Can Reagan Legacy Bridge GOP Generation Gap?

June 26th, 2011 at 11:45 pm | 45 Comments |

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In the run-up to the GOP primary season, the name of a president who left office 21 years ago is being invoked almost as often as the incumbent’s by Republican candidates eager to style themselves as heirs to Ronald Reagan.

Tim Pawlenty and Newt Gingrich have both compared their tax plans to President Reagan’s economic policies. Jon Huntsman not only announced his primary bid at Liberty Park — coopting the same backdrop Reagan used to kick off his 1980 campaign — but also issued a photograph of himself as an awestruck twentysomething student standing side-by-side with his political idol. And Mitt Romney recently penned an op-ed celebrating the centenary of the 40th president’s birth.

However, it remains unclear how well these efforts are playing with one key constituency: young voters.

“Reagan was someone we read about in text books,” said American University College Republican Eric Reath. “I don’t remember the first GOP president of my lifetime — George H. W. Bush — either.

“My generation will always have the memories of George W. Bush, but that isn’t to say we don’t recognize the importance of Reagan. He was a good man and a great president, but not terribly relevant to my generation.”

Reagan was popular among young voters – 24 percent of those who elected him to a second term in 1984 were in the 18-29 age group. Only 20 percent of the 18-29 demographic were Republicans in 1980 – but this number rose to 28 percent during his reelection campaign, indicating how his strong economic and national security policies combined with his sunny disposition drew a new generation of supporters into the GOP fold.

Jennifer Duffy, senior editor for the non-partisan Cook Political Report, said GOP candidates are referencing the Reagan legacy in their campaigns to try and replicate the same positive emotions his 1981-89 presidency generated. But none of the current crop of hopefuls have either the same credentials or personal charisma which allowed the former two-term California governor to stir the political passions of young people more than 20 years ago.

“Do any of these candidates resonate with [today’s young voters]? I think citing Reagan generates a lot of good feeling and some good will, but I think it’s very hard to fill his shoes,” said Duffy. “When somebody has died, the legacy is impossible to match.”

Duffy said even though his legacy has been inflated since his death, Reagan was “an ideal president” [in the sense he] was a Republican with cross-party and cross-demographic appeal who attracted large numbers of Democrat and independent voters in both 1980 and 1984.

“He was probably not a pure conservative, but pure enough – the right didn’t have any real problems with him,” said Duffy. “I suspect that is what someone like Huntsman is trying to accomplish [by modeling his campaign launch on Reagan's].”

The Reagan references are constant reminders of a time of economic renewal and a reinvigorated sense of national purpose in America – a period the 2012 GOP candidates are implicitly suggesting they could reproduce if elected to the Oval Office next year.

“I think it’s an effort to draw peoples’ minds to a candidate who is truly successful, to draw back to a time when things were better,” said Duffy.  “I think everyone could stand a little dose of ‘morning in America’ right now.”

One young Republican said even though she did not live through the Reagan era, the former president stands on a pedestal in the conservative popular imagination –  idolized by GOP voters regardless of their age.

Amy Farina, Vice President of DC College Republican Women, told FrumForum that “being able to claim the Reagan legacy is strategic for the candidate’s campaign because the majority of Republican voters are always looking for the next Reagan.”

But her view is not shared by all young GOP voters. Jeremy Rozansky, an officer in the University of Chicago’s University Republicans, says because he was born during the first Bush administration, he’s “not constantly going back to the Reagan years with any sort of nostalgia.”

He wants to avoid focusing too much on Reagan’s post-Vietnam and post-Watergate policies of the 1980s because they do not apply to today’s world.  What he hopes for from the current crop of presidential aspirants are measures suited to modern conditions.

Instead of citing economic programs designed to combat the hyper-inflation of the late ’70s and early ’80s or military strategies predicated on containing the expansionist threat of the Soviet Union, contemporary conservative politicians should be pursuing Reagan’s general goals of “‘peace through strength’ foreign policy, pro-growth tax reform, and the incorporation of religious conservatives as a voice of conscience” in ways which take present circumstances into account, Rozansky said.

