Reagan and Bush 43 Redux

Two more well-respected political observers weigh in with the argument that this week’s nostalgia over former President Ronald Reagan will bolster President George W. Bush’s re-election chances.

Howard Fineman notes that, not only does it help Bush because it reminds people of a popular Republican leader but it also keeps Kerry from getting his message out.

A master of the theatrical in politics, Reagan chose an exquisitely perfect time to depart the stage, especially from Bush’s point of view. The former president died just as the remnants of his own, Greatest Generation were gathering to listen to Bush and other leaders remind us of the need to defend freedom, whatever the cost.

The parallels between World War II and the post-9/11 world are inexact and, in the case of the war in Iraq, probably more misleading than inspiring. Saddam was evil, but no Hitler. Baghdad was under siege, but not Paris. The Republican guards were brutal, but no match for the systematic genocide in Europe.

And yet, Osama bin Laden and his theocratic ideology of hatred, death and terrorist mayhem are every bit the threat to Western ideals of freedom that the Nazis were.

Doyle McManus sees several pluses for Bush:

Even before Reagan’s death, Bush and his campaign deliberately borrowed some favorite themes from the Republican revolution of 1980: optimism, national confidence, military strength, tax cuts, economic recovery.

This week, trying not to sound overtly political, Republican spokesmen again looked for polite ways to remind voters that Bush is, in many ways, Reagan’s ideological heir.

“The life and example of Ronald Reagan reinforces how important conviction and determination are in a president,” Bush campaign spokesman Terry Holt said in an apparent dig at Bush’s presumed Democratic challenger, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), whom Republicans have accused of flip-flops. “Reagan’s legacy of optimism and of patriotism should inspire everybody, regardless of political party.”

On Friday, in a eulogy he is to deliver for Reagan at the Washington National Cathedral, Bush will have a chance to make that point himself — if only by implication. The eulogy is being prepared by Bush’s chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson, who also wrote the president’s moving speech for a memorial service in the same cathedral after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The cycle of mourning for Reagan could bring Bush one other bonus, Republican pollster Bill McInturff said: It will take Americans’ minds off the recent spate of bad news from Iraq.

Still, it’s a long way from November, as yet another seasoned analyst reminds us:

“If this had happened in mid-October, it might have been different,” said William Schneider, CNN senior political analyst and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “It would have rallied conservatives…. But it’s five months too early. A week in politics is a lifetime; five months is an eternity.

“Bush’s fate is dependent on events from here on out,” Schneider said. “What if we capture Osama bin Laden? What if there’s a smooth transition in Iraq, and diminishing casualties? What if there are good economic numbers? All of those events could help Bush much more than Ronald Reagan.

“I would expect this week’s events to produce some modest improvement in Bush’s approval ratings, but I don’t expect it to last unless some of those other things happen.”

I agree. It seems to me that the biggest potential impact of the focus on Reagan could be to remind Bush of how to carry himself in office and through the election campaign.

Bush lacks Reagan’s gift for communication but has much of his conviction and empathy for ordinary Americans. He needs to redouble his efforts to persuade the people of the value of what has been achieved in Iraq. More importantly, he needs to craft and communicate a simple message about why he deserves a second term rather than focusing so much on why John Kerry shouldn’t be president. Ultimately, this election will be a referendum on Bush–not Kerry. Or Reagan.

FILED UNDER: 2004 Election, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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. Sandcrab says:

    “but it also keeps Kerry from getting his message out” – What message ? I have yet to hear a coherent one.

  2. Kate says:

    There may be a longer lasting effect – that of rekindling old memories about the vitriol that was directed at Reagan during his term in the media.

    In the wake of his passing, the comparisons between then and now will be much fresher than they were, and more likely to produce a lasting skepticism about gratuitous criticism.

    (We were actually talking about this at the auto body shop today – the guys in the shop remembered the Reagan-monkey jokes and the characterization of the man as “stupid”.)

  3. RicK DeMent says:

    Or it could remind people of how weak Bush is in comparison.

    After all when the writing was on the Wall Reagan raised taxes, rather then doggedly adhering to a failing ideology. When the situation got out of control in Lebanon he left rather then insisting that we slug it out in a useless effort.

    Reagan was much less of an ideolog then people make him out to be. I’m not so sure about Bush.