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GUY RAZ, HOST:

From NPR News, it's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

It's no secret who the most popular Republican is in this year's GOP presidential race.

WALTER SHAPIRO: I almost bring a stopwatch to every Republican debate. Can they actually go five minutes without mentioning those two words: Ronald Reagan?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: That's veteran political reporter Walter Shapiro. In just one single debate last year, GOP candidates mentioned the former president 24 times.

NEWT GINGRICH: I served during the Reagan campaign...

MITT ROMNEY: President Reagan when he made his decision...

GINGRICH: The Reagan jobs program...

REPRESENTATIVE MICHELE BACHMANN: That would be Ronald Reagan.

ROMNEY: If President Reagan were here...

BACHMANN: Ronald Reagan made a deal...

RICK SANTORUM: Ronald Reagan was committed...

REPRESENTATIVE RON PAUL: I strongly supported Ronald Reagan. I was one of four in Texas.

RAZ: Each candidate is vying for the mantle of Reagan conservatism. But some historians and even some of the folks who worked for Ronald Reagan are now wondering whether Reagan himself was enough of a Reagan conservative, at least the way it's defined today. That's our cover story today: What's a Reagan conservative anyway? And if he were alive, could Reagan get the GOP nod?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLAY THAT FUNKY MUSIC")

RAZ: Our story begins with Reagan biographer Craig Shirley.

CRAIG SHIRLEY: By the 1970s, you had rampant inflation, high interest rates. We were losing a Cold War. Americans had become rampant sheep consumers of the '70s, you know, whether it was disco music or pet rocks or leisure suits or all those things that really summed up what was really a very, very bad time for the American people.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC "PLAY THAT FUNKY MUSIC")

ROB PARISSI: (Singing) I never had no problems. Yeah.

RAZ: It was against this backdrop that a young former Nixon aide named John Sears...

JOHN SEARS: John Sears is my name.

RAZ: ...convinced Reagan he should run for president against the incumbent Gerald Ford.

SEARS: Not only in the Republican Party but, really, among the Democrats, too, there was an awfully negative feeling about politics, and actually that can only be changed by having a lively race.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

RAZ: And against huge odds, Reagan actually came close to winning that year, 1976.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: I'm going to say fellow Republicans here, but for those who are watching from a distance, all those millions of Democrats and independents who I know are looking for a cause around which to rally and which I believe we can give them.

SEARS: Reagan had a cultural appeal with these New Deal blue-collar urban, ethnic, lunch bucket voters that other Republicans didn't. Nixon had a little bit, but not the way Reagan did. And so this was the beginning of his reorganization of the two parties.

RAZ: The man who became the most important American conservative icon in the 20th century was, in many ways, a moderate, says historian Craig Shirley.

SHIRLEY: In 1978, there was a referendum on the ballot out in California called Proposition 6, which was being pushed by state Senator John Briggs. It was a referendum that would ban homosexuals from teaching in public schools or advocating a homosexual lifestyle. So it was very, very restrictive. It was being supported by the Christian right. Reagan campaigned against it.

And Briggs was asked the day after the election why it lost and he had one answer: Ronald Reagan.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHIRLEY: You cannot take Reagan and make him into a god because then he becomes unassailable.

RAZ: Reagan's record is full of stories like these. In recent years, Senator Lindsey Graham, former Governor Mike Huckabee and Congressman Duncan Hunter Jr., all Republicans, have suggested Reagan would have a tough time winning the GOP nomination today. And to find out why, we called up Walter Shapiro. How are you?

SHAPIRO: How could I not be glorious? I came back from New Hampshire with a bad cold.

RAZ: Walter Shapiro is covering his ninth presidential campaign, now for Yahoo! News and the New Republic. And even with a cold, he agreed to talk to us.

SHAPIRO: I still rose from a sickbed, brave fellow that I am, to be here.

RAZ: He says there were plenty of Reagan era policies that wouldn't fit well with the GOP today like, for example, raising taxes.

JON HUNTSMAN: We're not going to raise taxes. This is the worst time to be raising taxes, and everybody knows that. We need to grow.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

ROMNEY: I don't want to raise taxes on the American people.

BACHMANN: I think you earned every dollar, you should get to keep every dollar.

GINGRICH: The question is, how would we generate revenue? The Ronald Reagan technique put three million...

RAZ: Walter Shapiro says in the early '80s...

SHAPIRO: There was a deficit problem in '82, '83. So after massively lowering taxes, there was an adjustment upwards.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

REAGAN: Make no mistake about it, this whole package is a compromise. I had to swallow hard to agree to any revenue increase. But there are two sides to a compromise.