Reagan’s main domestic-policy accomplishment was a set of tax cuts that included a reduction in the top marginal rate from 70 to 50 percent, a measure Rozansky says shouldn’t be used as an “exact template.” He also backed then-Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker’s efforts to curb inflation and made the GOP more friendly to social conservatives. In foreign affairs, he launched a massive defense build-up in order to bankrupt the Soviet Union by forcing Moscow to compete and many conservatives credit him with paving the way for the end of the Cold War.

“When I talk to other young conservatives, most people recognize that you can’t look for the second coming of Reagan,” he said. “The general attitude of young conservatives toward Reagan is admiration, but not obsession.”

The GOP candidates’ Reagan-based appeals “won’t matter much to [younger voters], since they come across as paying lip service,” Rozansky said. Instead, he “wants to know who Mitt Romney is – I know he’s not Reagan.”

Margaret Hoover, author of the forthcoming American Individualism: How a New Generation of Conservatives Can Save the Republican Party, agrees. “Most 30-and-unders weren’t even alive when Reagan was president,” she told FrumForum. So “the constant harkening back to Reagan fails to resonate with youth, while our Republican elders bask in the dwindling twilight of the Reagan Revolution. Youth need a new ‘Great Communicator’ … and he can’t have just posthumously turned 100.”

Peppering stump speeches and campaign literature with Reagan analogies will not appeal to the younger generation who have only read about the 40th president in textbooks, said student Eric Reath, 20.

“These candidates are diverting in policy from Reagan, the great Republican hero, mostly on national security and defense issues,” he said. “Although they try to align themselves with him, it doesn’t impact who I support in this race. I know that they are just trying to compare themselves with him in order to garner broader base support.”

But although today’s young voters did not live through the Reagan years the accomplishments he is known for resonate in many of their minds.

“Anyone who wants to be president would really reach to aspire to Reagan’s standard,” said Chris Edwards, chair of the board of advisors of the New York Young Republicans. “He has a bipartisan legacy” – a potentially crucial trait when it comes to winning the 2012 election.

Recent Posts by Ajay Ravichandran

45 Comments so far ↓

  • Bunker555

    Are these clowns Reagan’s illegitimate heirs?

  • Nanotek

    the gopers’ fetish for the old days remind me of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard:

  • hormelmeatco

    To answer the question in the story title: No. Obama could invoke FDR the way Republicans do with Reagan, and it would get him about as far.

  • directeddemocracy

    Didn’t Reagan raise taxes after initially cutting them? Didn’t he add to te federal work force? Didn’t he increase spending and the deficit? Didn’t he advocate environmental conservation (even if he did slash and burn regulations with his other hand)?

    Until the GOP acknowledges his actual record, I don’t want to hear it.

    • Rob_654

      It is really incredible that so many Reagan cheerleaders fail to note the other half of Reagan’s presidency – increased taxes, increasing the size of the federal government, driving us into a huge deficit, etc….

  • Madeline

    Huntsman is a dead ringer for Hilary Swank in that picture…

  • nhthinker

    Attempting gravitas by proximity is usually a bad strategy for someone trying to prove they have already have the gravitas to lead the free world.

    “Huntsman is a dead ringer for Hilary Swank in that picture”

    You mean an effeminate Hillary Swank lunging at the camera… ;)

    Huntsman has been given way too much exposure here on FrumForum.
    You would think Frum would have some understanding of the “it”, it takes to be seen as presidential…

    Com’n really…
    first Daniels
    and now Huntsman?

    Maybe its because these guys remind Frum of himself…
    Let’s be serious, anyone that can’t speak in a motivational fashion has no chance of president.

    The question is whether Huntsman folds earlier enough for the No-labels folks to attempt to have their own presidential candidate. I think they want too. It would be very difficult for them to have integrity doing it if Romney is the nominee.

  • Smargalicious

    Look at the liberal clowns try to slam Ronbo, winner of the Cold War.

    I guess they miss the good ol’ days of Slick Willie the Sexual Predator.

    • Rob_654

      Slamming Reagan? I don’t think that reminding everyone of the facts pertaining to the other side of the Reagan presidency is “slamming” him.

      The reality is that Ronald Reagan wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of winning a modern day Republican Primary – he was far to moderate and would not be willing to go down the crazy rails that it takes to garner the type of support that is needed in modern politics.

  • directeddemocracy

    Reagan and Huntsman, arming Iran and Hezbollah since 1986.

