- The Washington Times - Monday, October 30, 2000


Hobbled by illness and old age, former President Ronald Reagan does not leave his Bel Air, Calif., home to campaign these days. A giant of his age, he still casts a long shadow over the body politic.
After a brief absence, he will again appear in an American political campaign, invoked by Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore.
In the debates and on the stump, Mr. Gore said, "I worked with former President Reagan to modernize our ballistic missile forces" trying to leave the impression they worked closely together to rebuild America's military and defeat the evil Soviet empire.
It is doubtful that any of the key Reagan defense advisers would see things the same way. The Reagan defense buildup was a key point of contention between conservatives and liberals in the 1980s. Mr. Gore's embrace of the success, making himself a junior partner in the effort, provides an opportunity for an interesting note of contrast.
Recall the campaign of 1984, when Mr. Reagan called upon the spirits of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy in his acceptance speech at the Dallas GOP convention.
Sen. Ted Kennedy, brother of the late president, almost burst a blood vessel protesting the use of his revered brother's name by a Republican. Mario Cuomo, then governor of New York, took equal umbrage at the Democratic convention in San Francisco over the theft of the icon Roosevelt.
The elite press gave this a lot of attention; perhaps much more than it was due. There was certainly a loud echo of the charge that Mr. Reagan's invocation of the two was illegitimate.
In fact, Mr. Reagan's tax cuts were patterned after JFK's and the actor-turned-president was a strong and active supporter of FDR in several of his re-election bids. Comparatively, the Republican response to Mr. Gore's newfound affiliation with Mr. Reagan has been relatively indifferent. Republicans say this amounts to tacit recognition by the left that Mr. Reagan may have been right about a lot of things, not just the defense buildup. And further, that any smart politician with national aspirations needs to demonstrate he understands this.
Mr. Reagan touched a responsive chord when he told people that smaller government was generally better. There are a few areas, like national defense, where national resources must be directed towards achieving seemingly intangible results. Otherwise, the energy and ingenuity of the American people is usually sufficient to tackle most problems and meet many of society's needs. This is the message that Texas Gov. George W. Bush delivered in the second debate right about the time his numbers began to improve in national polls.
Mr. Gore, on the other hand, cheerfully arguing the details of his programs for more government and more spending, suffered a drop in public support for his candidacy. Spinners and other operatives of the Democrats insist that Mr. Gore leads on the issues and that support will translate into victory on election day. In a world where government solutions are judged effective not by their impact but by the amount spent on them, as James Payne brilliantly demonstrates in his book, "The Culture of Spending," this analysis is not surprising.
Pollster John Zogby did some issue polling, in which he stripped the candidates' names from specific position descriptions. In the case of Social Security, independent voters the key constituency in this election preferred Mr. Bush's plan to Mr. Gore's by a margin of 72 percent to 23 percent.
On teacher testing versus more money for schools, encapsulating the two candidates' positions, Mr. Bush prevails again, 72 percent to 18 percent. By two to one, Mr. Zogby found independents support "concealed carry" gun laws, oppose lawsuits against gun manufacturers, and oppose gun registration. And on abortion, 68 percent of independents supported Mr. Bush's position that parents need to be told before a minor daughter has an abortion; only 28 percent supported Mr. Gore's contrary position.
Mr. Reagan understood all too well that Americans are not detail people. The Gore style talk about issues to move narrow constituencies is the campaign's biggest weakness. Remember debate No. 3, where Mr. Gore's response to a farming question was prefaced with an acknowledgment that his answer was pertinent to only 2 percent of the people?
Americans are content to leave the details to someone else. And, as President George Bush found out in 1992, if they don't like the way the details turn out, they are perfectly happy to bring in someone new.

Gordon S. Jones is a freelance commentator and editor of "The Imperial Congress." Peter Roff is a national political analyst for United Press International.

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