Having lost the primary in his home state of Florida to Donald Trump, Sen. Marco Rubio has dropped out of the race for the Republican presidential nomination, and his departure may be a telling sign that the GOP is no longer the party of Ronald Reagan.
Of all of the 17 Republican candidates who mounted campaigns in the last year, Rubio, arguably, was the most Reaganesque. Like Reagan, Rubio is a doctrine-driven movement conservative. So is Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, but, unlike Cruz — a shrill cultural warrior — Rubio is able to articulate his deep conservative beliefs in a way that is more inclusive and inspirational, much in the Reagan style. And Rubio, like Reagan, has a smile that’s hard to resist. It’s easy to like the guy, even if you disagree with 90% of his policies.
In his poignant withdrawal speech Tuesday night, Rubio said he was proud that he resisted playing the politics of resentment, division and hate — an obvious allusion to Trump. His conservatism, he said, was built on ideas and principles, not on fear and anger. That sounds pretty Reaganesque (at least the idealized, presidential library version of Reagan that has made people forget the hard-right-wing rhetoric the man employed at various points in his political career).
Despite being modeled on the positive side of the Reagan legacy, Rubio’s candidacy failed for two crucial reasons. First, he does not have the star power that Reagan had among conservatives. (This year’s celebrity candidate is Trump.) Second, a big share of voters in the 2016 Republican primaries do not want a smiling guy with an uplifting, inclusive message — they want someone as angry as they are; someone who will build walls, ban refugees, deport Mexicans, beat up on the media and take America back to a time when gays and minorities knew their proper place in the social pecking order. And if they feel like punching out a protester, they want a guy who says to go ahead and take a swing.
They want Trump, and if he becomes the GOP nominee, the party will be his, not Reagan’s.
In the current issue of Time magazine, Peter Wehner, a policy wonk who served the past three Republican presidents, bemoans the change in his party. He believes Trump is the antithesis of Ronald Reagan.
“The fact that Trump is the favorite to win the Republican presidential nomination shows how far the GOP has drifted from the animating spirit of the most consequential and revered Republican since Abraham Lincoln,” Wehner writes.
He notes that the party was not suddenly transformed when Trump showed up; the change has been long in the making. Reagan was willing to adapt to changed circumstances and find opportunities to make deals with adversaries, from Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Those who followed him, though, made a rigid, narrow ideology out of Reaganism, turning it into a simplistic anti-tax, anti-government philosophy that has made governing nearly impossible. And they adopted what Wehner terms “apocalyptic rhetoric” that characterizes political adversaries as despicable enemies and sensible compromise as betrayal.
“Such reckless language is evidence of fevered and disordered minds,” Wehner writes, “and paves the way for Trump’s incendiary rhetoric.”
One of Rubio’s biggest demerits in the eyes of much of his party is that he was part of the Senate’s “Gang of Eight” who crafted a compromise immigration reform bill that would have provided a path to legalization for millions of undocumented immigrants now living in the country. Even though Rubio eventually disavowed the bill, the anti-immigrant forces who love Trump never relented in their attacks.
Reagan, of course, was the president who gave amnesty to illegal immigrants back in the 1980s, but that was a different time and a different Republican Party. Today’s GOP not only rejected Rubio, it is rejecting the optimistic openness of Ronald Reagan.