Republicans' dark style: Is the Reagan era over?

Marco Rubio's appeal as the Reaganesque optimist hasn't caught on, while the intense rhetoric of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz has. 

Jonathan Drake/Reuters
Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio greets supporters as he arrives for a campaign rally in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday.

When Marco Rubio notably began 2016 with darker, more aggressive rhetoric, he dampened his image as the sunny, Reagan-like optimist of the Republican presidential field.

“If we get this election wrong, there may be no turning around for America,” Senator Rubio of Florida warned at a recent campaign stop in Mason City, Iowa.

The youthful Rubio still begins his stump speech with talk of “a new American century” and “our exceptional country,” but uses the bulk of his time attacking President Obama, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, and his GOP rivals, according to reports from the trail.

Clearly, GOP front-runner Donald Trump isn’t even trying to be the next President Reagan. Mr. Trump  scowls menacingly from the cover of his latest book, “Crippled America” – a title that screams pessimism. His rhetoric is intense and profane, his first television ad a 30-second litany of fear-inducing images. At the end of the ad, when he promises to “make America great again,” he’s shouting, not smiling.

And Trump’s closest competitor in the polls, Ted Cruz, is hardly Reagan stylistically, though he has tried to cloak himself in the Reagan mantle more than anybody else in the race. “He just doesn’t have Reagan’s personality,” says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

“Rubio’s the only one who fits that mold,” says Professor Sabato. “But here’s Rubio’s problem: This is a party that doesn’t want sunny and optimistic. They want blood and gore. Rubio doesn’t convey enough urgency.”

Republicans are deeply angry, Sabato says, because in their view, they’ve endured seven years of outrages from Obama, and the country’s going down the tubes and this is the last chance to save it. Voters this cycle want to be understood more than they want to be inspired. So for now, the “Reagan era” is over, at least when it comes to his style.

“Among the Republicans, it’s deader than a doornail,” says Sabato. “As for the general election, we’ll see.”

The larger question for the party is how much to wrap up the future in reverence for Reagan. For a party eager to attract young voters, too much focus on the Gipper can make Republicans appear backward-looking, some party activists say.

Too wrapped in Reagan?

Reagan left office 27 years ago, when the world was a very different place. To people much under age 40, he is a figure in the history books.

In his 2013 book, “Hail Mary: The 10-Step Playbook for Republican Recovery,” Republican strategist Ford O’Connell scolds his party for having what he calls a “Reagan fixation.”

“It undermines the candidates, because it becomes a crutch for their inability to articulate an actual agenda or a forward-looking vision,” Mr. O’Connell writes.

O’Connell understands why some candidates wrap themselves in the Reagan mantle, at least during the primary. These are voters who remember Reagan, “people over age 50 who are mostly white men or married women,” O’Connell says in an interview. “That’s the Republican base, right or wrong.”

Craig Shirley, a public-relations specialist who has written three books about Reagan, disagrees that the party needs to move away from Reagan at any point in the campaign.

“There’s no doubt that Reagan’s shadow looms over the Republican Party more than it has at any time, and actually it continues to grow,” Mr. Shirley says. “Nobody goes around calling themselves a Bush Republican, though a lot of people call themselves Reagan Republicans.”

Even Obama once named Reagan as his model for how to be a transformational president, Shirley notes.

There’s a reason the Republican Party holds presidential debates at the Reagan Library, not the Nixon Library or either Bush Library or the Eisenhower Library: It’s still Reagan’s party.

Still, some candidates are more Reagan-centered than others. At the second Republican debate, held last October at the Reagan Library in California, many of the candidates were effusive in their discussion of the 40th president. One spoke of how his tax plan was modeled on the Reagan tax cuts of 1986. Some spoke of interacting with Reagan. Another spoke of how his Cuban grandfather loved Reagan.

Trump said nothing about Reagan at that debate. That’s not to suggest the New York billionaire is somehow hostile to Reagan’s memory, it just doesn’t seem all that relevant to his candidacy. As one who quit the GOP in 2000 and considered running for president under the banner of the Reform Party, Trump today (once again a registered Republican) doesn’t strike party regulars as a loyal Republican. 

And so while he and Cruz are the top two Republicans in the polls, together accounting for 55 percent of Republican voters and both running as antiestablishment outsiders, their respective postures are quite different. Trump’s brand is his own, while Cruz presents himself as the keeper of the Reagan flame.

The Reagan of 2016

Cruz often compares 2016 to the election of 1980 – when Reagan won his first term – and promises a “restoration” of conservatism in every speech. 

“It took Jimmy Carter to give us Ronald Reagan,” Cruz told TheBlaze recently. “I believe Barack Obama has set the stage for the same sort of fundamental restoration.”

He predicts victory by following Reagan's admonition “to paint in bold colors, not pale pastels.”

But while Reagan was known for the well-timed quip, Cruz's sense of humor is "somewhat forced," Sabato says.

Over the weekend, Rubio the “happy warrior” came back with a TV ad showing him tossing footballs and engaging in light banter.

“That’s very Reaganesque,” Sabato says.

Shirley, the Reagan biographer, sees elements of Reagan in several candidates – “in Rand Paul, his libertarian belief in the individual; in Ted Cruz, his passionate defense of conservatism; in Donald Trump, his challenge of the status quo.”

“But I would say that Cruz right now probably comes the closest to reigniting the Reagan coalition,” says Shirley.

Other Republicans see Cruz, the tea partyer whose hard-line tactics led to the government shutdown of 2013,  as too much of a purist to be Reagan’s political heir.

“Either you agree with Ted or you’re bordering on being a traitor, and Reagan wasn’t like that at all,” says Henry Barbour, Republican National Committeeman from Mississippi and co-author of the GOP’s post-2012 election report. “Reagan was a strong conservative, but he put the country before his own political interests. Cruz seems to be one who has his own political interests at heart.”

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