Republican Leaders Debate Reagan's Relevance

Some conservatives argue the party has strayed too far from Reagan's ideals.

By + More

Ronald Reagan still stands larger than life—7 feet tall and full of vim and vigor. Actually, it's a bronze statue of the 40th president, unveiled in the Capitol Rotunda with much fanfare in early June. But to his admirers, the ceremony and the statue were reminders that Reagan can still teach the country lessons about leadership and charisma.

Beyond the true believers, however, political leaders are increasingly debating Reagan's relevance. After the Republican Party's shellacking in the past two elections, some conservatives argue that the GOP has strayed too far from the Gipper's small-government philosophy and that it hasn't properly emphasized his goals of a strong national defense and promoting American exceptionalism. Others say the party needs to find a new generation of leaders and a new portfolio of ideas because what worked 20 years ago isn't what's called for today.

This search for new leaders was complicated last week by the surprise resignation of Sarah Palin as Alaska governor. Palin, the GOP's vice presidential nominee in 2008, has a strong following among grass-roots conservatives who hope she will run for the top job in 2012. Palin, a newcomer on the national scene, says the governorship made her and her family targets for left-wing critics and liberal media zealots, but she is still holding the door open for a presidential bid in the next cycle. If she runs, Palin would be using Reagan as a model, since he won the White House in 1980 while he was out of government and could devote full-time to the campaign.

But there are voices in the Republican Party who say constantly seeking parallels to Reagan and using his approach as the guidepost for success is the wrong course.

Mitch Daniels, the Republican governor of Indiana and a former political director in the Reagan White House, argues that the GOP must "let Reagan go" and avoid getting "stuck in the past." Daniels says that, while his former boss's approach was right for his era, conservatism must adapt to the 21st century. Frank Donatelli, another former Reagan political director, agrees that today's problems are different from those of the 1980s but adds: "Reagan remains a good touchstone, with his basic principle of limited government. If you pay heed to the Republican Party as the party of small government, you pay heed to Ronald Reagan."

Democrats have a different idea. Reagan does not represent "a worldview that serves as an alternative basis for governing" in the current era, when Americans are turning increasingly to government, says Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, who advised President Bill Clinton. "Less government is not where President Obama is, and it's not where the country is. We're in a period where people want new ideas"—and pragmatic solutions.

Reagan had what is generally considered a successful presidency, more so than his two GOP successors, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush. He slowed the growth of government, made tax cuts central to GOP orthodoxy, and, while creating huge deficits, presided over an economic boom. He confronted the Soviet Union—calling it an "evil empire"—but eventually entered into a partnership with reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that ended the Cold War and helped to shatter Soviet communism. Equally important in political terms, Reagan put a smiling face on the conservative movement.

But times are changing. On domestic issues, many Americans want the government to return to its pre-Reagan, activist ways, according to the polls, and President Obama is reversing Reagan's anti-Washington philosophy in actions such as taking over General Motors, intervening in the financial industry, and spending vast sums to stimulate the economy. In addition, Obama is breaking a cardinal Reagan rule by attempting to win congressional passage for a list of huge initiatives, all to be accomplished this year, including overhauls of the healthcare system and energy policy. Reagan was a firm believer in setting a handful of priorities rather than trying to do too much.