How every Republican candidate tries to leverage Reagan

Sahil Kapur
Bloomberg News

Nearly three decades after he left office, Ronald Reagan's iconic status in the Republican Party is arguably stronger than ever.

In congressional speeches, he has been mentioned hundreds of times in the last year alone. And on the campaign trail, nearly every Republican candidate is invoking him as a way to fend off criticism.

Here's a rundown of how Republicans are using the 40th president as a human shield.

Donald Trump: Reagan used to be a liberal, too.

Under fire from Ted Cruz and other Republicans for his past progressive views on issues like abortion and health care, Trump has noted that Reagan, too, was once a liberal. Before Reagan ran for governor of California and then the presidency as a conservative Republican, he espoused liberal views and campaigned in 1948 for Harry Truman, assailing Republicans for breaking promises and boosting corporate profits over wages.

“You have to have flexibility,” Trump said in the South Carolina debate on Feb. 13. “Ronald Reagan, though, in terms of what we're talking about, was the great example. He was a somewhat liberal Democrat who became a somewhat, pretty strong conservative. Most importantly, he became a great president.”

Jeb Bush: Reagan didn't insult people,and neither do I .

In Bush's months-long struggle to get the upper hand on front-runner Trump, he has tried to lay claim to the Reagan mantle again and again. At the last debate, he aimed to turn his welcoming message to immigrants, which hasn't played well with many conservative voters, into an asset by invoking Reagan, whose pro-immigration views were indeed a far cry from Trump's restrictionism.

Reagan “was a conservative reformed governor for eight years before he became president and no one should suggest he made an evolution for political purposes. He was a conservative and he didn't tear down people like Donald Trump is. He tore down the Berlin Wall,” Bush said in the debate.

Ted Cruz: Reagan was hated by the establishment, like me .

A central criticism of Cruz is that he's widely disliked by his congressional colleagues, Republicans and Democrats alike. The Texan has worked to turn it into an asset by telling voters at virtually every campaign stop that Reagan also clashed with the Republican establishment when he ran for president. “Washington despised Ronald Reagan. By the way, if you see a candidate who Washington embraces, run and hide,” Cruz says. It always gets applause.

John Kasich: Reagan expanded Medicaid, like I did.

Attacked by Bush this this week's debate for expanding Medicaid to lower-income Ohioans as governor, which was made optional for states under Obamacare, Kasich opted for the Reagan defense as well.

“You know who expanded Medicaid five times to try to help the folks and give them opportunity so that you could rise and get a job? President Ronald Reagan,” he said.

Marco Rubio: Reagan wanted to spread democracy, like I do.

Rubio is one of few Republican candidates who supports the George W. Bush-era policy of using U.S. military power to promote democracy in autocratic nations, a goal that is rejected by rivals like Trump and Cruz. The Floridian argues that he's in line with Reagan.

“Just as Reagan never flinched in his criticisms of the Soviet Union’s political and economic repressions, we must never shy away from demanding that China allow true freedom for its 1.3 billion people,” Rubio writes on his campaign website. “Nor should we hesitate in calling the source of atrocities in the Middle East by its real nameradical Islam.”

Ben Carson: Reagan was nice to Republicans, like me.

Carson, who polls near the bottom of the pack and has avoided negative campaigning, invoked Reagan upon refusing to criticize Cruz for spreading rumors on the day of the Iowa vote that Carson wouldn't keep campaigning after the caucuses.

“Today is the 105th anniversary, or 105th birthday of Ronald Reagan. His 11th Commandment was not to speak ill of another Republican. So, I’m not going to use this opportunity to savage the reputation of Senator Cruz,” Carson said in the Feb. 6 debate.