Reagan still Republicans' reference point for White House seekers

WASHINGTON - Barack Obama is weak and Ronald Reagan exuded power, Republicans say. But while conservative White House hopefuls revere the 1980s president as a foreign-policy icon, oversimplifying Reaganism may mask nuances of his diplomacy.

Appreciation for the ex-president, who died in 2004, is nothing new. Buttons and posters bearing his countenance are common at conservative gatherings.

Nostalgia peaks at the launch of each presidential campaign, as candidates jostling for prime position invoke his popular legacy.

Reagan is the most admired Republican leader of the post-Second World War period. According to pollster Gallup, 61 per cent of respondents in 2013 rated him as outstanding or above average, behind only Democrat John F. Kennedy who received 74 per cent.

"Reagan's election and my grandfather's allegiance to him were defining influences on me politically. I've been a Republican ever since," wrote Marco Rubio, who last Monday launched his presidential campaign along themes emblematic of the man long known as "the Gipper." "Ronald Reagan was... arguably one of the best presidents for foreign policy," opined Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker who is exploring a White House run.

Ex-Florida governor Jeb Bush, who could become the third Bush to win the White House, said when he cut his political teeth in the 1980s it was the Reagan doctrine of "peace through strength" that dominated.

Bush, Rubio, Walker and 2016 candidates Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul all use - and sometimes overplay - the Reagan card, calling for a return to the "shining city on a hill" that Reagan invoked a generation ago.

Unconcerned with sounding anachronistic, they say they want to counter Iran, push back against Russia and defeat the Islamic State extremist group much like Reagan brought the Soviet Union to its knees.

Negotiating with the enemy

The Reagan who entered the White House during the Cold War was an unrepentant anti-Communist.

He pledged a strong military, sweeping aside the "detente" strategy embraced by predecessors in order to repel the Soviet threat in nations like Nicaragua and Afghanistan, where his administration financed the Contras and the mujahideen, respectively.

But after his 1984 reelection, Reagan changed.

He met with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and negotiated a historic US-USSR agreement to reduce nuclear arsenals.

"He was inflexible about ends, but flexible about means," Philip Hughes, briefly a member of Reagan's National Security Council, told AFP.

"Despite his deceptively simple exterior, Ronald Reagan is a very complicated figure," he added.

"Ronald Reagan isn't a religion," and candidates should not claim the "definitive interpretation" of the man.

It would also be dangerous to compare the 1980s to 2015, Hughes warned.

The monolithic Soviet menace was different from the current nature of multiple and decentralized threats, often tinged with Islamist radicalism.

Republican candidates have mostly rejected the international nuclear accord Washington and other powers are hammering out with Iran, blasting Obama for yielding excessive concessions.

They promote a Reaganesque alternative: boost military spending enough to intimidate the Iranians into accepting US preconditions for negotiations.

"One of the things that these Republican candidates are missing is that Ronald Reagan always believed that even though the Soviet Union was our enemy, we could negotiate with them, we could resolve issues like the nuclear issue while other issues we still disagreed on," said John Bradshaw, executive director of the National Security Network, a Democratic-leaning think-tank.

When Reagan officials started negotiating with the Soviets, "neoconservatives... were horrified," he said.

Reagan also differed from the current crop of conservative candidates in a key way.

The former California governor notably entered the White House in early 1981 accompanied by an extensive network of advisors, experts and officials ready to implement his policies from Day 1.

According to Hughes, none of the dozen current Republican contenders has such a Rolodex; only top Democrat Hillary Clinton has a comparable network.