WASHINGTON -- Republican leaders continue to regard former President Ronald Reagan as an icon. More than six years after he left the White House he remains the GOP counterpart to the Democrats' Franklin D. Roosevelt -- the embodiment of what is best about the Grand Old Party.
The best illustration of the point is that most Republicans in Congress still pay homage to Reaganomics -- the notion that you can increase defense spending, cut taxes and balance the budget all at the same time, despite the fact that this formula sent the federal deficit soaring and precipitated the fiscal crisis that persists in the country today.
In their attacks on the deficit, nary a word of criticism crosses Republican lips toward the man who got the country into such a deep hole. Although, like his successor George Bush, Reagan in fact increased taxes after his high-profile 25 percent tax cuts in 1981, he remains in fond Republican memory as a champion tax-cutter and inspiration to the new generation of congressional budget slashers.
For all that, however, one prime Reagan principle is being conspicuously broken by this year's Republican presidential hopefuls. That is the old Californian's cherished "Eleventh Commandment" that guided his own political career, first as candidate and governor in California and then as candidate and president.
Reagan's Eleventh Commandment directed that "no Republican shall speak ill of another Republican," especially in the heat of political combat. It was a commandment that Reagan for the most part found easy to embrace, because he seldom had a serious challenge for governor or president from within his own party. But even when he ran against and lost the GOP presidential nomination to incumbent Gerald Ford in 1976, Reagan held true to it.
Alas, the Eleventh Commandment is taking a terrible beating this year at the hands of various Republican White House hopefuls. Sly verbal pokes at real or potential rivals have become commonplace on the campaign trail. And in the Senate, where four of the nine declared or soon-to-declare Republicans toil, open conflict is obvious, especially on the part of the combative Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, who seems always to do his best to make Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole squirm.
But the matter has gone beyond that, to the point of rival candidates issuing press releases not simply boosting themselves but rapping opponents by name. The latest example is a blurb from former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, who liked to call himself the only true Washington outsider in the field (even though he served in the Bush cabinet) until Gov. Pete Wilson of California announced he would soon enter the race.
Wilson also is advertising himself as a Washington outsider (even though he previously served in the U.S. Senate) and thus has complicated Alexander's task of establishing himself as the best bet to tap into the voter resentment toward Washington that seemed so evident in last November's midterm elections.
The latest Alexander press release compares how Alexander fares in a recent poll in his own state with Wilson's showing in a California poll. Not surprisingly, Alexander comes out clearly on top -- a 69 percent favorable, 3 percent unfavorable rating in a Mason-Dixon poll of Tennessee voters, compared to a Field Poll in California showing support for Wilson having dropped from 54 percent to 38 percent since February.
The Alexander press release also reports that the former governor leads national front-runner Dole, 37 percent to 25 percent, in the Tennessee poll while Dole leads Wilson, 37 percent to 17 percent, in the California poll. Wilson is identified in the Alexander blurb as the man "who apparently intends to break his promise to California voters and run for president."
Also, the Alexander press release cites a San Francisco Examiner poll indicating that "43 percent of Californians don't believe Wilson's claim that he did not know a housekeeper who worked for him was in the United States illegally."
Ronald Reagan would not approve.