The passing of Ronald Reagan will give the Republican Party a fine opportunity at their convention to relive past glories. The convention (just a few miles uptown from Ground Zero) was always intended to be a theatrical event wallowing in the symbols of patriotism. Now, President Bush has the chance to wrap himself in the mantle of Reagan’s ideological successor, and possibly to inherit the votes of those who liked “Dutch” Reagan even if they aren’t so sure about GWB.
This creates a tricky situation for Mr. Kerry. Liberal instincts are to draw attention to the Iran-Contra arms for hostages crime (11 people were convicted of felonies in that), as well as the Star Wars missile defense that the Pentagon still can’t get to work, and the “ketchup is a vegetable” school lunch program. But if he falls into that trap, Mr. Kerry can kiss the battleground states good-bye. Mr. Reagan is remembered fondly by those who share his ideology or who are too young to remember just how bad things were during his presidency.
Instead, Mr. Kerry must embrace the Reagan “achievements” in his speeches and in any debates. And then he must take a page out of Lloyd Bentsen’s book; “I knew Ronald Reagan, and you are no Ronald Reagan.” There is some fertile ground for this attack.
The bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon which left more than 200 dead is a fine example; afterwards, Mr. Reagan pulled out the US forces. Mr. Kerry must argue that that was not cutting and running; it was owning up to a mistake. When Mr. Reagan accepted that the budget projections for 1981 were off, individual and corporate tax cuts were rolled back. (Yes, folks, Mr. Reagan raised taxes – his 1982 tax increase was bigger than Mr. Clinton’s 1993 hike as a percentage of GDP). Mr. Bush has a $500 billion deficit and can’t admit the numbers don’t work.
The passing of Ronald Reagan is a gift to the Bush re-election team, but there is a way for Mr. Kerry to use the Reagan legacy to his advantage.