The Republican Party will hold a presidential candidate debate at the Ronald Reagan library Wednesday. It’s a bad fit. The GOP’s modern idol is exactly the opposite of Reagan in personality and character.
For upbeat Reagan, America was a “shining city on the hill.” For whining Donald Trump, it’s a waste bin for venom and lies.
Reagan’s soaring rhetoric made people feel good about themselves. There was “always a bright dawn ahead” — “Morning in America.”
Yes, maybe that was a tad naive and corny, but it brought a collective smile — and won over many Democrats.
Trump spews hate — hate of immigrants and of Democrats. He demonizes his critics. He incites riots and insurrection.
Reagan truly liked people. Trump merely uses them.
But there’s a large hardcore of Republican voters who worship the guy, even if GOP leaders fear he’ll again drag the party down to defeat next year. He’s polling far ahead of his closest rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
As Times Washington reporter David Lauter recently wrote, “barring some sudden, dramatic event, the die is pretty much cast” for former President Trump to win his third straight GOP nomination and face President Biden in next year’s election.
Having covered Reagan up close for 20 years as a candidate, California governor and 40th president, I can’t believe he would support Trump even if he were the GOP standard bearer. Oh, he conceivably might whisper something about supporting the party ticket. But I very much doubt that in private he’d vote for Trump.
Reagan had no respect for blowhards and egomanics, regardless of party. He would have shuddered at Trump’s caustic rhetoric.
Read more: Calmes: Has the GOP once and for all ditched ‘morning in America’ for ‘American carnage’?
The Gipper used tough words — “Tear down this wall,” “Evil empire” — but was always dignified and gracious, especially in public. Trump comes off as a childish bully who needs anger management.
“Ronald Reagan could throw a political punch, but he did it with courtesy, with humor,” former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger once told a gathering at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley.
One example was when he gently jabbed President Carter in 1980: “Anyone who says he likes cold showers will lie about other things too.”
“Reagan would have never called people stupid even if he thought they were,” George Steffes, his legislative lobbyist in Sacramento, once told me.
Unlike Trump, Reagan also would never have questioned whether the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was a war hero after being captured by the North Vietnamese and held prisoner for more than five years. Reagan idolized McCain’s military service.
Reagan was a true believer in conservative principles. Trump’s a con man.
But Reagan was no knee-jerk ideologue. He often governed as a moderate, especially in Sacramento — sometimes compromising with Democrats to achieve half a loaf, other times because that’s what he believed.
On the environment, Reagan was practically a liberal as governor. He once led a pack train into the High Sierra to declare the spectacular John Muir Trail and Minaret Summit, south of Yosemite, off-limits to federal highway builders.
Although hostile to intrusive, centralized government, Reagan helped create a bi-state agency with Nevada to control growth at pristine Lake Tahoe. To preserve a Native American burial site and protect wild trout, respectively, he blocked dam building on the Eel and Feather rivers. And he signed legislation creating the California Air Resources Board, leading to the nation’s first tailpipe emissions standards.
On taxes, Reagan raised and lowered them to fit the government’s revenue needs — both as governor and president.
As president, he signed legislation granting amnesty to millions of undocumented immigrants.
Could Reagan have won the Republican presidential nomination in today’s polarized, ultraconservative, uncompromising GOP? Many think not. Too suspiciously centrist. He’d be considered a dreaded RINO — Republican in name only.
I disagree. Reagan could win in any era with his personality, optimism, character, authenticity and rhetorical skills. He was a rarity.
“Obviously the training he had as an actor gave him an advantage. And he had that velvet radio voice that melted people,” says Ken Khachigian, Reagan’s main speech writer on many occasions.
“If he got in trouble, he’d start telling stories about Ginger Rogers or Bob Hope to take the edge off things. Other candidates have no way to match that skill.”
Reagan didn’t skip candidate debates. Trump’s about to duck his second in a row.
“He always liked to debate,” recalls his career-long political guru, Stu Spencer.
He usually rose to the occasion, delivering precision remarks remembered to this day: “There you go again.” “I am paying for this microphone.” “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”
His one shellacking was by Democratic nominee Walter Mondale in the first debate of the 1984 campaign. Reagan sounded too old and out of it.
But Reagan recovered with a legendary age quip in the second debate that pretty much sealed his reelection: “I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Even Mondale laughed.
Can anyone recall much of what the current GOP candidates said in their first debate?
“There’s nobody in the field Reagan would be wild about,” Spencer told me.
With the exception of former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the GOP candidates are afraid of being honest about Trump for fear of alienating his loyal voter base — and him.
Reagan called on his party to offer voters “a cause to believe in — raising a banner of no pale pastels, but bold colors.”
He symbolized bold colors. This Republican candidate group paints itself in pastels.
These presidential aspirants should tour the Reagan library while they’re there. They might learn something about courage and boldness.
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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.