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‘Bipartisan spirit’ part of Reagan’s legacy

Democrats recall his ability to reach across the aisle

- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 3, 2011

Ronald Reagan, despite his status as the "Great Communicator," was a polarizing figure during his eight years in the White House. While successful at wooing millions of "Reagan Democrats," Reagan was vilified by liberals during his tenure at levels perhaps rivaled only by such Republican presidential figures as Richard M. Nixon and George W. Bush.

But the Reagan legend has proven malleable and open to shifting interpretations over time. In a curious twist, many Democrats have begun to evoke Reagan's "bipartisan spirit" in an attempt to prove they are above the partisan fray and draw a contrast with what they say is a more partisan spirit prevailing in today's GOP.

Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, recently chastised Republicans for failing to be more like Mr. Reagan, who he said "put politics aside" to work with Capitol Hill Democrats during his presidency.

Mr. Kerry especially lauded the California Republican for forging a working relationship with Democratic House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr. and former GOP Sen. Bob Dole in the early 1980s on an issue as difficult and politically risky as Social Security reform.

"They didn't capitulate, they compromised," said Mr. Kerry during a speech last month at the Center for American Progress. "They agreed not to let either party demagogue the issue against the incumbents who cast the tough votes in order to pass the bill."

Mr. Kerry added that, "We'd all be better off if some of these Republicans remember that their favorite person, Ronald Reagan, worked across the aisle to solve big problems."

President Obama also has tried to tap into — or at least understand — the Reagan mystique.

Mr. Obama took the Reagan biography "The Role of a Lifetime," by Lou Cannon, with him during his December vacation to Hawaii. The president also reportedly met with Reagan administration veterans David Gergen and Ken Duberstein in December.

"Americans generally outside of Washington … tend to venerate people who were effective, good leaders. And President Reagan has come to be known as an effective, good leader," said Sean Gibbons, director of communications for Third Way, a centrist Washington think tank.

"He has sort of transcended party, and certain presidents have been able to do that. Lincoln is a guy who transcended party, [Franklin] Roosevelt on some levels. … John Kennedy has done it, and I think on some levels so has Reagan."

Democratic praise for Mr. Reagan has amped up in the wake of the party's "shellacking" — as Mr. Obama put it — during the Nov. 2 congressional elections, when Republicans made historic gains to recapture control of the House and increase their minority in the Senate.

As recently as President Obama's State of the Union speech, Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson was invoking President Reagan's name and rhetoric as he urged lawmakers to reject the traditional partisan seating patterns in the House chamber for the presidential address. The Nebraska lawmaker recalled one of Reagan's most famous moments — his speech in a divided Berlin urging Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall."

"To paraphrase former President Reagan, whose declaration about the need for unity rings true today in a different context," Mr. Nelson said, "I hope colleagues will join me and say, 'Get rid of this aisle!'"

While Democrats still maintain a slight upper hand in the Senate and control the White House, the elections — aided by the surging conservative "tea party" movement — have emboldened Republicans to take the offensive against Mr. Obama and the Democratic agenda.

To counter the GOP wave, Democrats increasingly have co-opted their rival party's greatest modern-day hero in an attempt to deflect partisan attacks, said Norm Ornstein, a political expert with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning Washington think thank.

But Democrats newfound appreciation for Mr. Reagan "doesn't comport with the reality we had during the times that he was here" in Washington, he said. Some of today's rhetoric is nostalgia for a time that never was.

"It was much more of a set of pitched battles, and for a lot of [Mr. Reagan's presidency] Democrats were thinking he was just this radical," Mr. Ornstein said.

"He did cut a lot of deals with Democrats, [and] he had, I think, an incredibly well-honed negotiating style," he added. "But this was not a period of sweetness and light where everybody was thrilled with each other and worked together in harmony."

A parallel example of this type of presidential "revisionist history," Mr. Ornstein said, is the recent fondness some conservatives have expressed for President Clinton, portraying him as a centrist always eager to work with Republicans — at least after the GOP congressional takeover of 1994.

"That's a complete denial of the reality," Mr. Ornstein said. "A lot of [Republicans] investigated [Mr. Clinton] every minute, they voted against his major legislation the years they were in power. … They impeached him."

"There's a reality check that's needed at both fronts."

Few if any Americans will forget that Mr. Reagan was a Republican, Mr. Gibbons said. But over time, the public tends to remember presidents more for the accomplishments of their administration than for which party they belonged to.

"That's not to say that everybody agreed with every principle the guy had. … But you can certainly say he was extraordinarily gifted at communicating with the American people, and was appreciated for that," he said.

"He didn't seem to be the president of half the Americans who voted for him. I always got the impression he strove to be a president for everybody."

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