About Ike-Reagan comparisons
Washington — Is Dutch like Ike? Political analysts trying to discern this year's election dynamics are comparing the 1952 and likely 1980 Republican presidential nominees.
It is a comparison Ronald (Dutch) Reagan's people very much want to promote -- hoping the Eisenhower era's aura of stability at home and authority abroad will reflect on the 1980 nominee.
The experts do find broad similarities in the candidates' styles -- the apparent tendency to delegate, to find leisure "downtime" to relax on the golf course or ranch.
Their eras, the start of the '50s and '80s, respectively, also suggest broadly similar themes -- with emphasis on "straight" or traditional values, such as the family, and on US power abroad.
But on closer scrutiny, a number of experts say, a Reagan era in the early ' 80s would not really offer a replay of the Eisenhower years.
First, Mr. Reagan may be comparing himself with a myth. The Ike of popular lore -- the affable, smiling father figure, apt to bumble in long, wordy answers -- is not the Ike of historical fact, says Fred Greenstein, a Princeton University historian and Eisenhower authority. The real Eisenhower, he explains , was a hard-working, hard-driving executive schooled in Washington's political wiles and adept at the international power game.
"Mr. Reagan, however, is offering a nostalgic version of the Eisenhower of the 1950s. He's suggesting the world is too complicated today, so we shouldn't try to do very much," continues Mr. Greenstein. "Actually, Eisenhower played an elaborate game to work toward detente with the Soviet Union. He had a well-developed notion that if the US overspent on arms beyond sufficiency it could heat up the economy and cause dire effects."
Second, the basic challenges of the two eras are different, says William K. Muir, chairman of the political science department at the University of California-Berkeley. The principal Eisenhower-era challenge was the polarization between isolationists and internationalists in the United States -- a foreign affairs area in which Ike's background made him skilled. In 1980 the foreign theme is secondary, Mr. Muir says. The Reagan conservative challenge is more domestic -- with the former California governor championing those who feel recent efforts to help the downtrodden must be balanced by reasserting the rights of individuals to forge ahead.
And third, the public in 1980 does not really want to revert to the 1950s, says Everett Ladd, a University of Connecticut political scientist and public opinion expert.
Again, Mr. Greenstein: "Reagan has suggested we can return to an Eisenhower-type of presidency, and, as we were happy under Eisenhower, so we would be happy under Reagan.
"But in many ways we've been wrong about Eisenhower. He often said [to his aides] before press conferences [that] he would feign he didn't know about something. He would be evasive. Actually, he had a very angular mind. His private writings showed a sharp focus.
His steel-trap qualities were not visible. He worked hard to make his speeches sound banal to reach middle America."
Continues Mr. Greenstein: "Eisenhower's was the last full two-term presidency where the officeholder never lost approval in the Gallup poll. Contrary to the popular view, Ike's presidency was not a 'do nothing' era. Eisenhower ran his own show. He knew an enormous amount about the US governmental process. . . .
"Eisenhower was as far as could be from the shoot- from-the-hip statements you get from Reagan. He was extremely cautious in press conferences, which is why he sounde so garbled."
William Muir says in comparing the two men, a prospective weakness in a Reagan presidency "is that Mr. Reagan knows little about foreign affairs. Eisenhower was a genius in foreign affairs but had to be schooled in domestic issues.
"The polarization Eisenhower dealt with was the battle between isolationists and internationalists in America, bringing the US into international circles. This is not quite paralleled today. Today a split remains over the Vietnam war, race -- the Miami riot incident the other day is a sign of this. People are ready for someone who can articulate things to bind us together again."
Foreign affairs and world peace are also important to Mr. Reagan, says Mr. Muir. "Reagan's eloquent concession speech in '76 talked about one major task, keeping the world together without blowing it up. Given his hawkish position, such a stand makes more of a difference than if taken by a Jimmy Carter."
"But most important to Reagan is the theme of liberty and equality," Mr. Muir continues. Since the '60s, Washington's concern has been equality -- particularly for minorities and women. "Reagan," he says, "will stress liberty -- the importance of the autonomous individual, enabling the talented and lucky to do their own thing, rather than the need to ameliorate the burdens of the downtrodden or make all government policy turn on the needs of the worst case."
All signs point to a continuing evolution in public values, Mr. Ladd says. With family size, the role of women, and women's entry into the work force, public opinion shows no broad tendency to revert to "the woman's place is in the home" life style. Any conservative politician who would propose reverting to 1950s life models "would be beaten every time," Mr. Ladd says.
"People don't want to go back," he says. "They see problems with social changes but don't want to sacrifice the principles behind the changes. This is hard for politicians to handle with coherent programs. We tend to get politicians who are sometimes strong in their rhetoric but who don't really move decisively or consistently with programs."