Election 2024

Mike Pence Claims the Reagan Mantle. So Far, It Isn't Helping Him.

"Our party does face a time for choosing," said the former vice president last night.


In 2015, when GOP presidential contenders took the stage at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, the 40th president's legacy loomed large. Debaters mentioned Reagan nearly four dozen times, according to Fortune.

Eight years later, the Gipper's reputation has taken a beating in some quarters. The illiberal right treats "Zombie Reaganite" as a go-to insult for old-school conservatives and libertarians, deriding the Reaganesque emphasis on free markets, limited government, and "peace through strength" as quaint at best. The GOP is "probably more of a Trump party" than a Reagan party at this point, one attendee of a soiree at the Reagan Library told Politico a couple of weeks ago.

Nonetheless, former Vice President Mike Pence has made it clear that he believes GOP primary voters still have an appetite for a candidate in the Reagan mold. At the second primary debate of the season last night, also held at the Reagan Library, he defended "the conservative agenda that Ronald Reagan brought forward in this party, of a strong national defense, standing with our allies, standing up to our enemies, supporting limited government and traditional values." 

"Frankly, our party does face a time for choosing," he said, referring to an iconic speech delivered by Reagan at the 1964 Republican National Convention. It's a choice of "whether we're going to stand on the foundation of that conservative agenda that Ronald Reagan poured, or whether we're going to follow the siren song of populism unmoored to conservative principles."

Earlier this week, four former Reagan administration officials, including former Heritage Foundation President Ed Feulner, released an open letter "wholeheartedly" endorsing Pence as the "candidate who embodies the spirit and principles of Ronald Reagan." 

Republican voters are, in fact, slightly more likely to name Reagan than Donald Trump as the best recent president, according to Pew. In June, Gallup found that Reagan enjoys a 69 percent approval rating overall, more than 20 points higher than Trump's.

For all that, of course, it's Trump who is dominating the primary field. Pence is currently in fifth place, with less than 5 percent in the RealClearPolitics polling average. Republican voters still love the idea of Reagan, but at a moment when culture war concerns seem to rule, their preference in 2024 may be for an angry warrior over a happy one.