Bush and Reagan — So Alike, But Gaps Could Doom Bush

Posted June 9, 2004 at 3:07pm

George W. Bush’s presidency parallels Ronald Reagan’s in so many areas it’s uncanny. But in significant ways, they’re also different — ways that could be fatal to Bush’s prospects for success in office and re-election. [IMGCAP(1)]

As many commentators have noted, Bush has modeled his presidency on Reagan’s so much that, politically speaking, he is less his father’s son than Reagan’s.

Their economic philosophies and policies are the same — supply-side/trickle-down economics, huge tax cuts skewed to the upper classes and vague attempts to control spending.

The economic results also are the same — big deficits, program cuts for poor people and Keynsian growth kicking in just in time for the re-election campaign.

Bush, like Reagan, is pursuing an idealistic foreign policy vision against fierce opposition and derision from foreigners, Democrats and even some in his own administrations.

The Reagan goal of toppling the Soviet Union seemed as outrageous and provocative to many in the 1980s as Bush’s idea of bringing democracy to the Middle East does now.

Reagan declared in 1981 that the Soviet Union was an “evil empire.” Bush declared in 2002 that civilization faced an “axis of evil.”

Reagan’s secretary of State, George Shultz, was as much at daggers-drawn with Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger as Colin Powell now is with Donald Rumsfeld — except that their roles were reversed. In the 1980s, Weinberger (whose military aide was none other than Powell), was reluctant to use force. Shultz was the administration’s hawk.

Reagan, seeking to deploy Pershing II intermediate-range missiles in Europe to counter Soviet SS-20s, was met with anti-nuclear protests in Europe and the United States even bigger than those protesting Bush’s invasion of Iraq.

In the 1980s, Reagan’s foreign policy was denounced as “reckless,” “ideological,” “polarizing” and “unilateralist” — the same terms used about Bush’s today.

In 1983, former Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D) denounced Reagan as “the most reckless and dangerous president since the end of World War II” and predicted “we are drifting toward war — and I mean nuclear war.”

“I don’t think [Reagan] understands diplomacy at all,” McGovern said. “He’s a shoot-from-the-hip, macho John Wayne type. His experience with war is limited to Hollywood.”

Then-Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) declared that Reagan’s “trigger-happy foreign policy has landed us in four wars at once,” referring to Lebanon, Grenada, Nicaragua and El Salvador.

The Washington Post’s Robert Kaiser wrote in a 1983 op-ed that “the United States has a myopic, ideological foreign policy that really isn’t a policy at all, but a collection of maneuvers produced by prejudice and instinct.”

Reagan, he wrote, “has turned international opinion against the United States … squandering the high ground the Soviets granted him by their bad behavior.”

This May, Kaiser wrote a Post piece titled “A Foreign Policy, Falling Apart” that read, “We set out to put fear into the hearts of our enemies. Instead, we have shown the timeless nature of hubris.” And Bush “has damaged the good name of the United States in every corner of the globe.”

History has vindicated Reagan’s foreign policy, although there is still a dispute (it’s almost theological) about the success of his economic policy. The jury is still out on everything about Bush except that, like Reagan, he is an optimist who sticks to his guns and is conservative to his core.

But there are also big differences, dangerous ones. Reagan knew how to reach out. He appointed as his chief of staff James Baker, who had served as a top political aide to his 1976 opponent for the White House nomination, President Gerald Ford, and was campaign manager for his 1980 rival, George H.W. Bush.

Bush II’s inner circle is entirely loyalist. Reagan famously knew how to win support from Democrats in Congress. As his former chief of staff, Ken Duberstein, told me, “Reagan thought that every Congressman was an opportunity.

“Even if he couldn’t get somebody’s vote this time, he thought he could get them the next time and he treated them accordingly. He was a coalition-builder. That’s been a lost art ever since,” he said.

Reagan won support in Europe for his policies, notably in the 1983 German elections that endorsed the Pershings and led to an immediate Soviet agreement to negotiate. Bush has yet to persuade anybody except Britain.

Reagan actually used force rather sparingly. When terrorists killed hundreds of Americans in Lebanon in 1982, he followed Weinberger’s advice and pulled out, covering his retreat with an easy invasion of Grenada.

Bush, to his credit, is staying the course in the Middle East, but he is risking his presidency on the outcome, which is anything but certain.

The biggest political difference between them is that Reagan came into office in a landslide, succeeding America’s fifth straight failed president. Bush received no mandate but is trying to govern as though he were Reagan.

Another difference is that Reagan was “the great communicator.” Bush rises to occasions, but only intermittently.

And the bottom-line difference: Reagan carried 49 states in getting re-elected. Bush will win by the skin of his teeth, if at all.