Today's Republicans, staying in the shadow of Ronald Reagan

The political career of the 40th president of the United States. This month is the 100th anniversary of his birth.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 4, 2011; 12:00 PM

"Great men have two lives," the diplomat Adolf Berle once observed, "one which occurs while they work on this Earth; a second which begins at the day of their death and continues as long as their ideas and conceptions remain powerful."

Berle was speaking in May 1945, the month after Franklin D. Roosevelt died, and his words captured the enduring influence that FDR would exert over Democratic politics and liberal ideology for the half-century to follow. In 2011, they could just as easily apply to the totemic force that Ronald Reagan continues to hold over the right on the 100th anniversary of his birth.

These days, no Republican with national ambitions will miss an opportunity to remind us of his or her Reaganesque bona fides. Reagan's precepts of a smaller government, a bigger military, lower taxes and conservative social policies demand absolute fealty.

The irony is that Reagan would not have become such a transformational figure if he had not challenged the political orthodoxy of his own time. His self-declared legatees invoke his name as a pledge to do the opposite, a reassurance that they will not venture beyond what has become conventional thinking in the GOP. What starts as a touchstone, however, can become a millstone, if history is any indication.

The power of the Reagan dogma has grown in the years since the 40th president left the scene. In 1994, when Republican Mitt Romney was challenging Democrat Edward M. Kennedy for his Senate seat in liberal Massachusetts, he declared during a debate: "Look, I was an independent during the time of Reagan-Bush. I'm not trying to return to Reagan-Bush." But the evolved Romney now refers to Reagan as "my hero."

"I believe that our party's ascendancy began with Ronald Reagan's brand of visionary and courageous leadership," he has said.

Meanwhile, former House speaker Newt Gingrich has been traveling the country screening "Ronald Reagan: Rendezvous With Destiny," a feature-length DVD tribute narrated by the possible 2012 presidential contender and his wife, Callista.

The current generation of Republican leaders came of age as the GOP was caught in two struggles: an internal one, between its conservative and moderate wings, and a broader one, between Reagan's philosophy and FDR's.

Some boast of the scars they endured for the Gipper in that fight. In his new memoir, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty recalls passing out campaign literature for Reagan on the liberal University of Minnesota campus in 1979. "My simple act of offering pro-Reagan brochures was viewed by many on campus as politically intolerable," he writes. "People shouted at me, and one student actually spit on my shoes."

During the 2008 presidential campaign, then-and-possibly-future candidate Mike Huckabee was catching flak for straying from conservative principles. So he framed his record as Arkansas governor this way: "Everywhere I went, I had people protesting me and screaming and yelling and doing demonstrations because I had cut government. But I stayed faithful to the things that Ronald Reagan stayed faithful to."

The president's true believers demanded: "Let Reagan be Reagan." So Reagan himself would surely be surprised to hear how often and selectively he gets reshaped today.

What to say to the suggestion that an Alaska governor who served half a term and then starred in a reality television show might lack the gravitas to be president?

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