  • NRA Liberal

    Reminds me of the Democrat’s unhealthy fixation on JFK during the dark days of the 80s.

  • Watusie

    A noun, a verb, and Reagan.

    It is pathetic, really. And an excellent way to demonstrate that you don’t actually are about the actual facts of the situations that we face…you want to govern by fantasy.

  • NRA Liberal

    “Hyperinflation” is a technical term, and doesn’t apply to the 1970s in the US.

  • rummager

    The Reagan legacy is supply side and the consequential deficits, interrupted only Clinton’s sound management

  • Primrose

    I suppose it might work for the Republican young, since it seems you have to swear loyalty to Reagen’s memory to be one. However, I don’t see how this will pull in everyone else. One truth the republicans seem to have forgotten is that the world changes. Always. You got to come up with plans for the future, not just try to bring back the past, because like the Monkey’s paw story, when you bring back the past to life, it isn’t really alive.

    This will end badly for the Republicans but the problem is that in their refusal to deal with today, it may end badly for all of us.

    • Graychin

      “One truth the republicans seem to have forgotten is that the world changes.”

      It’s not so much that they have forgotten it. It’s that they want to stop it. Stopping change and returning to the “good old days” isn’t a formula that has been attractive to the young in the past. It’s why the Republican demographic is old – and getting older.

      I don’t think young voters can be won over with nostalgia for the Reagan era – especially if those young voters are discerning enough to notice the difference between the Reagan myth and the Reagan reality.

  • Primrose

    Actually yes to both points NRA liberal. We did not have hyperinflation in the 70′s just inflation. And the endless going on about Kennedy never moved me when I was young. My only thought was, I’m glad you had such good times, but what about now please?

    One good thing about not having a very splendid glory filled youth is that I won’t be perpetually looking back trying to re-create it.

  • armstp

    “Jennifer Duffy, senior editor for the non-partisan Cook Political Report, said GOP candidates are referencing the Reagan legacy in their campaigns to try and replicate the same positive emotions his 1981-89 presidency generated.”

    I guess she is refering to the “positive emotions” the GOP had for Reagan.

    Again, separating the myth from the reality:

    Gallup Historical Presidential Job Approval Statistics
    Overall Averages

    President Dates in office Average approval rating %

    Harry Truman April 1945-January 1953 45.4%
    Dwight Eisenhower January 1953-January 1961 65.0%
    John Kennedy January 1961-November 1963 70.1%
    Lyndon Johnson November 1963-January 1969 55.1%
    Richard Nixon January 1969-August 1974 49.0%
    Gerald Ford August 1974-January 1977 47.2%
    Jimmy Carter January 1977-January 1981 45.5%
    Ronald Reagan January 1981-January 1989 52.8%
    George H.W. Bush January 1989-January 1993 60.9%
    Bill Clinton January 1993-January 2001 55.1%
    George W. Bush January 2001-January 2009 49.4%

    Over his term Ronald Reagan was only the six most popular President out of the 11 Presidents since Truman. He was completely middle of the pack in terms of popularity over his Presidency. Reagan was nothing special. George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton were more popular.

  • armstp

    Why try and claim the “Reagan Legacy”, whatever that is?

    Why not be your own man/leader and build your own legacy?

  • armstp

    This is just another article which attempts to reshape the myth of Ronald Reagan. At best Reagan was an average president. At worst he started the U.S. on a path of fiscal decline and concentration of wealth to the top.

    “Reagan’s main domestic-policy accomplishment was a set of tax cuts that included a reduction in the top marginal rate from 70 to 50 percent, a measure Rozansky says shouldn’t be used as an “exact template.” He also backed then-Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker’s efforts to curb inflation and made the GOP more friendly to social conservatives. In foreign affairs, he launched a massive defense build-up in order to bankrupt the Soviet Union by forcing Moscow to compete and many conservatives credit him with paving the way for the end of the Cold War.”

    These “accomplishments” are completely false.

    1) cut top marginal tax rate. why is this an accomplishment? This was the start of 30 years of a massive concentration of wealth to the top in this country. By the way Reagan cut taxes, but then he increased taxes after creating massive deficits, giving back much of the tax cutting he did.

