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

By Karen Tumulty
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?

"You know, I agree with that, that those standards have to be high for someone who would ever want to run for president," Sarah Palin sarcastically told Chris Wallace on Fox News last year. "Like, wasn't Ronald Reagan an actor? Wasn't he in 'Bedtime for Bonzo'?"

Perhaps the closest forebear to Reagan and the political hero worship he inspired is a president whose portrait Reagan hung in his own Oval Office: Andrew Jackson, the hero of the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, who was nicknamed "Old Hickory" for his toughness and transformed the politics of his day.

Jackson, a Democrat, ran for president as an outsider, gaining a plurality of the popular vote in 1824 but losing the race in subsequent balloting in the House of Representatives. He won the next two elections by landslides.

Jackson battled the elites of the young nation and shut down the fraud-ridden Second Bank of the United States. He demanded that the union of states be held together at any cost. But his name in history has been stained by his hostility toward the growing anti-slavery movement and his forced removal of Indian tribes from their lands.

"For almost 40 years in America, how you felt about that one man told you pretty much all you needed to know about how you felt about everything else," historian Richard Norton Smith said in an interview.

Like Reagan, Jackson was succeeded by his vice president, Martin Van Buren, who was elected in 1836 largely on the strength of his predecessor's popularity. So dominant was Jackson's brand that James K. Polk, elected in 1844, styled himself "Young Hickory," and Franklin Pierce, who won in 1852, was "Young Hickory of the Granite Hills."

The dilution of that political bloodline became evident in more than nicknames; Pierce is generally regarded as one of the most mediocre presidents in history.

Even Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, drew upon Jackson's legacy. In April 1861, as mobs in Baltimore attempted to block the movement of northern troops through their city to the capital, some of the city's prominent citizens urged Lincoln to let the South secede.

The 16th president retorted: "The rebels attack Fort Sumter, and your citizens attack troops sent to the defense of the Government, and the lives and property in Washington, and yet you would have me break my oath and surrender the Government without a blow. There is no Washington in that - no Jackson in that - no manhood nor honor in that."

Yet, as with Reagan's, Jackson's popularity was something that mystified the intelligentsia of his day, Smith said. "They could not understand his enormous, enduring mass appeal."

Historians say there are both benefits and dangers for aspiring leaders who so identify with the icons of the recent past.

Those icons' enduring appeal does not come from their records or their policies, which often contradicted their principles. Reagan, for instance, engaged the superpower he had called an evil empire, raised taxes and left behind what was at that time a record deficit.

Instead, these figures loom so large for the kind of sunny, forward-looking leadership they offered and the extraordinary connections they forged with the country.

"People desperately need that kind of attachment to someone who gives them the sense of hope and possibility," said presidential historian Robert Dallek. But that can be "a confining thing" for the next generation of leaders, who more often than not face a different set of problems that demand different solutions, said historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Roosevelt was a case in point, as described by William E. Leuchtenburg in his book, "In the Shadow of FDR."

"Each of his successors has known that if he did not walk in FDR's footsteps, he ran the risk of having it said that he was not a Roosevelt but a Hoover," the predecessor whose policies are often blamed for deepening the Great Depression, Leuchtenburg wrote. "Yet to the extent that he did copy FDR, he lost any chance of marking out his own claim to recognition."

In the years after Franklin Delano Roosevelt became known as FDR, Democratic presidents would be called by their three initials, would be measured by what they had accomplished in their first 100 days and would strive to sum up their philosophies in a phrase as catchy as "New Deal." As Leuchtenburg noted, even their wives "had to bear the onus of contrast to Eleanor Roosevelt."

That standard was still alive as late as 1991, when Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton was called a "warmed-over Republican" for the brand of centrist politics he was preaching. "When I was a boy," Clinton replied, "I lived with a grandfather who thought he was going to Roosevelt when he died."

Clinton's presidency, however, represented a turn away from the New Deal approach of bigger government and deeper social programs. He ended welfare as we knew it, put more people in prison, balanced the budget and proclaimed that "the era of big government is over." He also became the first Democrat since FDR to be elected to a second term.

That may prove most instructive to those who now lay claim to Reagan's mantle. A political legacy is not a prescription for a set of policies; it is a set of values and principles. The challenge for today's leaders is not so much hewing to what Reagan did in the 1980s, but figuring out where he might lead in the 21st century.

Research editor Alice R. Crites and staff writer Justin Moyer contributed to this article.

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