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First Democrats borrowed Republicans’ rhetoric. Now they’re clapping for Ronald Reagan.

Democratic National Convention: Day Four
Former Reagan official Doug Elmets was applauded.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Democrats have already flipped the script during their convention by borrowing traditional Republican rhetoric on everything from American exceptionalism to family values. Now they’re applauding for Ronald Reagan.

Doug Elmets, a former Reagan speechwriter who said he has never voted for a Democrat and has fought to get a statue of Reagan built, told the cheering convention that he planned to vote for Clinton this year.

“I’m here tonight to say: I knew Ronald Reagan; I worked for Ronald Reagan. Donald Trump, you are no Ronald Reagan,” he said, echoing the famous line Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen used against Dan Quayle during the 1988 vice presidential debate.

This wasn’t the first time the Democrats have contrasted Reagan with Trump — to Trump’s detriment.

“Trump strangled the sunny optimism of Ronald Reagan and replaced 'tear down that wall' with the cynical bigotry of 'build that wall,’” California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom said Wednesday afternoon.

And President Obama invoked Reagan to make a similar point: “Ronald Reagan called America ‘a shining city on a hill,’” he said Thursday night. “Donald Trump calls it ‘a divided crime scene’ that only he can fix.”

Obama has long admired Reagan as a transformational president; when he met with historians in 2010, he was more interested in Reagan’s leadership than by traditional liberal touchstones such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy. Obama might disagree with Reagan’s policies, but he considered him a model for his presidency.

But it’s still unusual, to put it mildly, for a Democratic convention to cheer for a man who opposed so many of the party’s ideals.

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