Over the weekend, a reporter for CNN asked several actual and potential GOP presidential candidates a simple question — Who is the greatest living president?
Let’s look at our choices. Which former presidents are still living? Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush.
Who did Bobby Jindal, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump pick as their choice for the greatest living president?
The last time I looked, Reagan died in 2004. He’s an ex-president, true, in both the sense that he was once a president and the dead parrot is an ex-parrot. But Reagan is not a valid answer to the question, “Who is the greatest living president?”
While some commentators have mocked the Republican candidates for their nonsensical answer to the question, Jonathan Chait grapples with why Reagan was the only valid answer for them:
“The Reagan answer was not a mistake — it was the reflection of a party lacking a usable past. For the last 25 years, Reaganolotry has retained its grip on Republican doctrine. Reaganolotry holds up Reagan as a standard of perfection against which every other president is judged. The Reagan of the Republican imagination bears only a loose relation to the actual man. ‘Reagan’ has come to represent conservative control of the Republican Party.”
But, he also notes that the Reagan they venerate is not the Reagan of history: “In reality, Reagan himself violated conservative precepts flagrantly. … As president, he agreed to increase taxes, a progressive tax reform shifting a higher proportion of taxes onto the rich, and arms control with the Soviets, all to massive right-wing dismay. All these deviations were necessary for his political success, but conservatives forgot them to make him symbolically useful.”
The real president who most aligns with the Reagan-of-Republican-memory, the Reagan that Republicans venerate, is actually George W. Bush.
“It was [George W.] Bush’s second-term collapse into deep unpopularity that forced conservatives to retroactively disown him as a heretic. Bush has never fully recovered his standing with the party faithful. He used the pretext of a storm to skip the 2008 convention, and went ahead and skipped the 2012 convention, too. The trouble is that Republicans still embrace his policy vision. All the Republican candidates are running on a domestic platform centered around regressive, debt-financed tax cuts as the key to economic growth.”
In other words, when a presidential candidate like Ted Cruz or Scott Walker says that he wants to be a president in the mold of Ronald Reagan, what he’s really saying is that he wants to be like George W. Bush.