FILE - In this July 17, 1980, file photo, Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan stands before a cheering Republican National Convention in Detroit's Joe Louis Arena. Republicans heading to their 2012 party convention in Tampa are eager to hear an earful about the shortcomings of President Barack Obama's record, the woeful U.S. economy and the competing visions of the two presidential candidates. They aren't looking for compromise, which most Americans say is necessary to get the nation on track. The delegates hear rhetoric that is brutal, vitriolic and far from conciliatory. The Republicans want a party like in 1980 when the GOP ousted a Democratic president after one term. (AP Photo/Rusty Kennedy, File)
I will always have good things to say about Ronald Reagan.
He led the country through a recession that, at least here in the Midwest, was severe as the financial crisis of 2008. Unemployment hit 23 percent in some industrial cities, and we learned the term “Rust Belt.” Despite his image as a nuclear cowboy who couldn’t wait to bomb the Russians, he won the Cold War -- America’s longest conflict -- without firing a single shot. Considering that I turned 18 during his presidency, that meant a lot to me.
But with all due respect to Reagan and his legacy, he’s as relevant to modern politics as Dwight D. Eisenhower, Theodore Roosevelt or William McKinley.
Reagan was elected president 32 years ago, which means than everyone who voted for him is either over 50 or dead. The problem is, the Republican Party -- which, it seems, appeals mainly to people over 50 -- refuses to acknowledge this. Since Reagan was their last truly successful president, and the greatest practitioner of modern conservatism, Republicans have a millennial fixation on their savior, a hope that every nominee will be his next incarnation. The first time I ever heard Mitt Romney speak, he said, “The older I get, the smarter Ronald Reagan becomes.”
Lincoln Day Dinners, the Republican rubber chicken circuit, are now Lincoln/Reagan Day Dinners in many counties. Reagan’s alma mater, Eureka College, will be holding a “Reagan 101” course next week. During his “47 percent” speech, Romney also talked of possibly taking advantage of a pre-election hostage crisis, as Reagan did to defeat President Jimmy Carter. In fact, after four Americans were killed in Benghazi, Libya, Republicans insisted it was a “Carter moment” that showed Obama’s Middle Eastern policy was weak.
The Republicans’ Reagan fixation means party is still trying to win the presidency with the same coalition that elected Reagan: libertarians, religious conservatives and blue-collar whites (what used to be called Reagan Democrats, although if they’ve been voting Republican for three decades, they’re hardly Democrats anymore). That worked in 1980, when the country was 83 percent white. It doesn’t work so well now that the white population is 72 percent. That’s why the Republicans have now lost the popular vote in five out of the last six presidential elections. Since 1988, when George H.W. Bush was elected to what was basically Reagan’s third term, no Republican has received more than 284 electoral votes. That high-water mark was George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004.
In his acceptance speech, Obama stuck it to the Republicans for their lack of diversity, declaring, “I believe we can keep the promise of our founding, the idea that if you’re willing to work hard, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from or what you look like or where you love. It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, abled, disabled, gay or straight. You can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.”
The Republicans once had a president who spoke in rhetoric like that. Maybe they should go back to being the Party of Lincoln. Unlike most presidents, his legacy never gets old.