(Bloomberg) -- In January 2008, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama caused a stir when he praised Ronald Reagan as a president who “changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.”
His remarks to the Reno Gazette-Journal editorial board at the time didn’t sit well with his top rival.
“I have to say, you know, my leading opponent the other day said that he thought the Republicans had better ideas than Democrats the last 10 to 15 years,” Hillary Clinton said soon after at an economic roundtable in Las Vegas.
In a debate days later, Clinton confronted Obama for “admiring Ronald Reagan,” prompting a heated exchange in which Obama insisted he wasn’t praising the ex-president’s agenda, and pointed out that Clinton and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, also had kind words for Reagan in the past.
The episode captured what remains, eight years later, of an ongoing love-hate relationship between top Democrats and the former Republican president. Some days, he’s held up as a paragon of a virtuous Republican who championed immigration reform, supported gun control and sought to eliminate nuclear weapons. On others, he’s painted as an arch-villain whose tax-cutting, regulation-slashing and union-busting policies paved the way for stagnant wages and record income inequality.
Today, Clinton is the Democratic nominee and her campaign is carrying on the party’s tradition of selectively invoking Reagan when political advantageous, while also blasting the orthodoxy of “trickle-down economics” that is synonymous with his policies.
At a press conference Thursday, Clinton contrasted Reagan with Republican nominee Donald Trump one day after he said Russian strongman Vladimir Putin “has been a leader far more than our president has been” and for suggested he’d fire top U.S. generals.
“What would Ronald Reagan say about a Republican nominee who attacks America's generals and heaps praise on Russia's president? I think we know the answer,” Clinton said. She repeated the line later in the afternoon at a rally in Charlotte, North Carolina.
In July, when Trump suggested to the New York Times he may back out of U.S. commitments to NATO allies, Clinton adviser Jake Sullivan responded, "Ronald Reagan would be ashamed."
But during an Aug. 11 speech, Clinton took a veiled swipe at Reagan's vision by accusing Trump of endorsing "just a more extreme version of the failed theory of trickle-down economics, with his own addition of outlandish Trumpian ideas."
Campaigning for Clinton at the Democratic convention in July, Obama praised Reagan’s belief in American exceptionalism. “Ronald Reagan called America ‘a shining city on a hill.’ Donald Trump calls it ‘a divided crime scene’ that only he can fix.”
In Republican circles, Reagan, who died in 2004, is an icon who’s routinely evoked and idolized by presidential candidates, someone who embodied optimism and set the country on a conservative path.
In a foreign policy speech in April, Trump praised “the words of President Reagan, our great president, when he said, ‘tear down this wall’” to former Soviet statesman Mikhail Gorbachev. During the Republican primary, Trump fended off attacks on his past liberal views by pointing out that Reagan “was a somewhat liberal Democrat” who became a conservative and “a great president.”
For Democrats, however, there's more tension. In 2008, candidate John Edwards summed up the liberal base's feelings about Reagan in a fiery retort to Obama's favorable comments about him.
"Ronald Reagan, the man who busted unions, the man who did everything in his power to destroy the organized labor movement, the man who created a tax structure that favored the richest Americans against middle class and working families ... is not an example of change for a presidential candidate running in the Democratic Party," Edwards said.