SHAPIRO: But his major tax thing, which also would be attacked, was tax reform of '86, which basically eliminated scads of deductions in order to lower rates. But in an attack ad today, you would say Ronald Reagan eliminated this deduction, eliminated that deduction. Who's side is he on?

RAZ: And he also granted amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants?

SHAPIRO: Yeah. That would put him - if Rick Perry got into trouble during these debates for merely offering instate tuition in Texas to illegal immigrants...

ROMNEY: First, we ought to have a fence. We've got 4.7 million people waiting in line legally.

SANTORUM: No more. We are going to secure the border first, and that's the most important thing to do.

SHAPIRO: The 1985, '86 immigration deal, which was half the citizenship, this is the immigration bill that the Republicans now are railing against when they say no more amnesties.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

REAGAN: I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and who have lived here, even though sometime back, they may have entered illegally.

SHAPIRO: And this was Ronald Reagan.

RAZ: We've heard a lot of GOP candidates point out that many Americans, almost half, don't pay federal income taxes.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: We're dismayed. We're dismayed at the injustice that nearly half of all Americans don't even pay any income tax.

SANTORUM: It's anybody that makes money and pays taxes and everybody who doesn't.

ROMNEY: I think it's a real problem when you have half of Americans that are - almost half of Americans that are not paying income tax.

RAZ: Now, these are mostly, obviously, poor Americans. Here's what President Reagan said about this issue in his 1985 State of the Union address.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

REAGAN: To encourage opportunity and jobs rather than dependency and welfare, we will propose that individuals living at or near the poverty line be totally exempt from federal income tax.

RAZ: OK. So President Reagan was responsible for this.

SHAPIRO: Partially. Bill Clinton, as I believe, expanded this in the 1990s. But the truth is a lot of these Americans still pay a significant tax in terms of the regressive tax for Social Security on their wages. This is, again, the whole problem with this plaster saint iconography.

RAZ: He wasn't really a culture warrior, was he?

SHAPIRO: I mean, he - it is telling that every year, he addressed the National Right to Life anti-abortion march in Washington by telephone, even though they were half a mile from the White House, because he didn't want the visuals of being perceived as that much of a cultural warrior. And abortion was as legal when Ronald Reagan left office as it was when he came into office.

RAZ: Now, you covered nine presidential campaigns.

SHAPIRO: And one of these days, I'm going to get one right.

RAZ: Right. Got it. Do you think Ronald Reagan could win the GOP nomination today?

SHAPIRO: Well, it really depends who he's running against. I mean, certainly, his resoluteness about the Soviet threat was genuine and consistent. His breaking of the air traffic controllers strike had a symbolic importance in terms of labor versus management in this country. There are many ways in which Reagan was a genuine conservative, but he wasn't consistent. I am imagining the superPAC ads against him.

Former liberal Democrat Ronald Reagan, tax raiser Ronald Reagan. The truth is that political figures, particularly when viewed from the lens of history, are far more complicated creatures than they are when they're viewed through the lens of bumper stickers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: So what about the modern definition of Reagan conservative? Is that who Reagan was? I put that question to Reagan's one-time budget director David Stockman.

DAVID STOCKMAN: No, I don't think so. Because even though he was highly negative about the role of government and said it's the problem, not the solution - and in some philosophical sense, he was right - he was also enough of a pragmatist to recognize facts. And as much as he disliked the idea of levying taxes, he supported many tax increases after the first cut, but somehow current Republicans have kind of whitewashed out of history. They pretend it never happened.

RAZ: What do you make of this kind of interpretation of who Reagan was? Is it just completely off base, or is it deliberate?

STOCKMAN: I think it's two things. One, it's a selective reading of history, as I've said. And secondly, they've adopted full-bore Reagan rhetoric, which they do like. Now, what the history books are going to show, I believe, is that the Reagan revolution never happened. It was a campaign slogan. Government wasn't reduced, taxes were cut marginally, but the basic functions of the federal government didn't change. What is left is a lot of slogans and campaign speeches. And the current crop of Republican politicians basically likes to repeat them over and over and over.

RAZ: Why do you think it matters either way if the Republican Party of today is different than the party under Reagan and before?

STOCKMAN: I think it matters a lot, because in any democracy, you cannot have fiscal stability, you cannot have discipline, unless you have one party that advocates discipline. And the Republican Party has given up the role that the conservative party needs to play in a democracy. And as a result of surrendering that role, we're in a very difficult and, I think, dangerous situation.

RAZ: That's former Reagan budget director David Stockman. By the way, this year, he's backing Ron Paul.

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