense buildup. Two years later, the wall did come down as the Soviet Union collapsed.
Today, the party is split on whether to continue or limit U.S. aid to Ukraine. Trump also said Congress should not approve any aid until federal agencies turn over evidence on President Joe Biden’s family’s business affairs.
That’s not very Reaganesque.
“Reagan was tough on Russia, won the Cold War and defined Republican foreign policy for a generation,” said GOP strategist Alex Conant. “Now you’re seeing Trump and some populists in the house retreat from that.”
Other cracks in the Reagan legacy are all over Washington. In the House, the intra-party dispute over how severely to cut spending threatens to shut down much of the government Oct. 1, when funding for many agencies runs out.
In the Senate, Republicans are divided about the months-long campaign by Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., to hold up hundreds of military promotions until the Pentagon changes its abortion policy.
In all these battles, many Republicans are willing to fire away publicly at other Republicans, a clear violation of Reagan’s “11th commandment.” He first used it in his 1966 campaign for governor: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.”.
Trump has long been willing to blast GOP colleagues who disagree. Lately, members of Congress are doing the same, a practice largely unheard of among members of the same party.
Rep. Victoria Spartz, R-Ind., for instance, last week issued a statement calling Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, a “worthless speaker.” Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., who threatened to try to oust McCarthy, tweeted the speaker “deserves all the criticism and more.”
The tax cut legacy lives
There’s no question, though, that one Reagan priority continues to dominate Republican thought: Tax cuts.
“The Republican Party is the party of not raising your taxes,” said Grover Norquist, founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform.
His group began asking politicians to sign a no-tax pledge during the 1986 election campaign, and those who did not found themselves bitterly criticized by his influential group.
Nordquist said Reagan set the no-tax standard and it’s been adopted by many Republican-dominated states. One of Reagan’s top priorities after being elected in 1980 was to successfully push a 25%, three-year tax cut that dramatically cut income tax rates.
The cuts, though, were followed by a deep recession and record federal deficits, and in 1982, Congress passed and Reagan signed a tax increase. He said at the time it was largely closing tax loopholes.
Reagan regretted that increase, said Craig Shirley, author of several books about Reagan. “He felt he was sold a bill of goods,” he said, a promise that for every dollar raised, three dollars would be cut from spending. Experts have disagreed on whether the cuts were achieved.
The idea of cutting taxes became an immovable pillar of Republican Party philosophy.
When George W. Bush and later Trump became president, one of their first year’s top priorities was a huge tax cut. Today, despite ballooning federal deficits, Congress is unable to increase any taxes thanks to solid GOP opposition.
Remember, said Shirley, Reagan was the leader of the conservative movement. “The Reagan legacy is not about Reagan. It’s about ideas,” he said. “Those ideas are still alive and well inside the Republican party.” .
But there are new wrinkles.
Politics today is more personal.
“I think there is still a Reagan legacy in the Republican party, but the shadow of Trump is muting that legacy somewhat,” said Christian Grose, academic director of the University of Southern California Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy.
There’s also less willingness to find the common ground crucial to Reagan’s successes.
Thanks to television and social media, constituents now are more familiar with their Washington representatives and the lawmakers, in turn, seem less eager to warm to their opponents.
Reagan had spent much of his adult life developing his views, and had a deep bench of conservative intellectuals eager to help. While that infrastructure remains, today’s politics is too often reactive, said Shirley, “more smitten with media celebrities.”
Wednesday, Republican presidential candidates — not Trump, who’s skipping the debate as he sits on a huge lead in polls — will debate literally in Reagan’s shadow. (He’s buried on the library grounds).
They may invoke Reagan, say the experts, but those who remember the former president are unlikely to be reminded of him.
“It’s a different era,” said North Carolina-based GOP consultant Carter Wrenn.