Bush puts on his Reagan mask to woo party faithful

He echoes Reagan with his optimism and on some issues, but not his stage presence.

If he is to energize Republicans this week in Philadelphia, Texas Gov. George W. Bush needs to successfully present himself as a true heir of someone who will be there only in memory: Ronald Reagan, the architect of the modern GOP.

That "compassionate conservative" stuff may play well with swing voters, but among the faithful it's a Reaganite resonance that appeals. If anything, the Gipper is more popular now among rank-and-file Republicans than he was when in office. That's why Governor Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain fought so bitterly over who was more Reaganesque during their primary campaigns.

There are obvious parallels between Reagan - whose health no longer allows him to participate in public life - and the son of his vice president. Bush is a Sun Belt governor with an easy smile who appears ready to leave governing details to others. He favors big tax cuts and missile defense, and opposes abortion.

But Bush has made un-Reaganesque vows to increase federal spending in such areas as education and the environment. He's dropped Reagan-era references to eliminating the Department of Education from the party platform. Perhaps most important, he has yet to demonstrate Reagan's ability to command a stage.

"Ronald Reagan was able to inspire ardent followers. Whether George W. Bush is able to do that is an open question at the moment," says George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University in College Station.

A presence felt

Reagan's presence will surely be felt in Philadelphia, despite the fact that he will be at home in California. Many of the delegates to the 2000 GOP convention came of age politically during the Reagan years. Many regard him as the politician who reconstructed the Republican agenda for the late-20th century and restored the party to power in Washington.

A Philadelphia Inquirer poll of this year's delegates found their most often-mentioned heroes to be Jesus, Lincoln - and Reagan.

Dealing with Reagan's legacy hasn't been easy for convention planners, however. Too much emphasis might slight the nominee's father and present a picture of a party overly nostalgic for the cold-war past. Too little recognition, on the other hand, could annoy the party's conservative core.

The compromise: The convention will feature a video salute to all its living past presidents. Nancy Reagan isn't scheduled to reprise her 1996 convention speech.

Party leaders hope one other thing at the convention will remind voters of the last two-term Republican president: the candidate. Almost since the moment he began running, Bush has attempted to echo and update key aspects of the Reagan political playbook.

There's Bush's big proposed tax cut, for instance. It was Reaganomics that helped put tax cutting at the core of the GOP agenda. Bush says he would move quickly to deploy a national missile defense, one of Reagan's signature undertakings.

Bush is staunchly anti-abortion, as was Reagan. He has said that his favorite Supreme Court justice is Reagan appointee Antonin Scalia, not the Bush appointees Clarence Thomas or David Souter.

His style of dealing with issues may be judged Reaganesque, as well. His big policy announcements have often been general statements, with details to be filled in later, if at all.

"What he may have that Reagan also had is a commitment to a few fixed principles that he may guide himself by while leaving the details to others," says Calvin Jillson, chairman of the political science department at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Expanding the tent flaps

But George W. must be careful in his attempts to inherit Reagan's legacy. Outside of the core GOP constituency, Bush's success may depend on his ability to project himself as a new, more inclusive kind of conservative. Doing so may necessarily include rejecting some aspects of the Reagan canon, such as its belief that government is something to be kept as small as possible.

The footwork necessary to walk this thin line may be seen in the language of the Bush-approved draft GOP platform.

"Government does have a role to play," says the draft, "but as a partner, not a rival, to the armies of compassion."

Furthermore, the general public may judge that the time for Reagan's issues has passed. Big tax cuts have yet to excite the voters, if polls are any guide. Missile-defense tests keep falling into the ocean. Crime is down, the stock market is up, welfare has been reformed - all reasons why the nation may no longer feel as culturally and socially vulnerable as it did in 1980.

Nor is Bush yet Reagan's equal as a political salesman. Reagan had an ease in his own skin, derived from decades of public speaking. Bush may be improving his feel for media-age politics - but he's no "Gipper" yet.

"He does not quite have the experience that Reagan had, but I think he's growing up pretty fast," says Lee Edwards, a fellow at the Heritage Institute in Washington.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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