Reagan I, Bush I – Different Men, Similar Worlds

by on June 8th, 2004

At first glance, President Bush would seem to be the Republicans’ anti-Reagan — Bush, often ill at ease speaking, is from privileged roots, and works with (some would say alongside) a strong vice president. Though Bush is clearly guided by his beliefs and is unrepentantly ideological, his ideology doesn’t emit the warm glow Reagan’s did; Bush sometimes seems to be missing what GHW Bush called “The Vision Thing.” Where Reagan was relatively old when he took office, Bush is still in his sprightly fifties.

But amongst the deluge of retrospectives on the life and times of Ronald Reagan, it is difficult to ignore the commonalities between Reagan’s first term in office and Bush’s. Very different personalities, they lived in similar times. The similarities are particularly striking because they get at the very heart of some of the key issues that Bush and the administration are facing as the election draws near. How they approach these issues — and not (barring some unforeseen circumstances) external factors — will determine whether Dubya I gets to have a II.

To wit:

Media Portrayal. Both men were depicted during most of their first terms by their detractors in the media, Hollywood and the Democratic party as being slightly addled, dim-bulb commanders in chief. Neither was given much credit for independent thought. Public perceptions notwithstanding, close colleagues in both administrations singled out for praise each man’s strategic viewpoint, allowing others to iron out details.

Protesters, Polarized Populus. Both men had their share of protesters. Reagan had literally millions marching against his defense buildup and for disarmament; Bush is facing the occasionally confused anti-globalists and, moreover, hordes opposed to the war in Iraq. The polarization of the electorate was increasingly evident as each man’s first term neared its end.

Unilateralism. Accusations of excessive unilateralist tendencies dogged Reagan throughout both terms, largely as a result of his administration’s spending at the Pentagon, both conventional and the Strategic Defense Initiative, and his actions against the Soviet Union via Afghanistan, Grenada, and Nicaragua. Bush’s push to Baghdad, though not entirely absent allies, was widely decried in the US for its lack of regard for world opinion.

Irritated Europeans. As an outgrowth of the aforementioned unilateralist tendencies, both men managed to singlehandedly compromise relations with numerous European allies in the short term (not surprisingly, chief among these allies were the Germans and French) whilst maintaining unusually close personal relationships with British prime minister of the day. European protesters in both periods took to the streets, using their most virulent slogans and caricatures, to blame the United States and its president for the world’s problems. And where in 1982 they were ignoring the Soviet Union’s defilement of human rights and contribution to world instability, twenty-two years later a new generation is ignoring al-Qaeda and Saddam.

National Security Cabinet Choices. Both men had generally solid and dependable, but not flamboyant, Secretaries of State, in the persons of George Schultz (discounting the couple of early years of Al Haig) and now Colin Powell. Similarly, both presidents were derided by the press for choosing Secretaries of Defense who were, by some estimations, borderline pathological — remember Cap Weinberger?

Big Enemies. Bush had Saddam Hussein, and Usama bin Ladin still lurks in the wings; Reagan’s world featured the Evil Empire as the looming focus of his determination.

Bad Economies, Big Deficits. Both men spent the early parts of their administrations focused on an ailing US economy, and neither had made noticeable progress at remedying the situation until late in the first term. And, chiefly due to defense spending outlays, both men presided over the creation of significant deficits.

Democratic Opponents, Political Backgrounds. By 1984, Reagan was facing Senator/Former VP Walter Mondale, a milquetoast Democrat from a traditionally liberal state (Minnesota) who was known for being rhetorically challenged; Bush is squaring off against Sen. John Kerry, another Democrat suffering from the perception that he doesn’t connect with people — Mark II Mondale. And both Bush and Reagan had been governors of large Western states (California and Texas).

The point here isn’t to make Dubya into Ronnie or even to hint that the former is the latter’s ideological heir — I’ll leave it to the Republican National Committee to decide whether that leap is politically and/or logically tenable. Nor is it to expect specific actions by the administration; in fact, many of the key problems of Reagan’s first term were still hanging fire by the time the ’84 election was upon him. Reagan’s style was very different from Bush’s, and what might have worked in the Cold War won’t necessarily work in the War on Terrorism.

But if the men themselves aren’t in the end all that similar, their worlds surely are. Bush & Co. could learn a lot from The Gipper.

Marc C. Johnson