Candidates strike out as Reagan posers
Share with others:
If there's one subject that conservatives love to gas on and on about it is Ronald Reagan.
To hear them speak of the late, sainted president, every word the Gipper ever uttered was sacred. Today, his speeches are treated as without flaw by the conservative faithful.
Reagan wasn't just the 40th president of the United States, as far as his spiritual heirs are concerned. With every bromide about welfare moms buying luxury items with food stamps, he proved himself the living embodiment of a know-nothing conservatism that would dominate his party from that point on. The Gipper was as close as one could get to the uninhibited spirit of capitalism without being transformed into a bag of gold dust oneself.
That's why the late president's name is invoked more often than "um" or "the" during the 2012 Republican presidential debates. Reagan's name has become a mantra that could potentially unite pragmatic establishment Republicans with insurgent tea party types on the party's far right frontier.
In order to claim the mantle as Reagan's legitimate heir, the candidates are scrambling to uncover examples of apostasy enough to disqualify their opponent. The result is a cavalcade of hypocrisy so blatant as to make one swoon from embarrassment.
The Newt Gingrich campaign has come up with Mitt Romney quotes that were trotted out to devastating effect during the 2008 primaries. No matter how he spins it, the former Massachusetts governor will never be able to explain away classic statements caught on tape such as "I'm not a Reagan Republican" and "I think people recognize that I'm not a partisan Republican. That I'm someone who is moderate, and that my views are progressive."
But hypocrisy about Reagan is rarely a one-way street among Republican primary combatants. According to a devastating National Review Online piece by former assistant secretary of state Elliott Abrams, the former House speaker went far beyond Mr. Romney's Peter-like denials of conservatism's messiah by actively disparaging President Reagan's policies as "impotence [and] incompetence."
This isn't to say that Mr. Gingrich was wrong in his analysis, from a Democrat's perspective, but his track record as far as the Reagan administration is concerned is one of obstructionism and contempt. Reagan administration insiders like Mr. Abrams accuse Mr. Gingrich of having spewed "insulting rhetoric at Reagan, his top aides, and his policies to defeat communism."
Far from being an administration ally, Mr. Gingrich was antagonistic during the 1980s to much of Reagan's agenda, according to Mr. Abrams, who accuses him of knifing the president in the back during the fight to fund the Nicaraguan Contras.
Mr. Gingrich isn't alone in his gross opportunism, but he is by far the most shameless of the four candidates still vying for the nomination. The next time the former speaker makes a pompous statement about the failures of the Obama administration, remember that he called Reagan's 1985 meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev "the most dangerous summit for the West since Adolf Hitler met with Neville Chamberlain in 1938 in Munich."
These days, Mr. Gingrich claims to have "helped" Reagan win the Cold War. That would be true if a quote like "Measured against the scale and momentum of the Soviet empire's challenge, the Reagan administration has failed, is failing, and without a dramatic change in strategy will continue to fail" can be considered "help."
Mr. Gingrich proved to be equally adept at irritating George H.W. Bush, Reagan's vice president and the man who as president actually oversaw the fall of the Soviet Union. Mr. Gingrich didn't become a serious player until he led a Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in 1994.
President Bill Clinton soon found Mr. Gingrich to be a perfect partner in the "useful idiot" sense when the speaker shut down the government out of a sense of pique, wounded vanity and ideological overkill. His lack of self-awareness led him to pursue Mr. Clinton for lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky, the way Javert pursued Jean Valjean in "Les Miserables."
The idolization of Reagan may be silly and intellectually bankrupt, but even Democrats should be offended by the attempts of such an obvious phony like Newt to wrap himself in the Gipper's mantle. Even on his best day, Newt Gingrich is no Ronald Reagan.
First Published January 27, 2012 12:00 am