Pour one out for sunny, Reaganesque Republicanism.
The latest blow came this week, when Tim Scott, the second of two candidates with a future-focused, relentlessly positive message and a smiling disposition, dropped out of the GOP presidential primary. He was preceded to the exits by his fellow happy warrior Mike Pence. Both capitulated to an electorate more interested in candidates eager to violate Ronald Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment — thou shall not speak ill of any fellow Republican — shredding each other to make a point.
The last of their kind amid a field of slash-and-burn culture warriors and angry brawlers — candidates willing to call their political enemies “scum” and “vermin” — Pence and Scott had bet that there was a silent majority of Republican primary voters who wanted a return to an optimistic, whistle-while-you-work-the-base standard bearer.
If there are in fact any of those voters left, they could surely use a drink. The closest alternative they have now is a candidate polling so dismally he failed to qualify for last week’s debate.
“I’m the only one with a sunny atmosphere,” Doug Burgum, the wealthy North Dakota governor, said in an interview from a parking lot in downtown Dubuque, Iowa, this week, taking in the new shape of the winnowed field as he vowed to stay in the race through Iowa and New Hampshire.
For everyone else, there is now a sizable Gipper Gap.
“The reality is, Reagan would be in single digits if he was running for president today, in the current Republican Party,” said Doug Elmets, who worked for Reagan as a spokesperson and a speechwriter before becoming a speaker at the Democratic National Convention in 2016. “Trump hijacked the GOP and I’m almost certain that Reagan is rolling over in his grave at the very thought.”
Scott, the South Carolina senator, and Pence, the former vice president, were always longshots. But in their announcement speeches, they painted red, white and blue visions of what could be: Scott spoke of “obstacles that became opportunities,” and of a “pain [that] revealed our purpose”; Pence appealed to the “the better angels of our nature” and maintained he isn’t “convinced our country is as divided as our politics.” Their advisers — and Burgum — all said they wanted to talk about policy.
So much for all that.
As Scott entered the last 24 hours of his candidacy, and Pence soaked in the last days of a political vacation somewhere a spokesman would only describe as “outside of Indiana,” the man who trounced them both along with the rest of the field had staked out darker territory.
“We pledge to you that we will root out the communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country that lie and steal and cheat on elections,” former President Donald Trump said toward the end of his Veteran’s Day speech in Claremont, N.H. “They’ll do anything, whether legally or illegally, to destroy America and to destroy the American Dream.” He added: “the threat from outside forces is far less sinister, dangerous and grave than the threat from within. Our threat is from within.”
And then there was Miami. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy attempted to lay waste to one another in an exchange during the GOP primary debate about TikTok.
“You’re just scum,” Haley said to Ramaswamy after he pointed to her 25-year-old daughter’s use of the social media app she also criticized.
Ramaswamy’s response? His campaign churned out “rebel scum”-branded campaign merch — a nod to the Star Wars franchise, and to the badge of honor it was to have any attention at all, even if not the positive kind, in this primary owned by Trump.
“They're lacking talking about the future, they’re lacking talking about optimism, they’re lacking talking about the sunrise instead of the sunset, the dawn instead of the dusk — all of these things,” said Craig Shirley, the Reagan biographer.
He said, “Reagan didn’t talk like that. He didn’t say ‘vermin’ or ‘scum.’”
For Scott, it was a level of combativeness and vitriol he couldn’t break through, never mastering the art of the beef, a senior Scott adviser told POLITICO.
“Donald Trump is always fighting with somebody,” said the adviser, granted anonymity to speak freely about the dynamics of the race. “[Ron] DeSantis has done a good job of always picking fights with folks, too. But when you look on the other side with Tim Scott and Mike Pence, both of those guys said, 'Alright, let's have a policy conversation.' Mike Pence and Tim Scott rolled out more policy plans than anybody else. But those are not the things that draw coverage. It's the fighting that does. If Scott put DeSantis' name in his mouth, he got coverage. If he put Donald Trump's name in his mouth, he got even more coverage.”
Absent a grudge to burnish, it was slim pickings for the nice-guy candidates. Even for Pence, who namechecked Reagan 34 times in his political memoir So Help Me God, it was hard to keep from breaking Reagan’s commandment. On his last day on the campaign trail in Iowa, he assailed DeSantis, Trump and Ramaswamy as “voices of appeasement” when it came to international relations.
“In order to keep Reagan's vision for the country alive, that commandment may be one that needs to be broken,” said Pence adviser Devin O’Malley. “I think we need to be able to have frank conversations on policy and to be critical of policy positions, especially when it means departing so drastically from conservative principles and values like some candidates are.”
The death of Reaganism — at least in the 2024 campaign — will surprise few. It had been in hospice for a long time. At the GOP’s very first debate, Ramaswamy tore into it directly.
“It is not morning in America,” Ramaswamy scolded Pence, burying the old Reagan line. “We live in a dark moment, and we have to confront the fact that we're in an internal sort of cold cultural civil war and we have to recognize that.”
Not morning at all — but dusk, as Shirley said.
Against the darkening backdrop, there is still Burgum, the candidate who may have delivered the sunniest announcement speech and cuts the figure of the protagonist in a Norman Rockwell painting.
But even Burgum is down these days.
“First of all, it’s disappointing that some of us don’t make the debate stage,” he said. “But the reaction we've got from people, particularly in Iowa and New Hampshire, has been incredible, because they're kind of perplexed. These early caucus goers and early primary voters understand there is no role for the RNC in their charter, in their mandate, to actually say ‘our job is to try to narrow the field before the voting starts in Iowa and New Hampshire.”
Asked about the tone the primary had taken, and Trump calling his domestic opponents “vermin,” Burgum — adhering to Reagan’s commandment — declined to comment about other candidates in the race but fretted about the party’s standing among independents.
“We have real enemies,” Burgum said, citing China, Russian, North Korea and Iran. He added that the primary should be about “policy and strategy and direction” and not be focused on “personal attacks.”
“I learned that in the private sector, you weren't going to gain another customer by making fun of or attacking the CEO of another company,” Burgum said. “People make purchase decisions based on: Is the product better? Is the service better?”
As for the current tenor of the campaign, he said, “You're not going to win customers that way. You're going to turn customers off.”