GOP debate mantra: When in doubt, invoke the memory of Ronald Reagan

050407debate.jpgTen Republican presidential candidates wanting to replace President Bush embraced a more popular president, conservative icon Ronald Reagan, at every turn in their first debate of the 2008 race.

“Ronald Reagan was a president of strength,” Mitt Romney intoned. “Ronald Reagan used to say, we spend money like a drunken sailor,” said John McCain. And Rudy Giuliani praised “that Ronald Reagan optimism.”

The world, however, is far different today than it was some 25 years ago when the nation’s 40th president relaxed at his retreat in the rolling hills of southern California.

Iraq and terrorism now are top issues, support for Bush is at a low point and Republican hopefuls find themselves trying to prove to the party’s base that they’re conservative enough to be the GOP nominee — on social matters as well as the economic and security issues Reagan championed.

The three leading candidates — Giuliani, McCain and Romney — and their seven lesser-known rivals attempted to do just that Thursday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. They debated for 90 minutes in the shadow of the late president’s Air Force One suspended from above and before Reagan’s widow, Nancy, who sat in the front row of the audience.

They stressed the importance of persisting in Iraq and defeating terrorists, called for lower taxes and a muscular defense, and supported spending restraint.

One by one, they invoked Reagan 19 times. In contrast, Bush’s name was barely uttered; the president’s job approval rating languishes in the 30s.

“They went out of the their way on multiple occasions, no matter the question, to associate themselves with Reagan,” said Mitchell McKinney, a political communication professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia. “They tried their best to not be explicitly bashing or attacking Bush. Most of them tried, in some way, to take a pass on that.”

Republican operatives agreed that the debate did nothing to shake up the crowded GOP field.

They said Giuliani, the former New York City mayor, McCain, a four-term Arizona senator, and Romney, the ex-Massachusetts governor, remained the strongest contenders, with the most money and the best approval ratings in the polls more than eight months before the first 2008 national convention delegates are selected.

“Clearly the top three looked quite presidential,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster.

Scott Reed, who ran Bob Dole’s 1996 campaign, added: “McCain showed a little energy. Romney showed he’s very polished. And Giuliani started to clear up some of his issues with the base of the party.”

Each largely stuck to their talking points — and often reverted to their stump speeches — as they sought to present themselves as the most conservative candidate in the pack, and a worthy heir to the political legacy of Reagan.

The former actor and California governor took office in 1981 when the world was absorbed by the Cold War, and good versus evil was defined by countries that aligned with the United States and those that stood with the Soviet Union — “the evil empire” in Reagan’s lexicon. The arms race and the ever-present threat of nuclear war overshadowed social issues like abortion. Stem cell research didn’t exist. There was no public debate about gay marriage or the so-called right to die.

Fast forward to the 2008 presidential race.

The candidates expressed resolve in winning the war in Iraq and defeating terrorists across the world. They also had to answer for their positions on a range of social issues, including abortion, stem-cell research and evolution.

“Nobody wants to talk about social issues for more than 11 seconds,” said Rich Galen, a GOP strategist. “But they had to talk about what they were asked about.”

McCain is the only top-tier contender who has a career-long record of opposing abortion, a position that resonates with a wide swath of GOP political activists who support the overturning of the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion.

With a record of supporting abortion rights, Giuliani was the only candidate who said “it would be OK” if the Supreme Court upholds the landmark ruling. “It would be OK to repeal it. It would be OK also if a strict constructionist viewed it as precedent,” he said.

His rivals agreed that it would be a great day if the court overturns the landmark ruling.

Romney, for his part, acknowledged he had reversed course on the subject and said his position had once effectively been “pro-choice.”

“I changed my mind,” Romney said, adding that Reagan did the same.

But Giuliani, who said he personally hates abortion, hedged when asked about his current position.

“I think the court has to make that decision and then the country can deal with it,” he said. “We’re a federalist system of government and states can make their own decisions.”

Most of the contenders said they opposed legislation making federal funds available for a wider range of embryonic stem cell research. The technique necessarily involves the destruction of a human embryo, and is opposed by many anti-abortion conservatives as a result.

