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Opinion: For the GOP to Move Forward, We've Got to Ditch Ronald Reagan

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Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan waving from the limousine during the Inaugural Parade in Washington, D.C. on Inauguration Day, 1981.

Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan. That’s all we Republicans talk about: Ronald Reagan.

That was Mitt Romney’s problem – well, really the whole Republican Party’s problem – last Tuesday: here we were in the middle of the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression, running against a beleaguered incumbent, and we still managed to lose because Democrats ran Barack Obama and we ran the ghost of Reagan.

In the primaries, for instance, the 30 million GOP candidates tried to out-Reagan each other for the “true conservative” mantle, name-dropping Reagan more than all other presidents combined – “Reagan,” “Reagan,” “Reagan,” Reagan,” “Reagan,” “Reagan,” Reagan” – over 10 months and 25+ debates, including one at the Reagan Library.

Then Reagan-mania spread to the platform – the pro-Life language that the GOP adopted was identical to 1984’s – and to the convention in Tampa, where Newt Gingrich promised a return to “the principles that are at the core of President Reagan’s legacy.”

In the end, Reagan’s spirit even possessed Mitt Romney: In September, when his campaign had been faltering, Peggy Noonan happened to mention in her Wall Street Journal column that Reagan used to extend his hand to the crowd during his ’84 stump speeches and ask people to “come walk” with him. Lo and behold, two months later in a speech in New Hampshire, Romney was doing the same thing. 

It’s not that Ronald Reagan isn’t worth remembering. There’s no doubt that he was a transformative president. He had the same knack for soaring rhetoric that Obama had in the primaries but never brought to the presidency. Reagan helped to pull America out of a national malaise and helped to bring down the Soviet Union.

But for all the impressive stuff that Reagan did, here’s one thing that he didn’t do: Win an election in 2012. According to the exit polls, Republicans lost 93 percent of African Americans, 90 percent of gays, 74 percent of the Asian Americans, 69 percent of Hispanics and 60 percent of people under 30. I’m not sure that campaigning on a platform of “self-deportation,” abortion bans and traditional marriage would get much traction with that crowd – even for Reagan.

It’s a different world now. Democrats have changed their platform to keep up with it. Their new one backs gay marriage, for instance, which Maine, Maryland and Washington voted to legalize last Tuesday. Republicans have to change too.     

It’s time to give up the ghost. It’s like I told a friend on Election Night, when he started ranting to me that Mitt Romney could’ve won in a landslide if he’d embraced Reagan conservatism: 

“I like Ronald Reagan, but Reagan’s over. Remember how sad it was to see Michael Jackson hocking his Thriller act two decades later? That’s what we look like hocking Reagan.”  

Of course he tried to argue with that. I tuned him out. But from what I could gather, it was something like, “Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan…”