09/07/2011 02:20 pm ET Updated Nov 07, 2011

Debate Preview: GOP Hopefuls Would Reject Ronald Reagan

The Republican presidential candidates debating this evening at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley have an insoluble problem on their hands:

Everything they say to win support of the conservative forces they need to win the GOP nomination will further distance them from mainstream American voters in general and California's moderate, independent, centrist voters in particular.

Pick an issue: Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, public education, health care, taxes on the wealthy, environmental protections, climate change, religion in the schools, citizenship for immigrants, investment in roads, bridges, flood control and transportation or, above all, compromise with the Democrats.

Just about any stand the candidates take to please the Tea Party Wing of the GOP on any of these issues will come back to bite them when they have to appeal to the broad center in order to win the White House in November.

The results of the recent USC Dornsife College/Los Angeles Times Poll of California voters demonstrate how this all works in California. In head-to-head match ups, President Obama smothers any of the GOP candidates by about 2-to-1. But if you use support/non-support for the Tea Party movement as a demographic, here's what you find:

-- Obama vs Mitt Romney: 67-20 percent among non-TP voters; 20-74 percent among TP voters.
-- Obama vs Rick Perry: 69-16 percent among non-TP voters; 22-73 percent among TP voters.
-- Obama vs Michele Bachmann: 70-16 percent among non-TP voters; 22-70 percent among TP voters.

The problem for the Republicans: only 27 percent of the California voters support the Tea Party movement; 73 percent do not.

Because this evening's debate is at the Reagan Library, we can expect to hear a lot of slavish praise for the late Gipper. But the mad hatters who now control the agenda of the Republican Party, and those who decide what is and what is not an acceptable stand for a legitimate member of the GOP, would likely never include Reagan in their big tent.

Don't take our word. Consider what his most accomplished biographer, Lou Cannon, formerly of the Washington Post, has to say about it.

From his shared commitment with Mikhail Gorbachev on nuclear arms reduction and his reluctance to commit U.S. troops to combat, to Social Security reform and immigration policy, Reagan -- though he cast himself as the keeper of the conservative flame -- was, by today's standards a compromising pragmatist.

"He was practical on taxes," Cannon told Calbuzz. "He reduced income tax rates in 1981, but overshot the mark, as tax bills often do, and approved four tax increases during his presidency, one of which was the tax reform bill of 1986. Reaganites would say that he achieved most of his goals on taxes. The marginal tax rate was 70 percent when he took office, 28 percent when he left. The 1986 bill closed a lot of loopholes."

"The point here is that Reagan was practical about taxes as about much else. He told me many times, and my books reflect this, that he was willing to settle for half a loaf or less and come back for more."

Or consider another policy: immigration. On which Reagan worked out a deal with the Democrats that was fundamentally an amnesty bill. Said Cannon:

"Reagan never was a yahoo on immigration. In his announcement speech in 1980, he called for a 'North American Accord,' a sort of common market, of Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. The folks in the current Republican field, except maybe for Huntsman, would find this unpatriotic."

Unlike the current Republican candidates, "Reagan in his campaigns did not talk about abortion or other social issues," Cannon said "The spirit and the tone of Reagan's campaigns were Rooseveltian -- FDR more than Teddy. Reagan was trying to become president of the United States of America, not the Republican Party."

In summary, Cannon noted, "I don't think any of the current Republican crop could win a caucus or a primary if they campaigned on Reagan's actual record."

Instead, they'll campaign over his dead body.

Phil Trounstine and Jerry Roberts write about politics at