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: Campaign 2004,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. 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.

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.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2004,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. 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.