By BRIAN A. HOWEY

INDIANAPOLIS – A week ago in Simi Valley, Mike Pence fell into a bad habit. In a speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, he explained why he decided to play the historic role of certifying Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory over Donald Trump, while at the same time favorably comparing the 40th and 45th presidents.

“Now, there are those in our party who believe that in my position as presiding officer over the joint session that I possess the authority to reject or return electoral votes certified by the states,” Pence said, without specifying that Trump had advocated “overturning” the election. “The Constitution provides the vice president with no such authority before the joint session of Congress. And the truth is, there’s almost no idea more un-American than the notion that any one person could choose the American president. The presidency belongs to the American people and the American people alone.”

Pence added, “In the years ahead, the American people must know that our Republican Party will always keep our oath to the Constitution, even when it would be politically expedient to do otherwise. Now, I understand the disappointment many feel about the last election. I can relate. I was on the ballot. But, you know, there’s more at stake than our party and our political fortunes in this moment. If we lose faith in the Constitution, we won’t just lose elections. We’ll lose our country.”

But then Pence lapsed into the ether, comparing President Reagan to President Trump. “President Donald Trump is also one of a kind. He too disrupted the status quo. He challenged the establishment. He invigorated our movement, and he set a bold new course for America in the 21st century. And now, as then, there is no going back. Under President Trump’s leadership we were able to achieve things Republicans have been talking about since the days of Barry Goldwater.”

It echoed campaign speeches Pence gave between July and October 2016 after Donald Trump selected him as his running mate. “Like Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump has the honesty and the bluntness to confront the challenges facing the American people,” Pence said in a speech at the Reagan library in September 2016. “And like Reagan, I believe Donald Trump has the toughness to rebuild our economy and command the respect of the world.”

This was delivered before the Access Hollywood audio surfaced in which Trump had bragged that he could grab women “by the pussy.”

After his 2016 remarks, President Reagan’s son, Michael Reagan, responded: “The whole Reagan family is insulted by it. Donald Trump is no Ronald Reagan. His grandchildren are, in fact, insulted that they would compare Donald Trump to their grandfather.

“As a Reagan, I’m not going to support someone who is so demeaning,” he said. “In my book, I talk about the lessons my father taught me, and one of those is you don’t speak down to people, you don’t be demeaning to people. You find a way to work together. If my father were anything like Donald Trump, Nancy never would have married him, let alone vote for him.”

U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., added after Pence’s remarks last week, “Reagan inspired. Trump destroyed. No comparison.”

And former Reagan speechwriter and current Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan observed back in 2016, “Not only is Trump not Reagan, you sound desperate and historically illiterate when you think he is.”

There are comparisons on the surface. Both Reagan and Trump were entertainers. They were both Democrats before becoming Republicans. Both had been divorced. Both entered Republican presidential politics in an anti-establishment vein as “disruptors,” though it took Reagan three cycles (he lost to Richard Nixon in 1968 and President Ford in 1976) to win the nomination while Trump made it his first try. At age 69, Reagan was the oldest president to be sworn in until Trump at age 70.

As presidents, both proposed and signed massive tax cuts that led to exploding deficits. Both largely kept the U.S. out of new foreign conflicts.
But while Trump became a TV star on “The Apprentice,” Reagan starred in more than a dozen movies, and had been president of the powerful Screen Actors Guild, while Trump had been a real estate developer. Reagan served in the military, while Trump received some five Vietnam era deferments for bone spurs. Reagan switched to the Republican Party in 1962, chaired Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign and then was elected to the first of two terms as California governor in 1966. Trump became a Republican prior to announcing in 2015.

Ronald Reagan honed his political ideology as a spokesman for General Electric. When he showed up at a GE factory like those in Fort Wayne and Decatur, he took time to join workers in their lunchrooms. His index card notes from those lunches in the 1950s became the catalyst for a consistently conservative politician. Trump did little with or for the common man until he ran for president. He was an inconsistent conservative president.

Alexei Bayer observed for The Globalist: “Reagan may not have been a great actor, but he was a professional, having spent a considerable amount of time honing his craft. He was a pro as a politician, too. When he became president, he knew exactly what he was going to do. As any professional would, Reagan had also assembled a team of other professionals that were able to implement his policies. One may disagree with Reagan’s policies, but his ideology was nothing short of consistent.