    2) Paul Volcker, who was a Democratic appointee, combined with Carter made the very tough decisions required to fight the very high inflation of the 1970s, which probably cost Carter his re-election and set the 1980s up for the growth it had. You can give Reagan absolutely zero credit for taming the inflation of the 1970s.

    3) There is no evidence that Reagan’s military spending had anything to do with changes that occured in the Soviet Union and the ultimately opening up of the Soviet Union. First, this was decades in the making. Second, if you read any analysis from say the CIA or other scholars, the fall of the Soviet Union had more to do with the internal system and economy in the Soviet Union and the price of oil and wheat than anything that Reagan did. Reagan bankrupting the Soviet Union through military spending is a complete conservative lie. Prove it.

    • Solo4114

      This is the internet. Your facts are irrelevant.

      Regardless, the tendency to mythologize presidents we like is what drives this. The appeals to “I’m just like Reagan” are basic branding. That’s all. “If you like [product ABC] you’ll love [product XYZ].” Candidates just want to capitalize on the positive generalized feeling that many voters have about Reagan (without examining specifics of his tenure in office), and hopefully have voters transfer those same feelings onto them.

      Where they likely go astray is in citing to more specific policies and claiming that those are “Reagan-esque” for precisely the reasons the article mentions: the situation we face today is not the situation we faced in 1980 or in 1984. Applying policies from that period to this one without bothering to tailor them to the “facts on the ground” is foolish. Moreover, claiming with any kind of specificity that you will implement “Reagan-esque” policies invites nitpicking and criticism of whether Reagan’s policies were good in the first place, whether you as a candidate are accurately implementing them, and whether doing so is a good idea.

      Why bother with any of that? It’s far easier to simply invoke Reagan’s “brand” and capture the undercurrent of emotion that people feel for Reagan and hopefully map that on to yourself.

      As for Reagan himself, he’s taken on a mythological character for both the left and the right. When spoken of in general terms, we tend to look at him as a successful president who was an effective (“Great”) communicator, who presided over economic boom-times. The reality of the situation, and its nuances, are irrelevant. Hell, even Candidate Obama did a little brand-association with Reagan-the-Myth, claiming that he wanted to be like him.

      Besides, you can’t refute myth with fact, least of all with nuanced fact.

      • armstp


        All good points, but they do not take away from the fact that this author continues to perpetuate the myths, as I point out above.

        The author is helping to create this fake “brand”.

        You can make the argument that Obama is actually closer to the Reagan myth/brand than Reagan actually was.

        • Solo4114

          That may be the case, but I don’t think anyone is going to eradicate the “Reagan-the-Myth” figure from modern political and popular culture. It exists. It exists often in large part due to deep emotional connections, not fact. You can’t counter emotions with fact, rationality, etc. Much of the time, emotions exist in direct contrast to verifiable fact precisely because people want to believe in the myth of the “good old days.” The lionizing of Reagan is no exception here. I’m happy to give the guy his due, but not without also pointing out what he did poorly. I’d say the same of Clinton and I suspect I’ll say the same of Obama. Or, really, any president. They all have flaws, they all make mistakes, and they all do or have done things with which I strongly disagreed.

          I see less of a problem with mythologizing Reagan than I do with people mythologizing him and then trying to apply that to specific policy. “We’ll do it this way because it worked for Reagan.” The GOP obsession with tax cuts — especially for the rich — is a prime example. If someone wants to think of the Reagan era as the “good old days”, hey, knock yourself out. But to take some hazy recollection of the “good old days” that never actually were, and to base your policy on that myth, well…now we have a problem.

          So, I guess, in a sense, I have no problem with a candidate like Huntsman capitalizing on the “brand” of Reagan insofar as it extends to things like announcing his candidacy at the same location where Reagan did. If he can mimic Reagan’s voice and mannerisms too, hey, bully for him. But when a guy like Pawlenty comes out with an economic “plan” based on slashing taxes and somehow automagically generating ten years of non-stop growth, based on his own adopting of the Reagan/Reagan-era myth, yeah, I have a problem with it.

        • armstp


          Again all good points, but if all of this is all about emotions and not the spreading of outright falsehoods of what Reagan actually did, then why aren’t conservatives and the right all praising Clinton. Clinton left the country in far better shape and the good times were far better under Clinton than Reagan. Why are no conservatives emotionally attached to the Clinton years? Why is Huntsman not saying he wants to be like Clinton – fiscally responsible, best jobs record in generations, no wars or conflicts, etc.?

