WASHINGTON — A near-certainty in Republican presidential debates is that any mention of Ronald Reagan will be full of praise. He stands as the model president for Republicans seeking the office.
What Newt Gingrich, the front-runner in the party’s current race, is unlikely to note is that he once charged that Reagan’s administration “has failed, is failing, and without a dramatic fundamental change in strategy will continue to fail” in dealing with the Soviet Union. Nor will rival Mitt Romney repeat his comment in a 1994 Senate race that he wasn’t “trying to return to” Reagan policies.
Ron Paul, another leading Republican presidential contender, blamed Reagan for growing U.S. deficits as he left party in 1987 and sought the White House as the Libertarian nominee a year later. Meanwhile, Rick Perry was a Democrat in Texas during Reagan’s 1981-1989 presidential tenure.
Past criticisms are now forgotten. Through Wednesday, Reagan’s name came up 64 times in 12 previous Republican debates. Gingrich, a former U.S. House speaker, mentions him the most. In a Dec. 10 debate, he declared, “I’m proud to be a Reaganite.”
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, called Reagan’s powers of leadership “amazing” during a Dec. 7 speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition in Washington. And on Dec. 9 he told the Des Moines Register editorial board that Reagan’s experience in the private sector was longer than in government, a selling point in Romney’s campaign.
Paul, a Texas congressman, ran an ad called “Trust” which touts his early backing for Reagan in 1976 and 1980. As pictures of the two men flash on the screen, the ad says Paul “stood with Reagan.” And it zings Perry as a “cheerleader” for Democrat Al Gore’s 1988 presidential bid, ignoring Paul’s own third-party candidacy that year.
Perry, the governor of Texas, switched to the Republican Party in 1989, the year Reagan left office. Perry now praises Reagan for his foresight on the Soviet Union. “He said the Soviet Union was destined for the ash heap of history, and he was correct,” Perry said during a Nov. 22 debate.
Other candidates — none of whom had began their elective political careers until Reagan had left office — also tout Reagan and seek to tie themselves to him.
Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota promotes Reagan’s “economic miracle” and pledges to use that as a guide. Former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania declared in a Nov. 14 interview with CNN that “there’s no one who’s more Reagan conservative than me.”
Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr., who served as a White House staff assistant to Reagan, chose the site of the former president’s general election campaign kickoff in 1980 — a New Jersey park where the Statue of Liberty serves as backdrop — to announce his own bid for the White House in June.
In the mid-1980s, Reagan didn’t always find such an adoring audience in his own party. Gingrich, then a Georgia congressman, in 1986 took to the House floor to voice his disappointment with the Reagan administration’s policies toward the Soviet Union.
“The burden of this failure, frankly, must be placed first on President Reagan,” Gingrich said on March 21, according to the Congressional Record. “In addition to making good speeches, it is his job to ensure that others design good policies.”
Gingrich praised Reagan’s ideas even as he criticized the results. “The Reagan administration has a huge gap between its president’s correct visionary warnings of the transnational Soviet empire and the rest of the executive branch’s incorrect, ineffective fumblings and inadequacies,” he said.
The next year, Paul sent a letter to the Republican National Committee resigning his membership. “There is no credibility left for the Republican Party as a force to reduce the size of government,” Paul said. “That is the message of the Reagan years.”
Paul explains the contrast between embracing Reagan now and considering him a failure in 1987 as a result of his frustration with the former president’s vision versus his actions. “The message was great,” Paul said during a Sept. 7 debate. “But the consequence, we have to be honest with ourselves, it was not all that great.”
Romney sought to distance himself from Reagan during an Oct. 25, 1994, debate with Edward Kennedy, the veteran Democratic senator he was trying to unseat in Massachusetts.
Kennedy said Romney was trying to take the U.S. back to the “Reagan-Bush years,” a reference to Reagan’s vice president and his White House successor for one term, George H.W. Bush.
“I was an independent during the time of Reagan-Bush,” Romney said. “I’m not trying to return to Reagan-Bush.”
Julie Bykowicz and Catherine Dodge in Washington contributed to this report.