President Ronald Reagan’s name is always in vogue among conservatives around this time each year, as the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) elicits invocations of our 40th President from a fresh batch of political operatives attempting to associate their names with Reagan’s legacy.
This year, with CPAC taking place as foreign tensions escalate under the nervous eye of President Barack Obama’s blind diplomacy, Reagan’s name has been thrown around even more. One might even say Reagan-worship has become passé among conservative political aspirants: everybody’s doing it.
So credit Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.), at least, with being the first Presidential hopeful to notice the potentially muddling effect that trend could have, and for trying to draw a sharp line around “his” Reagan – one that other Reagan-flogging conservatives, like Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) can’t – or won’t – mimic.
On the heels of his second consecutive victory in the CPAC Presidential straw poll, Paul decided he’d establish his boundaries when it comes to what he’ll be meaning over the next two years as he talks about getting back to Reagan diplomacy. So he penned a piece for Breitbart over the weekend under the headline “Stop Warping Reagan’s Foreign Policy.”
What timing: Paul’s flag-planting had as much to do with setting himself apart from the potentially crowded 2016 Presidential field as it did with Reagan’s diplomacy – though he had plenty to say about that, too.
But let’s stay with the politics. “Every Republican likes to think that he or she is the next Ronald Reagan,” Paul states right from the start.
Cynical translation: “Don’t believe the impostors – all those other guys. They’ll all be saying the same thing. The GOP reform movement loves to talk about the big tent and finding consensus, but somebody has to get elected President, and that’s not going to happen if Reagan’s name becomes cheap currency.
Paul follows up later:
I don’t claim to be the next Ronald Reagan nor do I attempt to disparage fellow Republicans as not being sufficiently Reaganesque. 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.
I met Ronald Reagan as a teenager when my father was a Reagan delegate in 1976. I greatly admire Reagan’s projection of “Peace through Strength.” I believe, as he did, that our National Defense should be second to none, that defense of the country is the primary Constitutional role of the Federal Government.
Cynical translation: When I invoke Reagan’s name and legacy, it’s not debasing the conservative lingua franca. When other guys do it, it is. I may not be the next Ronald Reagan – but I met him at an impressionable age and he left an indelible impression on me, and now I’m telling you all about it. Who else can say that? I’ll forgive you if, right now, you’re imagining him handing me a baton.
Again, this is all cynicism on our part. Paul is, of course, smart to recognize an early need to stake out his Reagan territory, and to put up a high wall that will keep other conservative candidates off his turf. Let them have their Reagan talking points: these are mine, and I was here first.
Paul does offer a good take on Reagan’s “peace through strength” diplomacy throughout his column, and if you’re interested in that, it’s certainly worth reading.
But when conservative politicians use the public stage to dismantle, examine and reassemble Ronald Reagan’s Presidency like a kid reverse-engineering a toy, they’re not doing it in a vacuum. They’re doing it for an audience.
At the end of the day, really, they’re doing it for themselves.