          I think the myth of Reagan is based on more than emotions. People think Reagan single handly won the 70 year cold war, that the economy was only good for everyone under Reagan, that Reagan’s so-called tax cuts lead to booming economic times. etc. etc. Why do people think these things? because of emotions. No because they have been spoon-fed a bunch of nonsense.

          I agree that modern conservative politicians are trying to tap into emotions of a brand largely built on falsehoods, but people also geniunely believe that everything was much better than it actually was under Reagan and that he was a genius.

          Most don’t know that the economy only grew for 4 out of the 8 years of Reagan. The average growth rate was only slightly better than Carter’s. etc. etc.

  • midcon

    The contribution of military spending combined with Soviet economic policies and the constant exposure to the freedoms and benefits of western society all served to hasten the demise of the Soviet system. To argue that it was mostly this or that does is clearly false. On defense, we spent them into oblivion, but access to blue jeans and sneakers contributed at least as much as well as having enough to eat. It is not a “complete conservative lie,” since it was a contributing factor. Reagan’s SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative) (aka Star Wars) upped the ante for the Soviets, who faced with food and other shortgages, simply could not keep up. The convergance of everything did them in. Not any single thing.

    • armstp


      Your thesis is based on several premises:

      1) that the Soviets even really wanted to keep-up in military spending during Reagan: there is no proof of this. The Soviets were actually spending considerably more than the U.S. Reagan only increased U.S. spending to Soviet levels.

      2) that military spending by the Soviets only during Reagan actually sunk the economy; no proof of this. The Soviet economy was sunk well before Reagan. Reagan did not in any way contribute to the sinking of the Soviet economy.

      3) that the so-called sinking of the economy through this military spending resulted in Glasnost or an opening-up of the Soviet Union. I think Mikhail Gorbachev would laugh at your accertion that America caused glasnost and perestroika and particularly that it was Reagan that was responsible. Reagan’s military spending did nothing to open the Soviet Union. The opening was in the making for decades before Reagan. And the fact that Gobrachev was a reformer had nothing to do with U.S. military spending.

      Something to think about:

      > the Soviet economy began its economic stagnantion during the Brezhnev years, well before Reagan.
      > high levels of military spending in the Soviet Union date back to WWII. It was not Reagan who forced the Soviets to spend a lot on their military.
      > Soviet military spending did not go up during Reagan. In fact it was pretty constant in U.S. dollar terms of between $200 bn and $250 billion between 1965 and 1989. If there was so-called pressure by Reagan for the Soviets to spend more during the 80s, that certainly did not do anything, as the Soviets actually did not spend more during Reagan.

      • UncleLew

        Another factor that is too seldom mentioned was the ascendancy of John Paul II to the papacy. He steeled the nerves of freedom movements throughout the Soviet bloc — and Poland in particular — giving the Soviets a huge headache when they least needed it.

  • CentristNYer

    Sadly, Reagan has become an enormous crutch for the Republican party. It reminds me of the former high school athlete who, thirty years on, has to call up the glory days just to feel relevant. (And they weren’t really all that glorious to begin with.)

    I don’t believe that the best way for a party to build a bridge to the future is to be constantly looking in the rear-view mirror.

    • JimBob

      You mean like FDR has been for the Democrats.

      • Watusie

        Well, JimBob, in a word – no. Democrats rightly note that FDR was a fine president who led the country during a time of great peril. But they don’t run around claiming they’ll be him incarnate and that’s why we should vote for them. You and NRA Liberal are both trying and failing to say “well, the Democrats do it too”. Fact is, there is no comparison, in kind or in quantity, between the Democrats and their relationship with their past and the Republican overblown obsession with Reagan.

        Reagan was a moderately successful president. But he was also the father of the budget problems we have today, the man who taught the Republicans that, when they are in power, deficits don’t matter. It is, seriously, time for you lot to move on.

      • CentristNYer


        Uh, no. The Dems have put FDR on the mantel and admire him once in a while when it suits their purposes. The Republicans, by contrast, have strapped themselves to the Gipper’s dead body in a fashion that borders on necrophilia.

