Former president Donald Trump likes to compare his position on abortion to Ronald Reagan’s, declaring that “like President Ronald Reagan before me, I support the three exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother.” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has said it’s this generation’s “time for choosing,” a reference to Reagan’s famous 1964 speech. Vivek Ramaswamy has surmised that “if Reagan were in this race, I wouldn’t be.”
Yet Reagan signed a law that granted legal status to nearly 3 million immigrants, while today’s GOP hopefuls push for a southern border wall and military reinforcements. The 40th president went face to face with the “evil empire” Soviet Union while Trump has called Russian President Vladimir Putin a “genius.” And Reagan sought at times to project an optimistic message, in stark contrast to Trump and his rivals’ dark portrayals of a country in steep decline.
Across the GOP primary spectrum, Republicans are quick to invoke Reagan’s name as they travel the country and make their pitch to voters. But a review of their positions and rhetoric on issues including trade and foreign policy, as well as interviews with historians and Republican strategists, highlight a party that has largely remade itself in the decades since Reagan was in power, accelerated by Trump’s rise. Former vice president Mike Pence and former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson are running on a return to Reagan conservatism, yet are polling in the single digits. Meanwhile, Trump, the clear polling leader, and others running in his mold depart sharply from Reagan’s doctrine in key ways.
“I think they would like to be the party of Reagan,” said the late president’s eldest son, Michael Reagan. “I don’t think they are the party of Reagan. I think the party is the party of Trump.”
Reagan’s legacy in today’s GOP will be the backdrop of the Republican race Wednesday, when seven candidates will debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California’s Simi Valley. Trump is skipping the debate and instead delivering a speech in Michigan.
“Ronald Reagan would be rolling over in his grave if he heard his name invoked by some of these people and the context in which his name is mentioned, but obviously that’s a revered name in Republican conservative circles,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) added. “I think some of them would do well to go back and fact-check some of their statements attributing to him or that this is somehow in the tradition of Ronald Reagan.”
Citing Reagan is nothing new for Republican presidential candidates. Before Trump’s rise in 2016, they often held up Reagan as the best example in modern times of a GOP president. Both Bush presidencies were seen by some Republicans as flawed, and Reagan won reelection in a massive reelection landslide in a far less polarizing time, only losing Minnesota, his opponent’s home state. Republicans established dominance in the 1980s with three elections in which the GOP won huge electoral college majorities. Before Reagan’s rise, the Republican Party was more liberal and more concentrated in the Northeast and Midwest.
A Pew Research Center survey in July found that 41 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said Reagan did the best job as president in the last 40 years. Trump came in second, at 37 percent. Historians note that Reagan’s popularity is in part due to his role ending the Cold War and the notion that he could have won a third term if he had ran again.
Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian, described the 40th president as the “patron saint of the conservative movement and that still constitutes a power bloc in the GOP.” On immigration, “Reagan was a little more sympathetic … he would almost be a Democrat today.”
Reagan has not been on the ballot in nearly 40 years, and interviews with some Iowa voters suggest that the definition of a “Reagan Republican” isn’t all that clear these days. That’s not stopping Republican candidates from mentioning him frequently.
The candidates invoke Reagan in vastly different ways, reflecting an ideological divide in the GOP field. Pence, who is running as a traditional conservative, often likes to say he “joined the Reagan revolution and never looked back” and cited Reagan as he pushed back against the more populist policies espoused by Trump and others in the race in a recent speech. When Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) was asked recently about the United Auto Workers strike, he said, “Ronald Reagan gave us a great example when federal employees decided they were going to strike. He said, ‘You strike, you’re fired.’” An ad from a super PAC supporting Hutchinson’s White House bid quotes Reagan praising him.
Both major political parties have changed over time, and the extent to which Reagan is out of step with Trump today shows just how much the GOP has shifted, particularly over the last eight years. H.W. Brands, a historian at the University of Texas at Austin who wrote a biography about the 40th president, said Reagan, as he existed then, could not win in today’s GOP. Brands pointed to social issues becoming a bigger rallying point for the GOP and noted that Trump’s embrace of tariffs, skepticism of NATO and overall tone contrasts with Reagan.
