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Who’ll Be GOP’s ‘Next Ronald Reagan’ in ‘08 Presidential Race?

“We are looking for the next Ronald Reagan,” said Gary Bauer recently about his party’s search for a 2008 presidential nominee. And Bauer, who is president of American Values and a leading voice of social conservatives, isn’t alone. [IMGCAP(1)]

Conservatives pine for an heir to the legacy of Reagan, hoping to find a presidential hopeful to rally around in their effort to stop former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) from being nominated.

Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback and three former governors — Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin and Jim Gilmore of Virginia — are all trying to become the successor to Reagan, though, at best, they are second-tier hopefuls. Reps. Tom Tancredo (Colo.) and Duncan Hunter (Calif.), who also would like to carry the conservative banner, aren’t credible.

Former Sen. Fred Thompson (Tenn.) and former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) are still mulling bids, and each could have some appeal to conservatives. Thompson, in particular, seems to have caught the fancy of those conservatives wishing for “another Reagan.”

But that list is putting the cart before the horse. What exactly are those Republicans looking for in the “next Reagan”?

Certainly, they are looking for someone who is suspicious of government, supports lower taxes and fiscal responsibility, is a “hawk” on defense spending and national security, is tough on criminals, generally advocates “traditional values” and favors economic deregulation.

But conservatives have romanticized Reagan, preferring to ignore some things about his record as they measure current hopefuls against their idea of him.

For example, Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which gave amnesty to illegal immigrants. That cannot please conservative Tancredo, for whom amnesty is a red flag. On the other hand, it puts Reagan closer to McCain.

The former president is often identified as a cultural conservative, since he was pro-life. But of course, Reagan didn’t make cultural issues a legislative priority. As Bill Keller pointed out in a 2003 New York Times piece, when Reagan’s domestic policy adviser Martin Anderson went through more than 1,000 Reagan radio scripts, “he found exactly one speech” on abortion. And, noted Keller, Reagan signed “one of the most liberal state abortion laws” as governor of California.

That would appear to be comforting news for Fred Thompson and McCain, who seem to reflect their party’s pro-life position but who never really push cultural issues.

Republicans talk a lot these days about fiscal responsibility, even complaining that President Bush and the previous Republican Congress approved too much spending and a ballooning deficit. But Reagan didn’t have a huge problem with deficits, since he presided over some whoppers. Maybe that’s not such good news for McCain, who has been a consistent deficit hawk over the years.

One of the reasons why many “Reagan conservatives” really dislike McCain is his strong and vocal support for campaign finance reform, including restrictions on “soft money.” Interestingly, Fred Thompson, the guy social conservatives are flirting with these days, also has been a strong supporter of campaign finance reform. In fact, Thompson supported McCain for president in 2000 and even went around the country on McCain’s behalf.

Even more than their romanticizing of Reagan, conservatives ought to remember that times and circumstances have changed.

Reagan ran for the presidency and served when the Cold War was still around and after Democrats had run Congress for 25 years. In 1980, the country hadn’t had the Reagan and Bush tax cuts, and Democrats were still offering an agenda that was part warmed-over New Deal, part early ’70s anti-military.

The Democrats have changed as well, at least when it comes to rhetoric and positioning on key issues. They stress national security and have avoided gun control since Al Gore’s defeat in 2000. And the GOP has changed, too, not necessarily for the better, after more than six years of Bush and a dozen years of Republican control of Congress.

Surely the voters have changed. They no longer give Republicans the benefit of the doubt on a slew of economic and national security issues that helped the GOP paint Democrats as fiscally irresponsible, high-tax, weak-kneed, anti-military liberals.

Ironically, conservatives who call for the “next Reagan” have already had him. His name is George W. Bush.

Like Reagan, Bush talks tough about foreign enemies, has advocated lower taxes and talks like a social conservative. It was former Reagan aide Michael Deaver who called Bush “the most Reagan-like politician we have seen.” The major difference is that Reagan was a political success.

Yet “another Ronald Reagan” probably would easily be demonized by Democrats as “another George W. Bush,” and that’s pretty much the absolutely last thing Republicans should want next year.

Instead of looking back, Republicans might try looking ahead. Conservatives may not be thrilled with any of the current top-tier GOP hopefuls, but anyone who is “another Reagan” on issues may not be electable in ’08 anyway.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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