“In contrast,” Bayer continues, “Donald Trump has always been Trump – an amateur performer and an amateur president. He never studied a day of his life. Even as a real estate developer, he was not a great success, despite having a very successful father in the business who showed him the ropes. Trump’s gift is that he appears like someone who keeps winning the lottery, and that is something that appeals to U.S. voters, especially those in the lower half of the U.S. income distribution.”

How does Trump compare to Reagan with respect to GDP growth? Cumulatively Trump is at 6.17% compared to Reagan at 31.01% a difference of -24.84%. On non-farm payroll, cumulatively Trump is at -2.03% compared to Reagan at 17.72%, a difference of -19.75%.

When it comes to presidential political success, Reagan won 44 states in 1980 and 489 Electoral College votes, defeating President Carter 50.7% to 41% (43.9 million to 35.4 million for Carter and 5.7 million for Rep. John Anderson). In 1984, Reagan won 49 states and 525 out of 538 Electoral College votes, or 54.4 million votes to 37.5 million for Vice President Walter Mondale). That’s 1,014 Electoral College votes and pluralities of 25 million votes.

Trump did not win the popular vote in his two elections, losing to Hillary Clinton 65.8 million to 62.9 million while winning the Electoral College 306-232. In 2020, Trump lost to Joe Biden 81.2 million to 74.2 million votes, and 306-232 in the Electoral College.

Reagan helped carry the U.S. Senate twice. Republicans lost the Senate majority when Trump became a disruptor in the two Georgia Senate elections on Jan. 5, 2021. The GOP lost the House majority in 2018. Trump is the first incumbent president to lose the Washington power trifecta since President Herbert Hoover.

Trump was the only president to be impeached by the U.S. House twice. When President Reagan was confronted with the Iran-Contra scandal, he created his own commission to investigate, appointing two Republicans (John Tower and Brent Scowcroft) and one Democrat (Edmund Muskie).

According to Gallup, Reagan’s average approval stands at 52.8%, while Trump’s was 41.1%. According to C-Span historians, Reagan is ranked in the top 10 presidents at ninth; Trump is ranked in the bottom five at 41st, just ahead of Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson and James Buchanan.

Trump once retweeted a photo of him shaking hands with then-President Reagan, which included a quote from Reagan that said: “For the life of me, and I’ll never know how to explain it, when I met that young man I felt like I was the one shaking hands with a president.” According to IUPUI journalism Prof. Chris Lamb, “Reagan never said this.”

And therein is another wide gulf between the two: Trump uttered more than 20,000 lies and half-truths while in office. President Reagan had the reputation as a straight shooter and had earned the trust of Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill. “Facts are stubborn things,” Reagan once said. This compares with Trump senior adviser and campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, who coined the iconic phrase that defines the Trump administration: “Alternative facts.”

Lamb added, “Reagan saw America far differently than Trump does. Reagan saw America as a unified country and he sought to uphold its beliefs and values. Trump is a vengeful narcissist. He thinks America is his own family business and he can say whatever he wants and do whatever he wants with impunity.”

The rhetorical contrasts are vivid. Reagan spoke of that “shining city of the hill.”

“In my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity,” Reagan said. “And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.”

Trump’s idea for the nation was one of “American carnage” as he said during his 2017 inaugural address. Or as he put it at this 2016 GOP convention acceptance speech in Cleveland, “I alone can fix it.”

In Reagan’s farewell address on Jan. 11, 1989, he said, “And in all of that time I won a nickname, `The Great Communicator.’ But I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made a difference: It was the content. I wasn’t a great communicator, but I communicated great things, and they didn’t spring full bloom from my brow, they came from the heart of a great nation – from our experience, our wisdom, and our belief in the principles that have guided us for two centuries. They called it the Reagan revolution. Well, I’ll accept that, but for me it always seemed more like the great rediscovery, a rediscovery of our values and our common sense.”

Trump never made a farewell address. In fact, after the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection, Twitter and Facebook kicked him off his favorite communication mode.

Trump never conceded the election, nor did he attend Joe Biden’s inaugural. Instead, Trump repeatedly insisted the 2020 election was “stolen” (something former Attorney General Bill Barr called “bullshit” this past week). With promises of “It’s gonna be wild,” Trump unleashed the first insurrection and invasion of the U.S. Capitol since the War of 1812, killing five people while injuring some 140 police officers. Hundreds of rioters vowed to “Hang Mike Pence.”

Reagan once said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”

Memo to Mike Pence: There are no apt comparisons between President Reagan’s “shining city on the hill” and the makeshift gallows Trump inspired; brought to Capitol Hill for your neck on Jan. 6, 2021.