The Reagan playbook no longer applies

Pete Souza/White House

President Barack Obama walks around the South Lawn of the White House with Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett, while tourists in the background walk along the Ellipse, the National Mall, and the Jefferson Memorial, July 14, 2011.

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  • Obsession to find another #Reagan was a veiled slap at the Republican who actually occupied the White House at the time

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  • Obama still tries to blame what he can-- and what he can't-- on #Bush, but that's growing ever more lame @JonahNRO

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  • Primary #voters are energized enough that there's not much to be gained with gassy nostalgia @JonahNRO

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The worst thing about the 2008 primaries-- other than, you know, the result-- was the huge amount of time wasted on what amounted to a Republican Spartacus re-enactment. Instead of each nominee yelling, "I'm Spartacus," and, "No, I'm Spartacus," we got, "I'm Ronald Reagan!" and "No, I'm the real Ronald Reagan here."

The obsession with finding another Reagan was really a veiled slap at the Republican who actually occupied the White House at the time. Nobody was running to be another George W. Bush; nobody promised to give "four more years" of what they got for the last eight.

Everyone understood that running as Bush 2.0 was a bad idea from the outset, but the proof came in the general election, when then-senator Obama managed to paint John McCain as the reincarnation of Bush.

"The analogy came apart like toilet paper in a rainstorm when the Obama economy started to grind to a halt like an EPA-approved car with a dead battery and no extension cord." -- Jonah Goldberg

Things look very different today. President Obama still tries to blame what he can-- and what he can't-- on Bush, but that's growing ever more lame. Increasingly, however, he's also trying to claim the Reagan mantle for himself.

At first it seemed like he just wanted to steal Reagan's reelection playbook. That was the upshot of a lot of wishful thinking masquerading as analysis a few months ago, including a Time magazine cover: "Why Obama (Hearts) Reagan." After all, Reagan blamed a lot of the country's problems on his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, and won reelection in a landslide.

The analogy came apart like toilet paper in a rainstorm when the Obama economy started to grind to a halt like an EPA-approved car with a dead battery and no extension cord.

Reagan's landslide was fueled by huge economic growth, rapidly falling unemployment, and growing national optimism. Obama's zero for three on that front.

The intriguing thing is that Obama hasn't let go of Reagan. He and his supporters now invoke the Gipper as a policy role model, not just a strategic one.

In his prime-time debt-ceiling address, he quoted Reagan's support for a debt-reduction deal in 1982 that included tax increases. Afterwards, Obama chided, "Those words were spoken by Ronald Reagan. But today, many Republicans in the House refuse to consider this kind of balanced approach."

Translation: See, I'm a mainstream guy who agrees with Reagan. Meanwhile, these knuckle-dragging tea partiers are to the right of the most conservative president in our lifetimes. Come back, independents! Love me, moderates!

While Obama's invocation of Reagan worked on a lot of liberal pundits, it was a clunker with conservatives. Of course, it's doubtful Obama thought it would actually persuade the GOP. After all, the 1982 deal that raised taxes was one of Reagan's greatest regrets. The Democrats promised to cut $3 in spending for every $1 in tax increases. They lied, a fact Reagan resented until he died.

And that raises an important point for Republicans and Democrats alike. I don't want to say, "Who cares what Reagan would have done?" It's certainly an interesting question. But the answer in most cases is, "We have no idea." Events today are different than they were in the 1980s. The notion that we can know what Reagan's position would be today is to assume that his views wouldn't adapt to new circumstances. The Republican party is full of veteran Reaganauts from back then. Their thinking has changed. Reagan's probably would have too, and in the same direction.

Indeed, one of the reasons the tea parties are so "outrageously" intransigent and uncompromising is that they've seen what compromise has gotten in the past. In other words, they've learned the lessons of history. It's an insult to Reagan's memory to suggest that he wouldn't have as well. My own view is that Reagan would look at the doubling of the size of the federal government in the last ten years and become awfully "stubborn" about reducing spending.

Regardless, the irony of all this is the fact that the GOP presidential contenders aren't playing the "I'm Reagan" game all that much anymore. The issues are clear enough, the candidates are confident enough, and the primary voters are energized enough that there's not much to be gained with gassy nostalgia.

They still say nice things about Reagan, of course. But they understand-- finally-- that asking "What Would Reagan Do?" doesn't get you all that far. Whereas once it was a provocative thing to call yourself a "Reagan Republican," it's not anymore because Reagan's become so popular and the times have changed so much. Rather, everyone cherry-picks what they like about the guy and claims him as an ally. Even Barack Obama.

Jonah Goldberg is a visiting fellow at AEI.

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