The second Republican primary debate will take place Wednesday at the Reagan Library. Considering the setting, you could probably make a drinking game out of how many times the candidates will name-drop the conservative icon. There is even a pro-immigration advertisement set the air during CNN’s broadcast of the debate, comparing Regan’s “shining city on the hill” with statements the current crop of contenders have made about illegal immigration. Ronald Reagan has grown so large in the conservative tapestry that you can use him to endorse, well, almost anything.
And it’s time for both voters and politicians to get over it.
No longer are these politicians comparing themselves to the human being that was Ronald Reagan. That man was flawed, just like all of them. His administration presided over a host of policies that would not pass anyone’s small-government smell test. His involvement in the Iran-Contra affair was regrettable no matter which side of the aisle you were on. And yet he was nonetheless a great president. His policies and speeches were commendable, and his conservative philosophy helped change the course of the Republican Party.
But again, he was only a human being.
The Ronald Reagan that now looms over the Republican Party has little to do with the man himself. Over the last thirty years he has become a legend akin to King Arthur. The living embodiment of conservatism, patriotism, and America herself. A modern Founding Father whose name alone draws us closer to a more perfect union. So powerful has become this legend that even Barack Obama once compared himself favorably to the Gipper. If Barack Obama can use Reagan’s name to boost his own political standing, it’s clear that we’re no longer standing on firm ground.
America has changed a lot since Reagan left office. Proposing that he would do this about immigration or that about same-sex marriage is foolish and transparent. A man can only be a product of his times. There is no way to know if the Ronald Reagan of 2015 would make the same choices as the Ronald Reagan of 1985. Any candidate who suggests otherwise is playing a political game. And any voter who falls for it should remember that to elect the “next Ronald Reagan,” we must look for someone who – like the great man himself – forges his own path.
We don’t need Republicans who promise to follow the Reagan template. We need Republicans who will address – with courage and wisdom – the problems of America today. That, and that alone, would make a fitting tribute to Reagan and an appropriate addition to the great tapestry of conservatism.