      • armstp


        What a BS false equivalency? FDR held up the same as Reagan.

        First, I have never heard anyone on the Democratic side, particularly campaigning politicians hold up or even mention FDR in the same way the Republicans idealize Reagan.

        Second, FDR did a hell of a lot more for the U.S. and had a far better track record than Reagan. You cannot even compare the two.

        • JimBob

          You sure must be young that’s for sure. Democrats bring up FDR every day. Their bread and butter is Social Security. The crowning jewel of liberalism. A third rate ponzi scheme.

        • armstp


          “You sure must be young that’s for sure. Democrats bring up FDR every day.”

          Really? It is the same as the GOP bringing up Reagan? Come on..

          I never saw a Democratic candidate for office come close to actually standing in front of the same statue of liberty podium as Reagan used. I never in a Democratic debate heard a Democrat bring up FDR like the Republicans do with Reagan in their debates. In fact, they even had a debate in the Reagan library. THey made sure they named an airport after Reagan in record time.

          Complete false equivalency. Not even on the same planet.

        • Watusie

          “Democrats bring up FDR every day. ”

          Prove it. Give us 7 links to Democratic politicians citing FDR in the past week.

    • Nanotek

      “I don’t believe that the best way for a party to build a bridge to the future is to be constantly looking in the rear-view mirror.”

      that’s all they’ve got left … devoid of new ideas, they are fading into history fast

  • zephae

    Mr. Ravichandran and Ms. Glass,

    The GOP candidates’ Reagan-based appeals “won’t matter much to [younger voters], since they come across as paying lip service,” Rozansky said. Instead, he “wants to know who Mitt Romney is — I know he’s not Reagan.”

    The GOP candidates’ Reagan-based appeals “won’t matter much to [younger voters], since they come across as paying lip service,” Rozansky said. Instead, he “wants to know who Mitt Romney is – I know he’s not Reagan.”

    Please proof-read your articles. Between the two of you, one person should have been able to to give it a a once-over and pick out obvious errors like this.

    • nhthinker

      “Between the two of you, one person should have been able to to give it a a once-over and pick out obvious errors like this.”

      When reprimanding for editing errors, it is important to to be sure that the reprimand does not contain editing errors.

  • SteveT

    No matter what Reagan’s legacy this can’t go on forever. More and more voters won’t know or care.

  • dregstudios

    Reagan has a legacy so distorted by the Conservative idolization of him that we may never have a clear picture of the real man behind the television. Did he rid the world of commie scum? Check out my portrait of The Gipper in commemoration of his 100th birthday at

  • Gus

    I’ve often wondered why the continued veneration of Reagan? I’m a little young to remember, did Democrats continue to worship Roosevelt 25 years after his last year in office? Did, say, Muskie or Humphrey reverentially invoke his name at every opportunity?

  • advocatusdiaboli

    Reagan was one of the dimmest lights in the White House ever but his B-actor personality has made him idolized. He constantly gaffed, made up statistics, and was a cold mean spirited shallow dunce of a man in private. Margaret Thatcher famously said of him:”There’s nothing between his ears poor dear.” The Republican party need to stop idolizing empty heads and find someone worthy of holding up as an example.

  • chephren

    The “Reagan Legacy”:

    - The delusion that tax cuts always produce a net positive increase in tax revenue.
    - The tripling of a federal debt in only 8 years – a peacetime record.
    - The abrupt end, with the passage of the Reagan/Kemp-Roth tax cuts of 1981, of a 35-year decline in the federal debt-to-GDP ratio. From 1945 to 1980, debt-to-GDP fell from more than 100% to 30%. From 1981 to the inauguration of Barack Obama, federal debt rose at TWICE the rate of economic growth. GDP rose 5 times in nominal terms from ’81 to 2008, while federal debt increased 11 times. The fiscal underpinnings of Reaganomics were fraudulent – and created today’s debt mire.
    - A 1% reduction in federal spending as a percentage of GDP. Hardly a revolution.
    - The Iran-Contra fiasco. Reagan was proved to be at best a bumbling, disconnected incompetent, at worst (and more likely), a liar.
    - The Christian Right becomes the primary constituency of the Republican Party and the primary influence on its platform.