Jeb Bush suspended his candidacy for Republican presidential nomination on Saturday night after ranking a disappointing fourth in the South Carolina primary. Losing in what used to be considered 'Bush country' was the final nail in the coffin for his presidential bid. That said, his campaign was affected not only by perceptions of the Bush dynasty, but also a failure to credibly affiliate with President Ronald Reagan.
Reagan is the poster boy for American conservatism in contemporary Republican presidential campaigns and it has become almost essential for candidates to align with the Gipper. Despite Reagan's average approval ratings during his presidency, he has become a conservative idol in the years after due in part to his foreign policy legacy.
The image of Reagan as a Cold Warrior was popularised in the late nineties. Reagan is often depicted as defeating the Soviets and securing American primacy with moral clarity and military strength: a narrative used to promote neoconservative foreign policy at the turn of the century. Reagan is also admired by conservative realists and libertarians who regard his foreign policy to be pragmatic and restrained (a debate indicative of a battle for Reagan within the GOP).
As well as the dominant 'Tear down this wall!' symbolism of the end of his presidency, Reagan is applauded for his optimism in the lead up to his 1980 election. In the shadow of the Vietnam War and economic stagnation, Reagan is said to have countered American declinism with his belief in American exceptionalism and his 'vision of a better America'.
Evocations of Reagan's vision and legacy have featured in every presidential campaign of the 21st Century, with a noticeable surge of adulation after his death in 2004. Reagan has been referenced dozens of times during Republican presidential debates since 2008 and his 'peace through strength' foreign policy message was revived in 2012 as well as 2016. Candidates point to what Reagan would do, why Reagan would endorse their policies and how Reagan has influenced their personal political trajectories.
Like others, Jeb Bush attempted to draw an affiliation with Reagan. Political pundits said conservatives would not want to risk another Bush, but Jeb knew if he could demonstrate connections to Reagan he would improve his chances. During a campaign event in September he unbuttoned his shirt to reveal a Reagan-Bush '84 campaign t-shirt while praising the 'team' for bringing down the Soviet Union. This was a display highlighting a direct lineage to Reagan through Bush's father, George H.W. Bush.
Jeb Bush also engaged foreign policy advisors from Reagan's Administrations and he nodded to Reagan in his national security statement. In a speech delivered at the Reagan Presidential Library, he spoke of a need for 'strength, will and clarity of purpose' and of 'freedom's cause' in 'fighting evil' which are all recognisable Reaganite ideas. Still during the campaign he found himself defending his brother's policies in the Middle East, an issue which loomed large, and he was criticised for recruiting advisors from George W. Bush's Administrations.
An impromptu reference to Reagan during the second Republican debate missed the mark. Candidates were asked which woman they would like to see on the 10 dollar bill and Bush answered 'Ronald Reagan's partner, Margaret Thatcher', a response which was publicly ridiculed.
There were 'Reagan' moments in Bush's campaign which were better executed. Under the title 'The Reagan Approach', his campaign promoted a video clip from a candidate debate in which Bush criticises Donald Trump for taking a negative approach in contrast to a hopeful, optimistic 'Reagan approach'. Another debate moment was turned into a social media share in which Bush says 'Ronald Reagan didn't tear people down like Donald Trump. He tore down the Berlin Wall'.
Despite these attempts, Bush failed to associate himself with Reagan: his familial presidential connections were far too dominant.
Other candidates have illustrated more convincing affiliations. Trump says he 'followed the Ronald Reagan path' by transitioning from being a liberal Democrat to a conservative Republican. Trump has been likened to Reagan as an outsider running for the Republican nomination: a comparison extended to Reagan's former Hollywood career and Trumps' time in television. Trump also points to his early support of Reagan and references his 1980 campaign by using Reagan's slogan, 'Make America Great Again'.
Historically Trump and Reagan's political paths are quite different. Reagan was actively involved in politics years before running for president. He delivered the famous 'Time For Choosing' speech in support of Barry Goldwater in 1964 and then served two terms as Governor of California from 1967 to 1975 before running for president in 1976 and again in 1980. And yet the Reagan comparison works for Trump who also draws on big picture themes in his vision for America (although in a rather less disciplined way).
Ted Cruz is another Republican candidate who has drawn a comparison of himself and Reagan as establishment outsiders. Cruz's devotion to Reagan since childhood is depicted as almost obsessional. Cruz says his policies emulate Reagan's which is a view endorsed by conservative media commentator Rush Limbaugh, who recently said of Cruz, 'this is the closest in our lifetimes we have ever been to Ronald Reagan in terms of doctrinaire, understandable, articulated, implementable conservatism'.
Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have similar stories to tell about being inspired by Reagan to enter politics. They were born five months apart, Cruz in December 1970 and Rubio in May 1971, and were boys when Reagan was elected president in 1980. Cruz was influenced by his father, and Rubio by his grandfather, who each criticised Carter and believed in Reagan. Rubio says he wrote a paper in fifth grade praising Reagan for restoring the US military. Cruz is said to have pursued a life-long goal to become like Ronald Reagan.
A difference between the two is that Cruz emulates Reagan while Rubio proclaims to represent the Reagan generation. In doing so, Cruz looks backwards while Rubio looks forward. The key to the myth is that it works due to the symbolism of Reagan and not his actual policy record. This made for an awkward moment for Cruz when television host Stephen Colbert pointed out that Reagan had raised taxes and introduced an amnesty program for illegal immigrants. Cruz was cornered into saying he could not agree with these Reagan policies.
While Cruz aims to mirror Reagan, Rubio better positions himself as a generational heir to the Reagan legacy. After the South Carolina primary he declared, 'Now the children of the Reagan revolution are ready to assume the mantle of leadership.' Rubio's campaign uses the slogan 'A New American Century' together with Reagan's 'Morning in America' messaging to simultaneously harness the Reagan spirit and point to a future for conservatism in America.
It remains to be seen if the Reagan effect will work for Trump, Rubio or Cruz. In 2012 Jeb Bush remarked that if Reagan was running today he would have a hard time getting elected. He said Republicans have become too opposed to compromise whereas Reagan focused on finding common ground. For 21st Century Republican candidates, it is better to stick with the Reagan spirit than the Reagan record.
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