When Marco Rubio notably began 2016 with darker, more aggressive rhetoric, he dampened his image as the sunny, Reagan-like optimist of the Republican presidential field.
“If we get this election wrong, there may be no turning around for America,” Senator Rubio of Florida warned at a recent campaign stop in Mason City, Iowa.
The youthful Rubio still begins his stump speech with talk of “a new American century” and “our exceptional country,” but uses the bulk of his time attacking President Obama, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, and his GOP rivals, according to reports from the trail.
Clearly, GOP front-runner Donald Trump isn’t even trying to be the next President Reagan. Mr. Trump scowls menacingly from the cover of his latest book, “Crippled America” – a title that screams pessimism. His rhetoric is intense and profane, his first television ad a 30-second litany of fear-inducing images. At the end of the ad, when he promises to “make America great again,” he’s shouting, not smiling.
And Trump’s closest competitor in the polls, Ted Cruz, is hardly Reagan stylistically, though he has tried to cloak himself in the Reagan mantle more than anybody else in the race. “He just doesn’t have Reagan’s personality,” says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
Reagan left office 27 years ago, when the world was a very different place. To people much under age 40, he is a figure in the history books.
In his 2013 book, “Hail Mary: The 10-Step Playbook for Republican Recovery,” Republican strategist Ford O’Connell scolds his party for having what he calls a “Reagan fixation.”
“It undermines the candidates, because it becomes a crutch for their inability to articulate an actual agenda or a forward-looking vision,” Mr. O’Connell writes.
O’Connell understands why some candidates wrap themselves in the Reagan mantle, at least during the primary. These are voters who remember Reagan, “people over age 50 who are mostly white men or married women,” O’Connell says in an interview. “That’s the Republican base, right or wrong.”