In the buildup to the 2012 election, conservatives fretted about nominee Mitt Romney. Like the two Bushes before him, he felt the looming shadow of Ronald Reagan at his back.
Reagan biographer Lou Cannon said "it's (hard) to make a Reagan out of Mitt Romney." The comparisons will be reset for 2016 as Reagan's image stubbornly keeps a hold on many Republican minds. But which Ronald Reagan?
For conservatives, the epitome of Reagan comes through in "the speech." This statement of political principles served as the platform for conservative Republicans for the next three generations. Ostensibly crafted to support Barry Goldwater, Reagan made the ideals his own. They carried him to the California governor's mansion and eventually the White House.
Conservatives don't merely love the text, but also the strident and confident tone, quite unlike the rest of the GOP. It exuded confidence in the future. The delivery also convinced many conservatives that Reagan then and for all time was chiseling out conservative commandments in stone. Somehow, he evolved after his death into a grim sentinel guarding against the idea of deal-making or compromise, hence the negative comparisons with Mitt Romney.
But is this fair?
Both men governed states with electorates to the left of themselves. Reagan led a state determined to forge ahead on abortion, and he had to compromise with the tide of history. Was it the right thing to do? Maybe not. Would the deal have been worse without his part? You bet. Reagan also allowed passage of what Cannon described as "mammoth tax increases."
Romney had the same dilemma with Massachusetts, a state determined to get public health care. Romney crafted a plan that satisfied voters and worked much better than the nationally touted Obamacare. In fact, Obama's law wrecked Romney's design in his own state.
Between the governorship and the presidency, Reagan forged links with decidedly unconservative figures. He reached out to the Rockefeller wing of the party during the 1970s to gain support. In 1976, thinking himself on the cusp of upsetting incumbent President Gerald Ford in the primary, Reagan considered Senator Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania as a running mate. Schweiker had fully backed labor unions during his tenure (tough to see how he could not in 1970s Pennsylvania and win elections.) In a conversation with Schweiker, Reagan admitted "I am not a knee jerk conservative."
Tax increases, compromising with abortion, and saying "I am not a knee jerk conservative" would have doomed Reagan among post Reagan conservatives. Romney's "moderation" actually looks farther to the right of Reagan in the late 1970s.
Romney likely saw himself as a disciple of Reagan too, not the firebrand of 1964 or the candidate trying to navigate a diverse GOP ocean in the mid 1970s. President Reagan likely looked much like aspiring president Romney. The Reagan of the 1980s told advisers that he would rather get 75 percent of what he wanted than drive his wagon off the cliff all banners flying. He worked with a hostile Democratic House of Representatives to hammer through a tax reform bill. Conservatives of the 1980s were even shocked. West Virginia congressman Mick Staton went so far as to write the president a letter of complaint, wondering if he had lost his way.
Staunch conservatives see themselves as disciples of Reagan. And in a way, they are right. But moderates are also right when they claim the same mantle. No great man remains the same as he grows and changes. Reagan did adhere to the same principles, but understood as he gained tangible leadership experience that some success was better than all or nothing.
In 2012, the arguments about the GOP nominee often made the perfect the enemy of the good. All too often, that "perfect" was represented by a Ronald Reagan that never existed, a Reagan image that cobbled together the best parts of 25 years of politics while conveniently ignoring other important attributes.
As we approach 2016, it is time to choose a candidate from this century. Reagan was great in the same fashion as Lincoln and Washington, and also like them, not an option today.