Former President Ronald Reagan is back in the hearts and minds of GOP presidential candidates this election cycle. Reagan, who has been called The Great Communicator is an icon of the Republican Party. His name is now being invoked by 2016 contenders as part of how they define their campaigns.
In an interview on Fox News in November, GOP frontrunner and billionaire businessman Donald Trump proclaimed his support: “I was a big fan of Ronald Reagan. I thought a lot of him. And I would have to add the word Republican because I am. I'm a Republican. But I'm a Republican conservative. And we have to throw Reagan in there because, you know, I just -- I believed in him.”
During an interview on Fox News in the fall, Texas Senator Ted Cruz referenced Reagan’s 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of other Republicans,” vowing he would not engage in insulting other candidates even if they attacked him first. And during the last GOP debate of 2015, Senator Cruz also suggested he would follow in the 40th president’s footsteps: “Ronald Reagan reignited the American economy, rebuilt the military, bankrupted the Soviet Union and defeated Soviet Communism. I will do the same thing.”
This is not the first time Reagan’s legacy is being utilized on the campaign trail. In 2011, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney frequently referenced Reagan’s policies and in 2006, GOP contender John McCain referred to himself as a conservative Republican that will remain in “the school of Ronald Reagan.”
“The biggest difference between Reagan and most of the Republican candidates this time around is that Reagan had a positive view of America. He didn’t think that the country was going to hell in a hand basket."
Jim Kuhn worked alongside President Ronald Reagan from his initial campaign in 1976 through his second term in the White House. Kuhn was considered to be Reagan’s right-hand man, working closely with the president as his executive assistant. He later penned the memoir, “Ronald Reagan in Private.”
“When I hear candidates making references to Ronald Reagan and drawing parallels to him, I find it very heart warming,” Kuhn said.
“What they are doing is holding Reagan in high esteem and they are truly honoring him by saying this is who I want to be or this is what I believe because Reagan did it this way - it’s really saying this is the way the country needs to go again on domestic and foreign policy.”
President Reagan is credited with many accomplishments including ending the Cold War, achieving "peace through strength," creating a fairer tax code and reviving the nation’s confidence through optimism. Kuhn says besides his in-office victories, Reagan is an iconic president because he knew how to relate to everyone from world leaders to members of Congress. He said in this day and age that type of “working together” mentality doesn’t exist in Washington.
“If you want to get back to emulating Reagan, you have to respect people. You have to know how to work on both sides of the aisle,” said Kuhn. “Reagan respected everyone no matter what people said about him or what he heard on TV or read in the paper, he never held any grudges. He kept a big mind, he knew he had to take it, he knew he had to lead and that meant getting along with people and respecting them - all that is gone now.”
James Humes, a speech writer for Ronald Reagan and author of “The Wit and Wisdom of Ronald Reagan,” says the former commander-in chief rightfully earned the title of The Great Communicator.
“Reagan said being president is 90% communication and he knew how to communicate his ideals,” said Humes. “He celebrated private enterprise in a way that no one did and explained how it could create society. In the past, no one knew how to make it a plus, but Reagan did.”
Humes says Reagan was very invested in his speeches and always wrote better than his speech writers could because he knew how to deliver a message effectively.
“Ronald Reagan would speak conversationally. He wouldn’t lecture people, he would talk to them,” said Humes. “The candidates currently running speak so rapidly it’s not a conversational style. You have to speak as if you are talking to someone intimately -- that is what Reagan managed to do every time.”
In his 1984 nomination speech, Ronald Reagan said, “Every promise, every opportunity is still golden in this land.” He frequently used optimism as a vehicle for hope of a better tomorrow. In the 2016 race for the White House, hope has lost out to fear mongering in light of the recent terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino.
“The biggest difference between Reagan and most of the Republican candidates this time around is that Reagan had a positive view of America. He didn’t think that the country was going to hell in a hand basket -- he said our greatest days lie ahead even under a leader he didn’t agree with,” said Lou Cannon, a Ronald Reagan biographer.
Cannon covered all three of Reagan’s campaigns and tenure in the White House. He says times have changed since his presidency and candidates have a dramatically different approach that Reagan would never engage in.
“Ronald Reagan was an inspirational conservative, he followed the Constitution and believed in politics which meant getting things done,” said Cannon. “You wouldn’t ever find Ronald Reagan making statements about building walls to prevent Mexicans from coming in, he signed into law which gave people coming here a chance to become citizens. He wouldn’t have been trying to prevent Muslims from coming into America because Reagan was accommodating.”
After serving under Reagan for more than a decade, Kuhn says he learned there are two things you need to become president: you have to be electable and know how to govern. That’s why he says the Republicans have a problem.
“I think [New Jersey Governor] Chris Christie could be a good president because he can govern but unfortunately he doesn’t appear to be electable,” said Kuhn. “The other guys out there, like Donald Trump, are very electable. I think more people will actually vote for him [Trump] than are showing up in the polls but it’s a big question of whether or not he can govern as president.”
Looking at the current Republican presidential hopefuls, both Kuhn and Cannon agree there isn’t a contender out there that could match the campaign or presidency of Ronald Reagan.
“Reagan was truly one of a kind, the nicest human being you could ever know. If he had one negative it’s that his heart was too big,” said Kuhn.