The passing of Ronald Wilson Reagan has the nation in mourning. Reagan, who as president represented the arch-nemesis of the liberal left and mainstream press, is now being celebrated by the same as the Great Communicator who changed the political debate in America.
The left and media may wish to withhold some of their praise as Reagan’s death may also have the unforeseen consequence of helping George W. Bush win re-election.
Amid the media orgy on Reagan’s life and presidency has been a revisitation of the principles that made Reagan and the modern conservative movement he spawned great — smaller government, a strong defense, and a belief in democratic capitalism as the greatest form of society and government.
In death, Reagan is credited with achievements never attributed to him by the press in life — the defeat of communism and the country’s recovery from the economic and social malaise of the 1970s.
Reagan’s accomplishments have been presented with an examination of his policies — tax cuts, weapons buildup, and ending the policy of appeasement toward those whom he described as America’s enemy during his tenure, the U.S.S.R.
This remembrance of Reagan bodes well for Mr. Bush and his election bid. The news of Reagan’s death has spurred a great outpouring of love from the American people, coupled with a rediscovery of his presidency. If Mr. Bush is able to present himself as the successor to the Reagan legacy, he will benefit from mainstream Americans again embracing Reagan’s ideals.
Examination of Reagan’s presidency is an opportunity for Mr. Bush to associate his ideals with Reagan’s, and so present a clear choice between himself and John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat. Mr. Bush also can benefit by framing the debate with Mr. Kerry in Reagan terms — conservative vs. liberal.
Mr. Bush already has an advantage. Like Reagan, Mr. Bush came into office touting and passing tax cuts. Like Reagan, Mr. Bush spoke to the importance of a strong national defense and a strong national identity. Some have expressed disappointment at the government spending and growth under Mr. Bush. But it is important to note that, contrary to the limited government Reagan espoused, government grew during his administration. Reagan also had no devastating attack on American soil and two subsequent wars to contend with.
Some pundits and administration sources have conjectured that if re-elected, Mr. Bush in his second term will more closely resemble Reagan’s in seeking to limit government spending and promote conservatism. In light of America’s re-embracing of the Reagan doctrine, Mr. Bush should begin immediately.
Reagan unapologetically promoted the ideals of conservatism without concern for how his adversaries would them. Reagan did not seek to be all things to all people. Rather, he spoke to self-reliance and prosperity of Americans free from government interference. He was consistent — an examination of comments by Reagan at the 1964 Republican Convention compared to his first Inaugural address will confirm this — it was, in effect, the same speech, given 16 years apart.
There is a lesson for the current president in this.
America’s love affair with Reagan should demonstrate to President Bush that the ideals he holds to be true — those his predecessor shared — resonate with many if not most Americans today. During the present election campaign, Mr. Bush should take every opportunity to promote the shared beliefs of conservatism.
For as Ronald Reagan would say; it wasn’t that he was so much a great communicator, but that he communicated great things.
JOHN S. PAPPAS
John S. Pappas is a Washington-area writer.