There are exceptions, though, including Reagan’s widow, Nancy. Also, public opinion polls show overwhelming support for the research, which doctors say holds promise for treatment or even cures of numerous diseases.

McCain was the only one to unambiguously say he supports expanded federal research into embryonic stem cells.

Giuliani’s response was open to interpretation. He said he supports it “as long as we’re not creating life in order to destroy it,” then added he would back funding for research along the lines of legislation pending in Congress. However, the bill he cited does not increase federal support for research on embryonic stem cells. Rather, it deals with adult stem cells.

The field split on another issue, with Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo raising their hands when asked who did not believe in evolution.

Other participants included former Govs. Jim Gilmore of Virginia and Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin; and Reps. Duncan Hunter of California and Ron Paul of Texas.

Liz Sidoti covers politics for The Associated Press

Copyright © 2007 The Associated Press


  1. CheckerboardStrangler

    A fiscal conservative whose tenure as a President was effectively crippled 100 days into his term by the Bush-Hinckley assassination attempt and the resulting eight years following, much of it spent taking long naps while George H.W. Bush was for all practical purposes, the real President.
    Yes, and let’s all refrain from puking when we hear the participants wax poetic about “reaching across the aisle”.
    The only thing they’ll be reaching for is the prison cell door key when they let Manchurian Candidate John Hinckley out again to do his job on the next President that the Bush Crime Family is dissatisfied with.

  2. Sonorous Pest

    The only difference between the idiot buffon we have now and Reagan is a bottle of hair dye. Both wanted to make the rich richer and the poor poorer. Ronald Reagan was O.K in his place and they finally dug it.
    The idiot is 8 I.Q points away from weaving baskets. Under his brillant leadership The United States is drifting towar 3rd world status and Barack Obama would make the transition complete. Kennedy should have said in this decade we will place a man on the moon, he should have added, “and build a community where we can escape too”.

  3. Sandy Price

    He was a fiscal conservative not this social conservative that changed him after being in office for 4 years. He stood tall for individual freedoms not this new conservative wanting social issues made into law.

    The federal government changed the man who was so popular in California and Washington D.C.

    The influence of power and the pressure of being part of the religious right destroyed Reagan’s integrity and will destroy any man or woman who ends up in the Oval Office.

    The agenda of the Republican Party is so obvious and frightening that I will work to expose anyone who makes it to the final cut. I tried to warn people that G.W. Bush would run the country as a dictator but it didn’t stop the people from putting him in power.

    The GOP proved themselves to be what we know as theocratic neoconservatives and they will destroy the Constitution and America for their desire for a One World Order under God.

    We have work to do to keep this from happening.

  4. eric

    “Ronald Reagan used to say, we spend money like a drunken sailor,” said John McCain.

    Just trying to keep track of what is and is not traitorious talk, according to the repubs… Why is the phrase “spend money like a drunken sailor” _not_ a traitorious insult to the troops whereas a blown joke from franken-kerry is?

    Oh and…

    Romney, for his part, acknowledged he had reversed course on the subject and said his position had once effectively been “pro-choice.”

    “I changed my mind,” Romney said, adding that Reagan did the same.

    Reagan flip-flopped too? So…is flip-flopping good or bad now?

    The field split on another issue, with Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo raising their hands when asked who did not believe in evolution.

    Heh heh, that sure is telling. I guess they like to work from experience…if it didn’t happen specifically for them, they do not believe it at all.

  5. Sandy Price

    He then changed his mind and many of us turned away from him. The one part of America’s values comes from the government trusting the citizens and suddenly we were told we had to jump through hoops of obediance that were out of the authority of the federal government.

    It is not just a change of opinion but a lack of respect for the people who put you in the white house. I lost all respect for Ronald Reagan when he decided the government has the control over our freedoms.

    Everyone on that stage last night believes they have the right to make my decisions for me. This is an issue that will not be dropped by the voters. They all backed away from the Shaivo decision and that will do them in.

