George W. Bush has always endured unflattering comparisons with his famous father. He always had trouble living up to his dad's reputation, no matter how hard he tried. Those days are over. Bush rarely mentions his father in his public rhetoric anymore. He is more eager to claim the mantle of Ronald Reagan—with considerable justification. "While his name is Bush and his DNA is Bush, his heart belongs to Ronald Reagan," says Ken Duberstein, Reagan's White House chief of staff. "He's Ronald Reagan in that he governs in bold strokes. He is not pastels. He is primary colors. He has a big vision like Ronald Reagan did." Adds Frank Donatelli, Reagan's White House political director: "They share an affection for tax cuts," and they both have a deep belief in the transformational power of individual liberty. Reagan argued that communism "would not survive the imperative of freedom," Donatelli told U.S. News, while Bush argues that freedom will transform Iraq and other repressive societies in the Mideast.
Others question whether the parallels hold up. "It's a false paternity claim," says Rutgers political scientist Ross Baker. "Their origins are totally different. Ronald Reagan was not a deep thinker, but he made a long philosophical journey to where he ended up. He really thought about the relationship between citizens and the state. I see no similar intellectual pilgrimage on Bush's part. I see a sense of entitlement."
Parts of both analyses, actually, are correct. Bush may not have arrived in the White House with a fully formed philosophy, as Reagan did, but his instincts for simple answers and black-and-white formulations do parallel the Gipper's. These instincts were intensified by the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, which forced Bush to take on a mission—winning the war on terrorism—that animated him and has defined his presidency in stark terms.
Last week, Bush praised Reagan for the same traits that he ascribes to himself and that his strategists have made central to his re-election campaign: "the confidence that comes with conviction, the strength that comes with character." Bush added: "During the years of President Reagan, America laid to rest an era of division and self-doubt. And because of his leadership, the world laid to rest an era of fear and tyranny."
The case for Bush as Reagan's political heir rests on a strong foundation. Both men set a handful of big priorities and tried to move the country in clear directions. Both persuaded Congress to enact massive tax cuts that led to enormous deficits. Both projected American military strength abroad in ways that dismayed their more cautious critics. Both adopted conservative positions on social issues, such as opposing abortion and affirmative action, and made a restoration of "traditional values" a centerpiece of their public lives.
Just as important, where Reagan stood up to communism, Bush is confronting terrorism in a similarly aggressive way. "Bush is stubborn," presidential scholar Robert Dallek told U.S. News. "Reagan was. They have ideas they believe in and don't give up on. Reagan talked about the 'evil empire' [of communism] and Bush talks about the 'axis of evil' [states supporting terrorism]. There is a direct parallel."
Both men also sought to broaden the appeal of the Republican Party. Reagan attacked the growth of the federal government, but he did so in an unthreatening way and put a happy face on the GOP, bringing it to near parity with the Democrats. Bush is likable in his own way and bills himself as a "compassionate conservative," attempting to soften the edges of Reaganism while not breaking from its core principles of tax cuts, a strong military, and self-reliance.
Both were underestimated by opponents, which allowed them to exceed expectations. And both have been optimistic, even Panglossian, in their outlook. Like Reagan, Bush knows that Americans want their president to see the sunny side of life and boost the nation's confidence that its best years are ahead.
Finally, Bush portrays himself as a straight-talking westerner and a Washington outsider, just as Reagan did. Even their vacation preferences are comparable. Reagan spent nearly a full year of his two-term presidency at his ranch near Santa Barbara, Calif., riding horses, clearing brush, and relaxing with Nancy. Bush tours his 1,600 acres in Crawford, Texas, in a pickup, but he also clears brush and spends a lot of private time with his wife, Laura. If he is re-elected and keeps up his pace, Bush could match Reagan's total number of days at the ranch.
All this is remarkable because, while Bush met Reagan socially a few times during his father's vice presidency, he didn't consider him a mentor. Once he became commander in chief, however, Bush began to relish the similarities and call public attention to them, partly because he hopes to tap into Reagan's popularity among conservative Democrats.
Still, there are many differences between Reagan and Bush. One of the most striking is the 40th president's triumphant use of the bully pulpit. Reagan's 1984 speech on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, most observers agree, was far more compelling than Bush's 60th-anniversary remarks last week. This is part of a larger critique—that Reagan was much more adept at the stage management of the presidency, as orchestrated by his handlers. This was clear in the meticulous arrangements for his funeral, which gave the nation so many indelible images.
Bush, by contrast, is not in Reagan's league as a TV performer. He resists being "stage managed," a trait he shares with his father. Without a script to constantly guide his performance, Bush is susceptible to the kind of mangled locutions that have become reliable grist for the late-night talk shows.
Bush, his opponents contend, is more divisive than Reagan, who worked with congressional Democrats and tried to avoid making enemies. Bush, critics say, is too much of an ideologue in appealing to his conservative base, unable to make the pragmatic adjustments that served Reagan so well. This is most clearly seen in the current administration's policy toward Iraq. If the transition to a civilian government does not go well there, Bush may face a choice between admitting error, which he is loath to do, and sticking with a troubled policy that Americans increasingly oppose.
Partisan Democrats go further. "The difference between Reagan's re-election [bid] in '84 and Bush's in '04 is that Reagan was in some ways the master of the landscape," says Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. "He was a president who inspired confidence and made people feel better about the direction of the country. President Bush doesn't inspire personal confidence in the same way." Bush, Garin adds, lacks the self-deprecating wit and the "sense of humility" that Reagan showed.
That humility may be more important than ever now that the rosy glow of the Reagan retrospectives is beginning to fade. Americans will begin to turn increasingly back to their current problems—especially the rising casualties in Iraq and the difficulty of transferring power to an indigenous government in Baghdad. The question is whether Bush will stay the course or demonstrate Reagan's ability to seize the moment when circumstances change. It was, after all, Reagan, the lifelong cold warrior, who formed a partnership with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and helped to dismantle the "evil empire."
As was true in the Reagan era, the risks are enormous, and Bush is facing them without the panache or communications skills that Reagan possessed. But if Bush manages to somehow create a real democracy in Iraq and win the war on terrorism, he might be celebrated as a figure of historic importance—just like Ronald Reagan.