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.
That uncertainty is one reason we see so much yearning among Republicans for another Reagan. "I'm always asked, 'When will we see somebody like Reagan again?'" says Peter Hannaford, a longtime Reagan aide and author of "Recollections of Reagan." "My answer is never. He was sui generis. Someday, you'll have somebody with some of his qualities and with that bigger-than-life aspect -- but not yet."
Meanwhile, Republicans are very much living in Reagan's party. For Craig Shirley, the longtime conservative activist and author of "Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America," today's GOP still reflects the man who was elected president more than 30 years ago. Back then, so-called "country-club Republicans" were a powerful force in the party. "All these moderate-to-liberal Republicans considered conservatism the province of Neanderthals," recalls Shirley, who is a consultant to The Examiner. Now, it's the moderates who are virtually extinct. The result, Shirley believes, is "a more vigorous debate and a more honest choice for the American people."
Starting soon, state and county Republican parties will be holding their yearly Lincoln Day dinners, the way Democrats hold Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners. In recent years, many of those GOP events have become Lincoln-Reagan Day dinners, or just Reagan Day dinners. That trend will likely continue as the party seeks an even closer identification with past greatness.
And Republican politicians will continue to seek that elusive mix of attributes that made Reagan Reagan. Perhaps there is another great leader out there right now, and we don't know it. After all, no one knew what Reagan would accomplish until he moved into the Oval Office.
So on May 2, the GOP candidates -- a group that could include Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich, Haley Barbour, John Thune, Mitch Daniels, Sarah Palin and others -- will take the stage at the Reagan Library and try to convince Republicans that they are worthy heirs to Ronald Reagan. The audience will undoubtedly be skeptical, but inwardly hoping that at least one of them will be right.