Can Kerry Channel Reagan?

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When reporters asked George Bush Tuesday what he thought of President Reagan he replied, “Ronald Reagan will go down in history as a great American president because he had a core set of principles from which he would not deviate. He understood that a leader is a person who sets clear goals and makes decisions based upon principles that are etched in his soul.” Hmmm. Oddly enough that sounds like Bush’s frequent descriptions of his own leadership style.

It’s no secret that Bush would like voters to see him as Reagan’s heir. He is, in many ways. Bush holds dear the same conservative values that Reagan and Barry Goldwater used to transform the Republican party, and like the Gipper, Bush knows conservatives get themselves in trouble if they sound cold and uncaring. Reagan succeeded in the 1980 election, unlike Goldwater in 1964, because Reagan met Democrats’ accusations of coldheartedness to the poor and disadvantaged with sunny optimism. Bush did much the same in 2000, with compassionate conservatism and a promise to leave no child behind.

Yet despite Bush’s firm grasp of Reagan’s legacy, it’s John Kerry who might want to follow in Reagan’s footsteps now. Undoubtedly Karl Rove dreams of Reagan’s landslide reelection in 1984 when he sleeps. But this is not 1984. Back then the economy was a year into an impressive recovery, and American pride was experiencing a resurgence. Twenty years later, the latest survey by the Los Angeles Times finds roughly 60% of Americans polled believe the country is on the wrong track. With troops bogged down in a Middle East conflict and most voters still feeling uneasy about the economy, this election year has a lot more in common with 1980 than 1984.

Bush now faces the same challenge Jimmy Carter faced that year, and Bush has responded with a similar strategy. Knowing he had little good news to run on, Carter spent the campaign raising doubts about Reagan’s readiness for the Oval Office. Polls showed voters were unhappy with Carter but had serious doubts about whether an actor could handle the job. Carter attacked Reagan’s more conservative statements from past years, his musings on the need to radically reform Medicare and Social Security. Carter also implied Reagan could not handle the reins of foreign policy, painting the Californian as a warmonger who would launch nukes at the Russians as soon as he got his finger near the button.

“There you go again.” Reagan’s response to those attacks showed how gifted a politician he was. Not taking Carter’s bait, Reagan appeared confident and in control. Remembering the inherently optimistic nature of Americans, Reagan kept his campaign hopeful. Kerry’s challenge is to do the same. He took back his frontrunner status in the fight for the Democratic nomination by adopting some of Howard Dean’s red meat attacks on Bush. Now, however, as Bush runs relentless ads questioning Kerry’s leadership ability, (75% of Bush’s ads have been negative so far, according to one media research group) Kerry needs to find a measured response. He doesn’t want to appear as ineffective as Michael Dukakis did in 1988, but he doesn’t want to look nasty either. He still has time. About a third of those polled by the L.A. Times say they don't know Kerry well enough yet.

Recently Kerry has been trying out a new closing to his stump speech. Quoting from a poem by Langston Hughes, Kerry says, “Let America be America again.” Maybe it’s Massachusetts-speak for, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?”