Can Ronald Reagan’s political magic work in one last election -- this time for President Bush?
Republican strategists acknowledged Monday that they hope the nation’s week of mourning for Reagan, who died Saturday, will turn into a boost for Bush’s reelection campaign.
Officially, GOP leaders said it would be unseemly to talk about the political impact of Reagan’s death. “We just want to make sure that Ronald Reagan’s legacy is honored,” Republican Party national chairman Ed Gillespie said.
But unofficially, several Republican strategists said the nation’s outpouring of nostalgia and respect for Reagan may have offered Bush an opportunity to improve his flagging popularity -- if he can find a way to don the mantle of his well-loved predecessor.
Even before Reagan’s death, Bush and his campaign deliberately borrowed some favorite themes from the Republican revolution of 1980: optimism, national confidence, military strength, tax cuts, economic recovery.
This week, trying not to sound overtly political, Republican spokesmen again looked for polite ways to remind voters that Bush is, in many ways, Reagan’s ideological heir.
“The life and example of Ronald Reagan reinforces how important conviction and determination are in a president,” Bush campaign spokesman Terry Holt said in an apparent dig at Bush’s presumed Democratic challenger, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), whom Republicans have accused of flip-flops. “Reagan’s legacy of optimism and of patriotism should inspire everybody, regardless of political party.”
On Friday, in a eulogy he is to deliver for Reagan at the Washington National Cathedral, Bush will have a chance to make that point himself -- if only by implication. The eulogy is being prepared by Bush’s chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson, who also wrote the president’s moving speech for a memorial service in the same cathedral after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The cycle of mourning for Reagan could bring Bush one other bonus, Republican pollster Bill McInturff said: It will take Americans’ minds off the recent spate of bad news from Iraq.
The revelation that U.S. troops had abused Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison sent voters’ confidence and Bush’s popularity reeling during the last month, McInturff said. “It was like a national psychiatric moment,” he said.
“This is a country that thinks of itself as moral and law-abiding,” he said. “The prison stories compromised that ... but remembering Reagan has been a perfect counterpoint, reminding us of a time that made America feel good about itself.
“This national dialogue about Reagan could wash away the focus on the prison story and do a lot to rebalance public opinion,” McInturff said. “It could get [public confidence] back where it ought to be, and that will be a very good outcome for the campaign.”
McInturff added that a week or two of focusing on Reagan, no matter how helpful to Bush, would not decide the presidential election. “However major this story is in June, it’s very rare that something like this will determine what happens in November,” he said.
But he argued that the coming week could “reset” public sentiment and stop what had been a gradual slide in Bush’s popularity -- “and if that happens, that’s a big deal.”
Other political analysts said the glow of nostalgia for Reagan’s presidency was unlikely to warm voters long enough to carry them to the polls for Bush in November.
“If this had happened in mid-October, it might have been different,” said William Schneider, CNN senior political analyst and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “It would have rallied conservatives.... But it’s five months too early. A week in politics is a lifetime; five months is an eternity.
“Bush’s fate is dependent on events from here on out,” Schneider said. “What if we capture Osama bin Laden? What if there’s a smooth transition in Iraq, and diminishing casualties? What if there are good economic numbers? All of those events could help Bush much more than Ronald Reagan.
“I would expect this week’s events to produce some modest improvement in Bush’s approval ratings, but I don’t expect it to last unless some of those other things happen.”
But the mourning for Reagan could hide a trap for Republicans, Schneider warned: the temptation to make too much political hay of the former president’s death.
“Don’t allow any of the commemorations to turn into a political rally,” he advised. “If any Republican says at a memorial service that we should win one more for ‘the Gipper’ ” -- paraphrasing Reagan’s famous line from “Knute Rockne All American,” in which he played Notre Dame football star George Gipp, -- “they’re sunk.”
In fact, Gillespie and other Republican leaders have avoided that faux pas so far.
Another political expert, former Reagan aide David Gergen, warned that Bush faces another peril: He may emerge from a week of comparison to Reagan looking distinctly second-best.
“To a considerable extent, the celebration of Reagan includes the celebration of his values and his conservatism, and that should benefit Bush as Reagan’s heir,” said Gergen, who also worked for President Clinton.
“The imponderable is whether Reagan looks so large that Bush, by contrast, looks diminished,” he said. “There was so much poetry in Reagan; it’s going to be hard for this president to be seen on the same plane.”
Kerry faces a similar problem, Gergen said. “Bill Clinton is about to bring out his memoirs and go on a book tour,” he said. “Clinton is the best orator in the country today. If you’re John Kerry, how do you compete with that?”
Kerry, for his part, has suspended public campaign events until after Reagan’s funeral, which meant canceling two large fund-raising concerts in Los Angeles and New York.
“This is a week in which there’s not much Kerry can do,” said Stephen Hess, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, a centrist Washington think-tank. “The attention of the world is directed otherwise, and there’s no way he can turn Reagan into a Democratic icon.
“But a campaign is the sort of thing you measure in weeks -- as in ‘Kerry had a good week’ or ‘Bush had a good week,’ ” Hess said. “Bush will spend this week not as a candidate but as our president, and I’m sure he’ll give a very eloquent eulogy on Friday, and that will be nice. And then next week they’ll go back to business as usual.”