On May 2, Republicans will gather at the Reagan Library in Santa Barbara, Calif., for the first GOP presidential debate of the 2012 campaign. It's not clear which candidates will be there, but here's a safe bet: Each will declare himself, or herself, a Reagan Republican.
Such is the hold of Ronald Reagan on the Republican Party that it is simply impossible to imagine a candidate not reaching for the Reagan mantle. And such is the hold of Reagan on our politics as a whole that, on the eve of the State of the Union, President Obama felt compelled to praise Reagan's leadership and "unique ability to inspire others to greatness."
Just 15 years ago, Obama condemned what he called the "dirty deeds" of "Reagan and his minions" -- not an unusual opinion among Democrats. Now, the political world as a whole is coming to recognize, at least a bit, the greatness in Reagan that Republicans have admired for more than a generation.
One reason for Reagan's evolving image is that we know much more about him than just a few years ago. "There's been a stunning change in the view of Reagan since 2000," says Annelise Anderson, who with her husband, Martin -- both former Reagan aides -- has done pioneering research in the Reagan archives. "The publication of his radio commentaries, letters from throughout his life, and the minutes of his National Security Council meetings -- we see the extent to which he was formulating strategy and defining, directing and pursuing his objectives."
Reagan was indeed the sunny public presence of memory, but the Andersons' books -- "Reagan: In His Own Hand," "Reagan: A Life in Letters" and "Reagan's Secret War"-- show how his accomplishments were the result of a lifetime spent studying, thinking, writing and preparing for leadership. The newly released papers show how Reagan mixed his personal qualities -- an unmatched determination, desire to learn and optimism -- with a deep belief in liberty, free enterprise and American exceptionalism. Together, they formed the foundation for the specific policies -- lower taxes, strong defense -- that changed the United States and the world.
For today's Republicans, the problem is that it's easier to talk about lower taxes and strong defense than it is to guess what Reagan would do were he alive now. What would he do about health care, the deficit, immigration and terrorism? Even his old confidants can't say for sure.