  6. Electric Bill

    The Republicans are such fans of Reagan they have reinvented him historically. We call that revisionism in the trade. At his very best, he was a good speaker with a relatively dim understanding of issues. He managed to make an alliance with the religious wrong that we are still paying for and he destabilized Latin America for decades to come. Anyone who couldn’t see past Reagan during his term as governor of California either wasn’t looking very hard or isn’t terribly bright. His desire to spill the blood of college demonstrators (if we’re going to have a bloodbath let’s get it over with) presaged the Kent State murders and framed his hard line leanings a hell of a lot better than any of that morning in America bullshit he carped on. He was about to be justly impeached for his role in the Iran Contra affair when he got lucky with Gorbachev. If the Republicans want to wave him like a flag of righteousness, the Democrats need to be ready to debunk the myth of Reagan. B movie actor, C- president.

  7. AustinRanter

    The old GOP has now morphed into the Republican Christian Taliban. They want to bring Jesus into the White House and central government to help them control the wayward sexual behaviors of women so they can ultimately eliminate the abortion problem. Eventually, they’ll have the death penalty passed through the Christian Taliban Supreme Court for all women who fail in their duties to be subservient to men.

  8. Donnat

    He was cliche, mediocre and almost as dumb as Bush. Wait, I can remember one thing about him, it was during his administration that America started on its downhill slide to turning into Argentina.


  9. Steve Horn

    I got a real kick out of the following:

    “Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo raising their hands when asked who did not believe in evolution.”

    They don’t believe in evolution, which is another way of saying they don’t believe in change.

    How prophetic that this admission would come from Republican candidates who would love to turn America into a theocracy dominated by “Christian” doctrine.

    The 1950’s may have been a grand time in America – I wouldn’t know – having been born in December of 1958 – I really wasn’t politically aware at that point in my life -but it seems to me that these gents would have women barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, children sitting in obediant and reverent observance of their parents and nothing in the media “racier” than “Leave it to Beaver”.

    One can only ponder their real feelings on civil rights and race relations.

    And I can only hope that Darwin will be proven correct, that these rich white guys who would dominate the world will find their own political extinction in 2008.



  10. VietnamVet

    I posted this elsewhere, but it seems appropriate here also:

    What an appropriate location to spread more of the GOP propaganda! Reagan is/was one of the worst frauds ever heaped on the American people. Not only did he preside over the failed concept of trickle down economics, but he was responsible for increasing the national debt to epic levels to finance that folly. The increase in that debt has only been exceeded by the current nut we have in the white house. His supporters also falsely give him credit for single handingly winning the cold war, which was fought by every one of his modern day predecessors. Then there was Iran-Contra, and all the lying that took place there, and the subsequent “pardons.” One could go on and on, but…. One of the best presidents of the last century? Give me a break, please!

  11. Sandy Price

    it was an age of illusion. I preceded Martha Stewart as a housekeeper and cook. It came crashing down and I found myself back in the employment lines. I had no future except as a writer or secretary which is why both my daughters have their degrees from the University.

    Those men we heard last night made me feel sad that somehow they never really grew up in American values.

    They won’t make it Steve and they failed to break the mold of the social conservatives who were defeated last November. I’m just saddened that Ron Paul carries the label of Republican.

    He should have walked out last night.

  12. Steve Horn

    Sandy –

    The problem is – in ’06 we ushered out the social conservatives – apparently replacing them with another group unable or unwilling to do the bidding they were elected to do – witness Pelosi and her band of do-nothings cowering before GW.

    We may have won the battle, but the war still rages. The neocons have, no doubt, figured out why they got the boot in ’06 and are working hard to figure out how to get their theocracy back on track in ’08. Or maybe they’ll throw the election this cycle so they can blame a Democrat on the inevitable failure in Iraq – sort of a reverse of the play that Reagan did with the Iranian hostages when he ran against Carter.

    I expect a poltiical chess move or two from the current administration – it’ll involve Cheney stepping down for health reasons and the selection of a new VP from the party faithful – this person will become the obvious favorite for ’08 or 12 – depending on which parties shoulders the fall of Baghdad is to be laid upon.

    It ain’t over ’till the fat lady sings – and right now she’s got a gag in her mouth.