Will Mount Reagan bring GOP back to past heights?

SACRAMENTO — Some Republican political consultants last Thursday laughingly asked why I wasn’t listening to the California GOP gubernatorial debate that pitted Assemblyman Tim Donnelly against former U.S. Treasury official Neel Kashkari. They were chuckling because one of the two men will earn the “privilege” of losing to Jerry Brown by 40 points or so.

Donnelly is a conservative with a “ready, fire, aim” reputation. Kashkari voted for Obama in 2008 and touts his role administering a bank-bailout program that remains unpopular among Republicans. GOP leaders mainly want to nominate the candidate who will do less damage to the party’s already battered reputation during the campaign. Talk about low expectations.

This has left California Republicans longing for the days of the state’s 33rd governor, Ronald Reagan. It’s almost impossible to talk to a GOP leader or activist at the national level who doesn’t eventually bring up his name as they look for a presidential contender.

At what point does such nostalgia become counterproductive?

Last month, the House Natural Resources Committee voted to name a mountain peak east of Las Vegas after the former president. That’s part of an effort by conservative activist Grover Norquist, the cheerleader for a campaign to name something in every one of America’s more than 3,000 counties after the 40th president.

There already are dozens of parks, schools, airports and governmental office buildings named after Reagan throughout the country. Critics have noted the irony of naming government buildings and infrastructure after a man whose key insight was that government is too big, too expensive and too intrusive.

This naming approach is not just the province of Republicans, of course. Slate magazine’s map of things named after John F. Kennedy is astoundingly cluttered. There are at least 730 streets and roads named after Martin Luther King Jr. To some degree, the naming frenzy is reflective of public sentiment. There’s been no similar frenzy, for instance, to name buildings after Jimmy Carter or Gerald Ford.

“Grover has very modest goals,” joked Shawn Steel, former chairman of the California Republican Party and a GOP national committeeman. “It should be closer to 10,000,” he added, noting that maybe we should rename one of the Great Lakes after him. Kidding aside, Steel says this will help preserve Reagan’s cultural and political legacy. Not everyone agrees.

“It is OK up to a point,” responds Fred Smoller, a political science professor at Chapman University in Orange. “The Constitution prohibits the granting of titles of nobility because the Framers wanted a political system based on merit not myth. Profligate naming contributes to the latter at the expense of the former.”

Maybe it’s not quite like those Great-Leader posters and statues that end up on everything in despotic countries. But Smoller probably is right that this tendency to celebrate past presidents leads more to myth-making than serious policy discussions.

My favorite president got 460,000 acres of mostly scrub land named after him. Yet how many Southern Californians drive by the Cleveland National Forest and remember Grover Cleveland as a Jeffersonian Democrat who opposed high tariffs and the annexation of Hawaii? How many debates about Free Silver has it sparked?

Few recent politicians have influenced my political thinking as much as Ronald Reagan. His ideas and ability to explain them pushed this then-liberal Washington, D.C.-area college student in a free-market direction. The so-called Reagan Revolution, despite its flaws, sparked a lifelong interest in conservative and libertarian philosophy and taught many political lessons.

But I’m far less interested in flying into Reagan National Airport or climbing a rechristened Mount Reagan than in figuring out how more of his ideas can take hold in U.S. capitols, especially the one in Sacramento. Sure, the governor’s debate made even me pine a bit for the Gipper – but Republicans are better off putting their energy into finding new leaders rather than deifying past ones.

Steven Greenhut is the California columnist for U-T San Diego. Write to him at