I’m Ronald Reagan! No, I’m Reagan! No, over here, I’m the real Reagan!
Did anyone hear the crack of a starting pistol? Nor me. But the race to become the Republican presidential nominee in 2016 is on.
Of course Reince Priebus, the GOP chairman, has been trying to keep the contest under close control since the party’s 2012 presidential primaries became a cable comedy sensation.
Perhaps he should have told the prospective candidates. The most eager wannabes, keen to take an early lead, have jumped the gun. Though it is too early to tell how the race will unfold, let alone who will win, we are already getting a taste of the themes, the policies and, above all, the complexion of the primaries to come. If the vituperative mood of the opening salvoes is anything to go by, we are in for fireworks.
Once again the ghost of Ronald Reagan looms large. Though his record in raising taxes and adding to the deficit, and his involvement in redrawing the map of the world, would make him ineligible to become the nominee were he still alive, the contestants are already comparing themselves with the only Republican president whose conservative credentials are made of the same material as earned him his nickname, the “Teflon president.”
As always, the frontrunner is taking the most flak. Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) now enjoys support from 11 percent of Republican voters, a point or two ahead of scandal-ridden New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and former governors Jeb Bush of Florida, and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas. Paul is three points ahead of Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), former vice presidential candidate and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. This crowded field also includes Senator Marco Rubio of Florida with 6 points and Texas Governor Rick Perry with 3.
The closeness of the race cannot explain the testiness of the candidates — and those who speak on their behalf. This is former Vice President Dick Cheney tilting at Paul’s view that the United States should play a diminished role in the world. “Isolationism is crazy,” Cheney said. “Anybody who went through 9/11 who thinks we can retreat behind our oceans and we’ll be safe and secure is — I’m sorry, but they’re out to lunch.”
If anyone doubted Cheney was talking about Paul, his daughter Liz Cheney piled on. “Obviously Senator Paul leaves something to be desired in terms of national security policy,” she said.
Paul struck back. “Questions could be asked of those [like Cheney] who supported the Iraq war,” Paul said. He asked: “Were the weapons of mass destruction there? That’s what the war was sold on. Was democracy easily achievable? Was the war won in 2005 — when many of these people said it was won?” A liberal peacenik could not have been more pointed.
But Cruz, who is chasing the same Tea Party supporters as Paul, was also prepared to pick a fight with him over whether the GOP should retain an interventionist foreign policy. Borrowing from Marc Antony’s eulogy of the title character in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Cruz insisted, “I’m a big fan of Rand Paul. He and I are good friends,” but, “I don’t agree with him on foreign policy. … I agree with him that we should be very reluctant to deploy military force aboard. But I think there is a vital role, just as Ronald Reagan did.”
Invoking the conservative saint Reagan sharply upped the stakes. “Every Republican likes to think he or she is the next Ronald Reagan,” Paul wrote in an op-ed, poking fun at Cruz’s impertinence in comparing himself to the great man. “Some who say this do so for lack of their own ideas and agenda,” he wrote. “…But too often people make him into something he wasn’t in order to serve their own political purposes.”
Paul took to the high ground, appealing for Republican unity. “I don’t claim to be the next Ronald Reagan nor do I attempt to disparage fellow Republicans as not being sufficiently Reaganesque,” he wrote. “But I will remind anyone who thinks we will win elections by trashing previous Republican nominees, or holding oneself out as some paragon in the mold of Reagan, that splintering the party is not the route to victory.”
Then Paul and Perry fell out. The Texas governor, whose rambling 2012 presidential bid has not deterred him from considering another shot, wrote an op-ed saying, “as a governor who has supported Texas National Guard deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, I can understand the emotions behind isolationism.” But he said it was “disheartening to hear fellow Republicans, such as Sen. Rand Paul” suggesting that the resurgence of violence in Iraq was none of America’s business.
In an extraordinary insult, Perry compared Paul to President Barack Obama and his famous drawing of “red lines.” “Paul is drawing his own red line along the water’s edge,” wrote Perry, “creating a giant moat where superpowers can retire from the world.”
So what is going on? These are preliminary skirmishes in what might prove to be the final battle in a civil war waged by the Republican Party on and off since 1964 — when Senator Barry M. Goldwater, with the help of Reagan, stormed the GOP establishment and offered Americans a small government, low taxes, libertarian-minded campaign to win the White House. The rise of the Tea Party in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and through 2010 protests against the Affordable Care Act has again provided a groundswell of grass-roots support for someone more radical than the latest establishment candidate waiting in line.
Mainstream Republicans are aghast that Paul has already made progress in arguing that U.S. foreign policy should pull in its horns. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) calls Paul “part of a wing of the [GOP] that’s been there ever since prior to World War I,” isolationists who advocate “a withdrawal to fortress America.”
For many Tea Party voters, GOP neo-isolationists like Paul have a good reason to press for U.S. withdrawal from the world’s trouble spots: the national debt. The sequester’s automatic spending cuts have exposed the deep fissure in Republican thinking between military-hawks like Cheney and fiscal-doves like Paul. Fiscal doves now enjoy a double whammy: a reduction in expensive military spending coupled with Washington doing less to police the world.
But isolationism is only one of many issues pitting old-school Republicans against libertarians who have entered the GOP in larger numbers than ever through the Tea Party. The size of the federal government, the role of the Federal Reserve, the devolution of decision-making to the states, particularly on social issues, and the scope of federal snooping on individuals are all up for grabs.
In the coming months, Reagan’s ghost will likely be constantly summoned by both sides. Though the candidates’ willingness to bang heads so painfully shows that their nod to The Gipper is merely notional.
For if the hopefuls genuinely want to follow their mythical leader’s example, they would not have so conspicuously abandoned his 11th Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Speak Ill of Any Fellow Republican.
PHOTO (TOP): Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) seen on a screen as he introduces Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) to a crowd of campaign supporters after McConnell defeated Tea Party challenger Matt Bevin in the state GOP primary elections in Louisville, Kentucky, May 20, 2014. REUTERS/John Sommers II
PHOTO (INSERT 1): President Ronald Reagan addressing a news conference in Washington, October 19, 1983. REUTERS/Mal Langsdon
PHOTO (INSERT 2): Texas Governor Rick Perry makes remarks at the Conservative Political Action Conference opens in Oxon Hill, Maryland, March 7, 2014. REUTERS/Mike Theiler