For many Americans, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library is a place of solemn pilgrimage. This weekend, it is also the site of lavish celebrations marking what would have been the 100th birthday of “the great communicator”.
On Sunday, his widow Nancy will lay a wreath at his gravesite as F-18s launch from the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier and a 21-gun salute is fired. There will be a Beach Boys concert, a six-feet-by-six-feet birthday cake topped with 20,000 jelly beans (Reagan’s favourite). And a bill of $5 million (pounds 3.1 million), to be settled using funds raised privately.
Among those paying homage in person are Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, both with presumed presidential aspirations in 2012. The formal start of the Republican presidential campaign will take place in May with a debate at, naturally, the Reagan library.
Perhaps more surprising is that there is a new claimant to the Reagan throne this year: President Barack Obama. Having once routinely derided Reagan as, in the words of Democratic greybeard Clark Clifford, an “amiable dunce”, the liberal establishment is now seeking to embrace him.
Obama first tried to grab Reagan’s mantle three years ago when he cited the Gipper as a way of taking a shot at the Clintons by saying that the Republican had “changed the trajectory of America” in a way that Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton had not. Reagan, he added, responded to a feeling that “we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship”.
Now, Obama sees Reagan’s aura as a potential political lifeline as he hopes to emulate his forerunner’s feat of receiving a drubbing in mid-term elections after two years (in 1982) followed by a landslide re-election victory two years after that (in 1984).
Obama’s recent State of the Union speech was full of self-conscious optimism (though the slogan “winning the future” is a pygmy compared with Reagan’s “morning in America”) and appeals to bipartisanship – a nod to the celebrated fact that Reagan managed to work with Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, a liberal Democrat.
Other Democrats, taking this a step further, are using Reagan as a stick to beat the modern Republican party, painting him as a moderate pragmatist who would be out of step with today’s hard-right ideologues.
Republicans treat all this with weary disdain. To paraphrase Senator Lloyd Bentsen’s famous 1988 put down of Senator Dan Quayle, the older ones are saying: “I knew Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan is an idol of mine. President Obama, you’re no Ronald Reagan.”
Rich Galen, a Republican strategist who was working on Capitol Hill in the Reagan era, says that conservatives giggle at Obama’s attempts to be Reaganesque. “Obama is diametrically opposed to everything Reagan stood for.”
Reagan nurtured a coalition that included Reagan Democrats, who stayed with the party for decades, he points out, but the term Obama Republicans has not been heard since the 2008 campaign. Even on style, there’s little comparison. “Obama is cold and distant whereas Reagan was warm and liked to be around people,” says Galen.
Some Republicans fear that Reagan is facing a posthumous political emasculation by Democrats who play down his conservatism and recast him as a squishy conciliator.
There is little doubt that Reagan would have been dryly derisive of Obama’s policies and presidency. “Government is like a baby,” Reagan once quipped. “An alimentary canal with a big appetite at one end and no sense of responsibility at the other.”
Obama, by contrast, views government as a kindly nurse and the people as the baby. According to his mindset, the people should submit to those in government who know better and whose role is to make decisions and control the purse strings.
Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist who grew up in the post-Reagan era, views his country’s 40th president, primarily as “the embodiment of American exceptionalism”, a stark contrast with Obama.
Although Obama has been paying lip service to American greatness in recent months, he made it clear in his first two years in office that he saw the United States as a flawed nation with much to apologise for and dismissed the notion of American exceptionalism as mere patriotism.
Despite the comical transparency of Obama’s attempts to portray himself as the new Reagan, Democratic attempts to redefine the conservative hero as some kind of big cuddly jelly bean do leave Republicans with a dilemma.
Reagan’s sunny optimism was all about looking forward. He was not a nostalgic man. To do battle with Democrats over who Reagan was leads Republicans into a debate over the past when they need to be setting out a vision for the future.
The opening event of the weekend birthday celebrations was a Friday night speech by Palin in Santa Barbara, close to the Reagan ranch. In it, she focused on a Reagan speech from 47 years ago, declaring that “the choices before us are as clear now as they were in 1964”.
Relatively few American voters can remember 1964 but those who can will note that Barry Goldwater suffered an overwhelming defeat at the hands of Lyndon Johnson that year.
Palin, who happened to be born in 1964, recently compared herself to Reagan, dismissing a criticism by Karl Rove about her reality show series with the retort: “Wasn’t Ronald Reagan an actor? Wasn’t he in Bedtimes for Bonzo, Bozo or something?” Relegating Reagan to having been a mere actor did not exactly endear Palin to those who revere the man who ended the Cold War. So now, it seems, the former Alaska governor is over-compensating.
It would, however, be best for the Republicans who hope to oust Obama next year if the current 100th birthday celebrations mark the moment that Reagan was finally consigned to the history books.
Tussles over who Reagan was and futile attempts by Republican candidates to define themselves in terms of how they measure up with his legacy are exactly what Obama and the Democrats want.
Toby Harnden’s American Way column is published in the Sunday Telegraph each week.