Republicans are dismantling their Mt. Rushmore

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If the Republican Party had its own Mt. Rushmore, that mountain would have three faces: Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan. The goal of every Republican candidate should be to become the fourth face on that mountain. To do so would mean not only winning an election, it would mean having an impactful presidency that shapes the arc of American history.

Unfortunately, instead of building on the legacies of those three presidents, today’s GOP hopefuls are tearing them down.

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Let’s start with Lincoln, arguably the greatest of all American presidents. He saved the Union and ended slavery. By pushing through the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, and in laying the moral and rhetorical groundwork for the 14th and 15th Amendments, Lincoln made equal citizenship regardless of race a core promise of the Constitution. There is no greater legacy of any president of either party.

Yet, what does today’s GOP do with that that legacy? They seek to curtail it. One common tactic is to require identification at the voting polls, an unnecessary and offensive tactic that hinders voter participation rather than facilitates it.  The non-partisan Brennan Center of Justice estimates that it is nearly impossible for about 10-11 percent of the people – mostly minority, elderly, and poor – to acquire such identification, thereby disenfranchising a large swath of our fellow citizens who are eligible to vote.    

Today’s Republicans seek to narrow the pool of eligible voters in myriad ways. Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzFunding bill rejected as shutdown nears Cruz: Clinton 'tired' and 'formulaic' during debate The Trail 2016: Fight night MORE (Texas) sought to amend the National Voter Registration Act to allow states to require proof of citizenship before voting in federal elections. (No sense of irony, that one.)  Jeb Bush purged thousands of eligible voters from Florida’s voting rolls in 2000 – and tried again in 2004 – and announced his support for voter ID requirements in his book, Immigration Wars.

Each of these candidates claims their efforts are needed in order to combat voter fraud. To wit, Donald TrumpDonald TrumpMichelle Obama featured in new Clinton ad Trump camp: Dean 'went straight to the gutter' Arizona newspaper endorses Dem for president for first time MORE has said “this voting system is out of control” and people are “voting many, many times.” This is fiction. As reported in the Washington Post in 2014, “[T]here is overwhelming scholarly and legal consensus that voter fraud is vanishingly rare, and in fact non-existent at the levels imagined by voter ID proponents.” 

It’s not just Lincoln’s stony face that is being blasted off the mountain. Teddy Roosevelt’s legacy is anathema to today’s GOP. Roosevelt advocated for consumers and believed in sensible regulation of industry. When tainted food products were harming the public, he fought to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act, and signed both bills into the law the same year. On the issue of the environment, he earned the moniker “conservation president” for creating the U.S. Forest Service and safeguarding 230 million acres of public land through the American Antiquities Act.

Teddy’s efforts would be described by today’s Republicans as meddling in the free market. On food safety, Republicans in Congress have passed bills to allow meat processors to remove country-of-origin labels from products sold in the U.S. and allow states to forgo labeling of GMOs on food products. Rather than support efforts to curb carbon pollution from tainting air quality, they vote to block the EPA and tie its hands with policy riders. When, in 2015, President Obama used the Antiquities Act to create three national monuments in California, Nevada and Texas, the GOP chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee called it “shameful” and “bull crap.” He didn’t mean “Bull Moose.”

And lastly, there is Reagan.  Surely his face would remain, no?

Yes, perhaps it would. Reagan’s belief in tax cuts and devolution remain foundational policies within the modern GOP, and his support for robust military spending is still the Republican norm. But on an issue that is central to our country’s history and identity – immigration – Reagan’s legacy is threatened.

Reagan welcomed immigrants to our country. He recognized their “fervent love of freedom and a special kind of courage, the courage to uproot themselves and their families, travel great distances to a foreign shore and build there a new world of peace and freedom.” He focused not on differences, but on similarities: “We are bound together because, like them, we too dare to hope.”

Reagan believed that bringing undocumented immigrants out of the shadows, instead of rounding them up and deporting them, was humane and sensible. In 1986, upon signing the Immigration Reform and Control Act, he said, “Very soon many of these men and women will be able to step into the sunlight and, ultimately, if they choose, they may become Americans.”

Today’s Republican aspirants are photographic negatives of this stance. Donald Trump has called for applying a religious test on immigration so that all Muslims would be banned from entering the United States. With typical panache, he has called for building a “big, beautiful wall” to keep out Mexicans – who he has described as “criminals” and “rapists.” Cruz, Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioObama nominates ambassador to Cuba Rubio praises Marlins pitcher José Fernández on Senate floor Glenn Beck: I was wrong about Ted Cruz MORE (Fla.), and Ben Carson all either outright oppose or make obvious attempts to avoid supporting an earned path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, which is often intentionally mislabeled “amnesty.” Theirs is not Reagan’s vision of America.

President’s Day is when we pause to reflect on two of our greatest presidents, Washington and Lincoln, and hopefully, think about what we want in our next one. I hope every candidate, from both parties, is aiming to put their face on the real Mt. Rushmore.

The legacies of those on the “Republican Rushmore” should be preserved by today’s GOP, not savaged. Honest Abe, TR, and the Gipper are worth it.

Papa runs the Washington Office of Global Strategy Group and served in the Obama White House as special assistant to the President for Legislative Affairs.