Reagan and Bush 43 Redux

Steven Taylor has some thoughts on the impact the renewed focus on Ronald Reagan will have on President Bush’s re-election campaign, noting that it will both help and hurt. The parallels are obvious and oft-noted–see here, here, and here.

To put it mildly, Bush lacks Reagan’s facility with words. Still, he has much of the Gipper’s ability to connect with the people. Even though much of the intellectual community held both in contempt, most ordinary citizens find them to be genuine and likeable. The reflections on the 1980s, too, remind us that presidents who stubbornly do what they think right, even in the face of bitter opposition from our European allies, often come out on top.

One thing Bush could learn from his role model is the ability to admit mistakes and move on. As Cokie Roberts correctly noted yesterday on “This Week,” Reagan was able to get forgiven for many mistakes simply by owning up to them. A little more candor would be a welcome change from the current Administration.

Update: Andrew Sullivan has some interesting thoughts on this matter in a series of posts this morning. Sully demonstrates, rather unintentionally I think, Reagan’s ability to be many things to many people. In an awkwardly titled post “What Republicanism Now Is,” he reacts to the Texas GOP convention:

Then read the platform, proposing, among other things, “new restrictions on lawsuits brought over exposure to asbestos” and making it a felony for anyone to perform a marriage for a same-sex couple. If you want to know why someone who loved Ronald Reagan can no longer support the Republican Party, then the extremism of George W. Bush’s own party in his home state is Exhibit A. Republicans who say that these people do not represent the GOP as a whole can prove this by taking them on. But they won’t, will they? They never do.

He follows this with two posts (which share a link) on the Reagan-Bush comparison:

If Reagan has an inheritor, it isn’t George W. Bush, but, in a limited sense, Arnold Schwarzenegger, a self-deprecating, theatrical Californian who combines faith in freedom with stunning pragmatism in politics. That Reagan Republicanism, holding on in Sacramento, is now under siege, if not on the verge of being eclipsed in the GOP as a whole. The old man bears some responsibility, of course. He courted the South assiduously, unleashed Ed Meese on the porn industry, dropped the ball on AIDS, and exploited the religious right when it was an insurgency rather than the Republican establishment. But he also, unlike Bush, had a real sense of the MidWest and West – and had a vernacular that could speak to all Americans, not just a few. He embraced life and pleasure and humor and fun. A divorced man who campaigned against homophobia and rarely went to church, he also had an effortless sense of the Almighty that came through when needed, and so bridged some of the cultural gaps that his successors have failed to do.

This was certainly not the way Reagan was viewed in the 1970s and 1980s. Despite his affability, Reagan was a very polarizing figure. The Religious Right was at its apex, with Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority holding much more power than any similar group does today. The idea of gay marriage was so far off the radar screen as to be uncontroversial. Indeed, outside a few urban pockets, gays were a phenomenon relegated mostly to television. The only real sense in which homosexuality was part of the political landscape was the then-nascent AIDS epidemic, which was greeted by anti-gay vitriol by the likes of Falwell. Reagan, so far as I can recall, stayed out of the discussion.

Further, while I genuinely like Schwarzenegger, the idea that he is Reagan’s heir is rather amusing. They have many things they have in common, certainly. They were both movie actors before getting into politics. They both have a lot of charisma, charm, and optimism. They both have an ‘R’ after their name. But Schwarzenegger is very much a Rockefeller Republican–incredibly liberal on the social issues and pro business. Regardless of Sully’s fondness for him, Reagan was very much a social conservative.

President Bush is considerably more gay friendly than was President Reagan, although mainly by virtue of living in a different era. The ideas that gays should seek to convert to “normalcy” or remain “in the closet” –perfectly mainstream during the Reagan era–are at best quaint now. Bush and Cheney have both said that who one has sex with is one’s own business. The only reason Bush has gotten into the gay marriage debate at all is that the courts have forced the issue upon us.

Reagan’s Republicanism was far more expansive, anti-government, generous and optimistic than today’s. He would never have presided over the massive increases in domestic spending that Bush has; he would not have signed onto a new entitlement for Medicare, a program he first opposed in its entirety; he would not have played the anti-gay card that Karl Rove has; and he would never have recast his party into one where only fundamentalist Christians are ultimately, fully at home. Unlike Bush, Reagan was a man of ideas, an intellectual, a man who had thought long and hard about the world and developed keen ideas about what was needed to fix its problems. So he was able to argue, to make a case, to concede a point, to embrace a synthesis. President Bush, alas, can only make a case – in words given him by others. I have never witnessed him in public acknowledge an opposing argument or think on his feet. Those aren’t his strengths. But they sure were Reagan’s.

Despite the rhetoric, Reagan hardly held the line on spending, domestic or otherwise. He presided over rather large increases in domestic programs and failed to roll back any of significance.

I otherwise agree with this assessment, though. While Reagan would never have considered himself “an intellectual,” he was one. Despite the prevailing wisdom, I think Bush is a bright guy; he isn’t an intellectual, though. He’s good at conveying his feelings about things–he was superb after 9/11, for example–but not so much his thoughts. Reagan was a voracious reader who loved debating issues; Bush would rather go for a run. Both believed they had a mission to perform in the White House and had a few big things they wanted to accomplish. The difference is that Reagan’s vision was part of a coherent ideological whole whereas Bush’s seems to be more piecemeal.

To be fair, the Democrats who succeeded FDR didn’t have his vision, either. It’s not only a rare quality in a political leader but also one that’s an asset mainly when a sea change is needed in the political landscape. Indeed, the presidents that followed the Founding generation were rather lackluster when compared to the likes of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison. We didn’t have another true visionary again until Lincoln and then not again until FDR and then Reagan. Bush is leading in the context of a Reagan-style view of government. The demand for radical change isn’t there; even the Democratic nominees of the last several cycles have operated from the Reagan playbook.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Bryan says:

    I commented on the bush/reagan parallels yesterday:

    Sullivan, and a lot of people, are dusting off the rose colored glasses for an era that was hardly bi-partisan, and hardly kind to the left.