WASHINGTON – Now that the GOP is the Party of Trump, could Democrats become the party of … Reagan?
That’s a stretch. But Democrats are making a bid for the title.
At Tuesday night’s vice presidential debate, the 40th president was name-checked twice – both times by the Democrat, Tim Kaine.
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“Our plan is like Ronald Reagan’s plan from 1986,” Kaine said on immigration.
The Republican, Mike Pence, countered that “Ronald Reagan said a nation without borders is not a nation.”
Kaine later said Reagan believed nuclear proliferation could mean “some fool or maniac could trigger a catastrophic event” and said Trump is exactly the type “Reagan warned us about.”
Pence responded that “Reagan also said nuclear war should never be fought, because it can never be won.”
Reagan did say that, but this only highlights his difference with Donald Trump. Former GOP congressman Joe Scarborough, now an MSNBC host, reported in August that unnamed sources told him Trump had thrice asked his national security experts about nuclear weapons: “Why can’t we use them?”
Both Trump and Pence, like most Republicans, routinely claim inspiration from Reagan. Pence even affects the Gipper’s nod and tilt of the head, and on Tuesday he drew groans in the media filing center when he recycled one of Reagan’s best lines – “There you go again” – when he scolded Kaine on Social Security.
But the Reaganization of Trump suffered a serious blow on Monday when Reagan’s son, the conservative commentator Michael Reagan, revoked his earlier endorsement of Trump in a series of tweets after Trump suggested in a speech, without basis, that Hillary Clinton was unfaithful to her husband.
“No way do I or would my father support this garbage,” he wrote, saying Nancy Reagan would have voted for Clinton and that she was “appalled” before her death when people likened Trump to her husband. “Not the Party of Reagan,” he tweeted, and, “If this is what the Republican Party wants leave us Reagans out.”
The resounding rejection of Trump by one who has some authority to speak for the late president brought to mind the scene in “Annie Hall” when a loudmouth in a movie line pontificates about media theorist Marshall McLuhan – until the Woody Allen character brings over McLuhan himself, who says, “You know nothing of my work.”
Ronald Reagan famously said that “I did not leave the Democratic Party – the Democratic Party left me.” Though it’s impossible to know how Reagan’s views might have evolved, Republicans such as former GOP Chairman Michael Steele speculate that Reagan couldn’t win a Republican primary today. His record on immigration, taxes, the debt, gun control and abortion would disqualify him.
The most obvious difference may be style: Reagan was sunny and gentlemanly; Trump is gloomy and crude.
Trump talks of the American military as a “disaster,” in “shambles,” with generals reduced to “rubble.” Reagan blamed civilian leaders but hailed the generals and their troops as “guardians of freedom, protectors of our heritage … keepers of the peace.”
Trump calls the Iraq War a “disaster” and a “huge mistake” with “absolutely nothing” to show for thousands of American lives lost. He suggested some U.S. troops stole cash in Iraq. Reagan, by contrast, hailed those who fought in another failed war, the “noble cause” of Vietnam, and said we shouldn’t “dishonor the memory of 50,000 young Americans who died in that cause.”
On immigration, Trump talks of building a wall, banning Muslims and Syrian refugees from entering the country and deporting all 11 million illegal immigrants. Reagan supported amnesty for illegal immigrants who put down roots in America, and he memorably called America home “for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness.”
Reagan proudly updated Gen. George Patton’s phrase that wars are “won by men” to “men and women.” Trump derided the “geniuses” who “put men and women together” in the armed forces.
And Reagan, of course, spoke with great moral force about the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union and the “barbarism born of a society which wantonly disregards individual rights … and seeks constantly to expand and dominate other nations.”
Now, a Russian dictator, Vladimir Putin, is returning to these Soviet-era abuses, and Trump praises him as a strong leader he can work with, while disputing charges that Putin has killed journalists and meddled in the U.S. election.
Does Trump’s abandonment of Republican internationalism and moral leadership give Democrats the Reagan mantle? Not necessarily. But as long as it’s Trump’s GOP, the mantle is for rent.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.