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.