Reporters often divide the Republican presidential field into “establishment” candidates and “conservative” ones. Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Chris Christie fall into camp number one. Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, and Ben Carson fall into camp number two. Scott Walker may have a foot in each. Rand Paul stands closest to the second, even if his libertarian inclinations set him somewhat apart.
But listen carefully to Cruz’s announcement speech on Monday and it becomes clear there’s another way of splitting the field, which may more accurately capture the GOP’s internal divisions heading into 2016. Call it reformists versus retros.
Reformists start with the assumption that Reagan-era conservatism is out of date. It doesn’t appeal to minorities, to single women, to the young. It doesn’t account for the changing politics of gay marriage, marijuana legalization and criminal justice reform. It focuses too exclusively on economic growth at a time when economic growth isn’t benefitting the poor and working class. It tells Americans that government must get out of the way when even many Republican-leaning voters want government’s help.
Rand Paul is as bold as any reformist in the race. He said “I’ll go to my grave with Ronald Wilson Reagan defining what it means to be president.” And the video he released to coincide with his campaign launch, which featured rolling fields and countless American flags, clearly aimed to evoke Reagan’s iconic “Morning in America” ad. In fact, when I showed Cruz’s video to my students, two of them shrewdly noted that it did not contain a single image unique to the 21st century.
But if Walker and Cruz are running as paleo-Reaganites against neo-Reaganites like Paul, Bush, and Rubio, it’s worth noting that in hewing to a contemporary right-wing vision of who Reagan was, Walker and Cruz are modifying the Gipper, too. In his announcement speech, Cruz made his father’s embrace of Christianity the emotional climax of his personal story. “There are people who wonder if faith is real,” he declared. “I can tell you, in my family there’s not a second of doubt, because were it not for the transformative love of Jesus Christ, I would have been saved and I would have been raised by a single mom without my father in the household.” Walker talks frequently about being a minister’s son, and last year tweeted “Philippians 4:13” from his official governor’s account. The passage reads: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” In his 1979 announcement speech, by contrast, Reagan offered no personal testament of faith. In fact, he didn’t even utter the word “faith.” Nor did he utter the words “Christian” or “Jesus Christ.” In his announcement speech, Cruz vowed to abolish the IRS. Reagan’s didn’t even mention it.
No Republican presidential candidate can be fully faithful to Reagan. Both America and the GOP have changed too much in the intervening decades. The real argument between candidates like Bush and Paul and candidates like Walker and Cruz is less about whether to modify Reagan than whether to admit that they are doing so. It’s between recognizing that today’s challenges require this crop of GOP presidential candidates to think for themselves, and pretending that they don’t.
This article was originally published at http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/03/reformists-and-retros-battle-for-the-gop/388562/