Reagan at 85: A political icon

GOP presidential contenders lack his magic

February 6, 1996
Web posted at: 7:15 p.m. EST

From Bureau Chief Frank Sesno

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Ronald Reagan turned 85 Tuesday without fanfare.

Although he has kept a low profile (349K QuickTime movie) in the 15 months since he announced he has Alzheimer's disease, the political message that made him a popular two-term president is still being voiced by today's Republican presidential candidates.

If Reagan is following this year's election, he may take pride in their push for less government and lower taxes. Even President Clinton in his State of the Union Address admitted, "the era of big government is over."

The record will show that Reagan presided over huge deficits and the Iran-Contra scandal. But those issues haven't seemed to tarnish his image. In 1996, GOP presidential hopefuls proudly describe themselves as Ronald Reagan conservatives.

Before being elected in 1980, Reagan's prospects for becoming president "seemed so bad that when you listed candidates and their support he got an asterisk," recalls publisher and presidential contender Steve Forbes.

"That's pretty much where I'm starting but, like Reagan, that's not where I intend to finish."

Ex-White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater said his former boss "has qualities every politician wants -- dignity, honesty, civility. He also had a consistent political philosophy that everyone recognized."

Today, it's not the same

Reagan, an optimist and Washington outsider, wove together a patchwork coalition of moderate Republicans, fiscal and social conservatives, and the religious right.

"If you look at the current Republican field, they all have some element of the Reagan agenda but none of them puts it together the way Reagan did," observes Republican strategist William Kristol.

Take Forbes, for example. The outsider and optimist with a simple flat tax, anti-Washington message comes closest. But he lack Reagan's political experience and social conservatism.

Dole speaks of smaller government, but is a creature of the very Washington Reagan railed against.

Buchanan plays well to the religious right, but makes centrists uneasy.

This year's GOP contenders on Reagan's legacy:


Bob Dole

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Pat Buchanan

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Phil Gramm

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Steve Forbes

Gramm is a deficit hawk who doesn't have Reagan's sunny disposition.

Kristol wonders whether the Republican party in 1996 can produce a "fresh carrier of the Reagan message."

On Reagan's birthday, it is still his revolution. He started it. The Republican majority elected to Congress in 1994 revived it. But so far, none of the current crop of Republican presidential contenders can claim it.

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