- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 27, 2000

There's one candidate who didn't worry about recounts over close elections. That was Ronald Reagan. He was elected by landslides twice as California governor, the first coming against a popular incumbent. He crushed his opponents in the 1980 and 1984 presidential races. In 1980, he swamped Jimmy Carter in electoral votes, 489 to 49. His 1984 trouncing of Walter Mondale was even more pronounced, 525 to 13, carrying 49 states. Mr. Mondale took only his home state of Minnesota by a mere 3,000 votes.

Mr. Reagan left office with the highest approval rating in the post-WW II period. Praise has come not just from the general public. The most recent survey of presidential scholars ranked him the eighth best president in U.S. history.

And now chalk up another victory for the Gipper.

It was Mr. Reagan who ultimately won the election for George W. Bush on Dec. 12, almost 12 years after the end of presidency and six years after his handwritten Nov. 5, 1994 letter informing us with characteristic, unflagging optimism that Alzheimer's was inexorably riding him into the sunset of his life.

He clinched it in part, indeed most directly, via his U.S. Supreme Court picks. Of the seven who voted 7 to 2 that the Florida Supreme Court acted unconstitutionally, all but two were appointed by Mr. Reagan or his successor, George Bush, who got the presidency by virtue of the triumphant fact he was Mr. Reagan's vice president. Of the five who killed the Florida recount by a 5 to 4 vote sealing the presidency for George W. Bush three were appointed by Mr. Reagan, one by Mr. Reagan's successor, and one (a Nixon appointee) promoted to chief justice by Mr. Reagan. That chief justice, William Rehnquist, wrote the majority decision. The sharp, intellectual linchpin of the majority, Antonin Scalia, was a Reagan appointee.

Those five justices were there because of a 12-year run in Republican presidential leadership created by Mr. Reagan, compared to eight years of White House control by Democrats. That 12 to 8 advantage produced the slim 5 to 4 advantage, either by ideology or partisanship.

But there are broader ways in which Mr. Reagan helped win this for George W.

Critically, it was Mr. Reagan who rescued and popularized conservatism, giving it a sunny face and legitimacy after the near-fatal Goldwater defeat in 1964.

Most notably, he realigned the political map in a way not done since FDR shook it up. The South became not just conservative but conservative Republican. It became Reagan country. By 2000, it was naturally Bush country. It was Republican-Reagan-Bush country to such an extent that Democrat Al Gore couldn't even take Arkansas (Bill Clinton's home state) and Tennessee, his own home state. Even Walter Mondale won his own home state. Mr. Bush won the Electoral College because he swept the South.

Recall election night. Republicans sweated Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and other battleground states. But they confidently watched as each Southern state, one after the other, easily fell into the Bush camp, a few crucial Electoral votes at a time.

How did Mr. Bush ride this conservative wave? He successfully painted Mr. Gore as a "big-government liberal" the antithesis of a conservative and the tag all Democrats since Michael Dukakis have avoided like the plague. Only Mr. Clinton escaped it, getting in on the strength of a 1991 recession and carefully crafted image as a "New Democrat" meaning a moderate, non-liberal Democrat. Mr. Gore tried to be a New Democrat, too, but George W. smartly wouldn't allow him.

It is fascinating: The president George W. holds most dear to his heart is the president who was his father his hero. However, he has chosen to emulate the conservatism of Mr. Reagan rather than the political philosophy of his father.

Long before Mr. Bush got the Republican nomination, Reagan administration Secretary of State George Shultz, one not given to hyperbole, said simply: "He's like Reagan. He's got it."

Like Mr. Reagan, also, he is secure and confident, which means he, too, could care less when elites dismiss him as a dummy. He thus also will shrug off the drivel that he succeeds because of the "smart men" around him. Besides, Mr. Bush likes people and they like him. His likability ratings are very high, even among those who didn't vote for him. Both he and Mr. Reagan have a charm, charisma personalities that take them far.

Of course, Mr. Reagan didn't give Mr. Bush those intangibles. But he did hand him a dominant, winnable conservatism, and a devoutly Republican South and, oh yes, those U.S. Supreme Court picks didn't hurt.

Paul Kengor is associate professor of political science at Grove City College.

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