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That Retro Feel to Bush’s Style: It’s Reaganesque

Times Staff Writer

The similarities between the two presidents are striking: the retreats to the ranch whenever possible to clear brush and to clear their minds; the readiness to delegate important missions to aides; the reliance on tax cuts to spur the economy.

In many ways, George W. Bush, as president, has more in common with Ronald Reagan than he has with George H.W. Bush, his father.

The similarity with Reagan was driven home last week as Bush unveiled a $674-billion tax cut and economic stimulus proposal -- much larger than expected -- at a time of ballooning federal budget deficits and a military buildup.

Indeed, Vice President Dick Cheney drew on Reagan’s experience to rebut criticism that the tax cut would drain money from the war on terrorism. “We’ve been in similar situations before,” he said in a speech Friday. “Back in the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan cut taxes to stimulate economic growth, increased defense spending and won the Cold War.”

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From their recreational habits to the policies of their presidencies and their political appeal to similar constituencies, the 40th and 43rd presidents make for a political father-son match that coexists with the biological father-son pairing.

And as the current president prepares for a likely reelection campaign mindful of the mistakes that derailed his father’s drive for a second term, Bush has an apt model in the man his father succeeded.

Indeed, the central political question facing Bush is this: Can he pass the test and win reelection in 2004 as Reagan did 20 years earlier?

Reagan was able to go to the voters and report that he’d begun rebuilding the nation’s military and the economy, because at the time he sought reelection his administration had sailed past the choppy economic waters of the early 1980s. Whether Bush will continue to face economic turmoil in the next two years is unclear.

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“The question for Bush is whether he’ll be able to assure people we’re doing well against the terrorists and Iraq” and that the economy is securely on the mend, said Andrew Kohut, director of Washington-based Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, which monitors public political opinion.

Bush “has to jump the same hurdles -- peace and prosperity -- that Reagan jumped,” Kohut added.

To be sure, the parallels between the two men are not precise. No one has suggested that as a public speaker Bush could challenge Reagan for the moniker of “the Great Communicator.”

More important, Reagan came to embody the heart and soul of the GOP’s conservative base. With his self-described “compassionate conservatism,” Bush has tried to sculpt a new mold, one that has caused unease among some conservatives.

By the same token, when each president took office, he had somewhat limited experience in elective office: Reagan had served two terms as governor of California; Bush a term and a half as governor of Texas.

And their earlier careers -- Reagan’s as an actor and Bush’s as an oilman and part owner of a major league baseball team -- raised questions about whether they possessed the “heft” to occupy the White House.

As was the case with Reagan, Bush has overcome such skepticism, especially after his response to the 2001 terrorist attacks, according to public opinion polls.

Bush himself has called attention to an important commonality with Reagan, and one of the greatest differences with his father: the ability to project a broader purpose to his presidency.

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The elder Bush referred derisively to “the vision thing.” His son told author Bob Woodward in an interview: “The vision thing matters.”

Ken Khachigian, a Republican political consultant in California who wrote speeches for the Reagan White House, sees in Bush the same sort of “Teflon” quality that benefited Reagan. Bush, by exuding his own type of charm and projecting the persona of one who does not take himself overly seriously, is able to quickly recover from criticism and miscues, Khachigian said.

He and other participants in the Reagan presidency, and those close to Bush today, cite other similarities:

* The focus on a few, major concerns, rather than tackling a wide selection of issues.

* A view of the world in stark relief, with little room for shades of gray.

* A stubborn refusal to retreat -- Reagan stood by the faltering nomination of Robert H. Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court to the end; Bush last week renominated Mississippi Judge Charles W. Pickering Sr. to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, despite Democrats’ criticism of the jurist’s civil rights record.

* A refusal to seek what he considers halfway measures, stepping back to compromise only when there is no alternative but defeat.

Like Reagan, Bush appears to have concluded that if he’s going to suffer a political beating for a modest proposal, he might as well go all the way and get lashed by his foes just the same.

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Originally, his economic plan contemplated a 50% reduction in the taxation of investors’ dividends. As word of that leaked, Democrats immediately attacked the proposal as skewed to the wealthy.

Bush ultimately decided that if the dividend tax amounted to a double taxation -- given that companies already had been charged tax on the profits that produced the dividends -- then cutting it in half made no sense. So in his new plan, he called for eliminating the dividend tax -- generating comparable political heat from the Democrats.

Even in their distant academic past, Bush and Reagan find common ground.

Reagan was forever joking that he received “gentleman Cs” at Eureka College in Illinois.

Bush, upon returning to his alma mater, Yale University, for its 2001 commencement, told the graduates: “To those of you who received honors, awards and distinctions, I say, well done. And to the C students, I say, you, too, can be president of the United States.”


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