There are also similarities, with Trump signing a tax cut law that benefited many wealthy Americans and nominating three Supreme Court justices who paved the way for a 6-3 conservative majority that overturned Roe v. Wade — a goal Reagan said he hoped would be realized.
If “Reagan believed the things that he believed then, if he said the things that he said then, he would not even come close to getting the nomination,” Brands said.
Ramaswamy, a millennial who was born during Reagan’s second term and is running as another iteration of Trump, frequently says that he does not watch inauguration speeches, because they are “generally full of hollow unfulfilled promises,” and that instead he favors farewell speeches — citing Reagan’s 1989 goodbye address to the nation as the “last meaningful one.” Ramaswamy aligns his political odds with Reagan’s, frequently arguing that he could deliver a landslide that rivals those of the 40th president.
“I imagine in 1979, if Ronald Reagan had showed up and said he was going to deliver a landslide election, I think it would sound every bit as preposterous as me telling you that today,” he told a voter in Iowa at a May campaign event.
Michael Reagan brushed aside the comparisons.
“It’s nice people invoke the name of my father, but invoking the name of my father and being like my father are two different issues,” he said. “If you listen to my dad’s speeches, the difference is that you don’t hear his speeches, you feel his speeches.”
On the campaign trail, Iowa voters appeared mostly confused by questions about what it meant to be a “Reagan Republican,” whether that was a good thing and whether the GOP still aligns with it.
Patty Davis, 55, a passionate supporter of Ramaswamy, didn’t watch the first GOP debate, where he suggested Reagan’s “morning in America” campaign line is outdated while tangling with Pence. “It is not morning in America,” Ramaswamy said at the debate. “We live in a dark moment. And we have to confront the fact that we’re in an internal sort of cold, cultural civil war.”
Standing outside their Des Moines-area church on a recent Sunday — the same day Ramaswamy visited as a guest of evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats — Davis and her husband, Ted Davis, agreed that Reagan was a good president. “I guess I don’t understand the question,” said Davis, who works at a hospital, when asked about Reagan-style conservatism and whether it still represented the party.
She reiterated her support for the kind of “America First” Trump policies that Ramaswamy has embraced.
“What I do think is that we need to take care of our own here,” she said as she grappled with the Reagan question. “We need to take care of our own borders —”
“Stop supporting Ukraine,” her husband said.
“We need to, yes, we need to focus on our children,” Davis said.
Another congregant at the same church, Aaron McIntire, effectively shrugged when asked about candidates’ invocation of Reagan and what it means to be a Reagan Republican.
“It means something a lot more to Gen Xers,” said McIntire, 30, who is a producer for Iowa-based conservative commentator Steve Deace’s talk show. (Deace has endorsed DeSantis.) He added, “I just think people don’t care. It’s on a different time. A different generation. Again, that’s just my opinion. But if I asked any of my buddies, like what does it mean to be at Reagan conservative — buddies my age, you know … They would probably say, ‘I don’t care. It doesn’t matter.’”
David Trulio, president and CEO of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, acknowledged that times change but noted that several presidential candidates who delivered recent speeches at the library aligned with Reagan’s values of “individual liberty, limited government, economic opportunity, freedom and democracy, peace through strength and national pride.” Trulio noted that former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley and Pence spoke of their immigrant heritage, adding that Reagan believed in immigration “and he also believed in enforcement.” Meanwhile, he highlighted that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and others have reiterated support for Ukraine during the war with Russia.
“There was a sense in President Reagan’s time — and there’s a sense today — that America’s best days were behind her. And I think Reagan succeeded in addressing that,” Trulio said. “I think it’s valuable to look to his presidency, to the lessons of his presidency, to his timeless values, and see how they apply. So when President Trump or any other candidate points to Reagan, we welcome that.”
Knowles reported in West Des Moines, Iowa. Dylan Wells, Michael Scherer, Josh Dawsey and Dan Balz contributed to this report.