Reagan back on campaign trail

2012 candidates find ways to align themselves with icon

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The Republican candidates in the 2012 presidential sweepstakes haven’t been shy about invoking Ronald Reagan’s sunny disposition and rhetoric about American exceptionalism, or painting their prescriptions for the nation’s woes as a natural extension of his political orthodoxy.

The field has touted the Reagan record on taxes, jobs and the economy as their road map for developing their own policies, and argued that they stand where “The Gipper” would have stood on the big global challenges of the day.

On a larger scale, they’ve depicted their efforts to oust President Obama and capture the White House as a replay of the conservative-liberal clash that saw Reagan triumph over President Jimmy Carter more than three decades ago.

“We’ve been here before. Jimmy Carter made a total mess out of the economy,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said last month at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans. “Reagan had a very simple phrase. He said, ‘When your brother-in-law’s unemployed, it’s called a recession. When you’re unemployed, it’s called a depression. When Jimmy Carter’s unemployed, it’s called a recovery.’ “

Bandying about the ghost of Reagan and mimicking him on the stump has become a pastime for GOP White House hopefuls, who appear confident that he still holds sway with an electorate - especially now that it is pulling the party away from the big government legacy of George W. Bush and pushing it toward the “government is not the solution to our problem; government ‘is’ the problem” philosophy that helped turn Reagan into a conservative icon.

“Republican aspirants for the presidency are doing the same thing that Democrats did for half a century after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death in 1945: asserting that they are the true heir of their party’s last, great king,” said Michael Schaller, a history professor at the University of Arizona who authored a biography on Reagan, who died in 2004.

The Reagan-fueled symbolism ran thick earlier this month when former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. announced his presidential bid in Liberty Park, within eyeshot of the Statue of Liberty, and in the very same spot that “The Great Communicator” launched his general election campaign against Mr. Carter.

“It was a time of trouble, worry and difficulty,” Mr. Huntsman said, alluding to Reagan’s speech. “He assured us we could ‘make America great again,’ and through his leadership, he did. Today, I stand in his shadow.”

Mr. Gingrich has tried to convince supporters that his campaign is still alive by noting that Reagan also had a shaky start to his successful presidential bid.

Rep. Ron Paul has tried to bolster his case for a retrenchment of U.S. troops by highlighting parts of Reagan’s memoir where he expresses regret for sending Marines into Lebanon, resulting in the death of 241 servicemen.

And former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the GOP front-runner, has tried to reprise the “misery index” attack that Reagan used with great success against Mr. Carter, though the former Massachusetts governor does not cite the same two economic measures Reagan did (inflation and unemployment). Instead, he cites a panoply of figures representing the “failed” economic polices of President Obama.

At times, the Reagan-off has even led to candidates taking opposite positions, while still claiming to be acting under the imprint of Reaganism.

When former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty rolled out his vision for the nation’s role in the Middle East, he conjured up Reagan’s approach to foreign policy and warned against “isolationist sentiments” in the Republican Party.

“In the 1980s, we were up against a violent, totalitarian ideology bent on subjugating the people and principles of the West. While others sought to coexist, President Reagan instead sought victory,” Mr. Pawlenty said. “So must we, today. For America is exceptional, and we have the moral clarity to lead the world.”

The “isolationist” remarks were seen largely as a swipe at Mr. Huntsman and others in the field who had suggested it is time to scale back the country’s posture overseas and to bring the troops home from Afghanistan.

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