I was awake much too early Friday morning watching the ABC news show that fills the hours between what used to be sign-off and what used to be the farm report. So let's call it about 3:30 a.m., though I could be off by an hour or so. Anyway, the program—I think they call it "Insomniac World News"—featured a segment on the latest Republican debate, held in either the state that permits legal prostitution or the one that flies the Confederate flag on the capitol grounds. I forget which is which.
I've allowed myself a brief hiatus from debate-watching, particularly on the Republican side. It's not that I don’t sometimes enjoy watching grown men debase themselves, it's just that it has all become so familiar. First McCain tells us that he won't rest until every acre of real estate between Damascus and Karachi is occupied by the U.S. Army. Then Rudy ups the ante by suggesting that we waterboard every tenth person going through airport security, just in case. About that time, Fred Thompson chimes in, mumbling something about hunting dogs and Goody's Headache Powder. Mike Huckabee next informs us that the Earth is not only flat, but it's also just slightly older than Wayne Newton. But then he cracks some joke about Chuck Norris, and everyone laughs sympathetically. If Mitt Romney's circuits are firing properly, he reminds everyone for the thousandth time that he's still fiercely opposed to everything he used to believe in and that, by the way, it would be a splendid idea to erect an electrified, barbed-wire force field on the Mexican border. Finally, Ron Paul, assuming he's permitted to attend, mutters his opposition to the Iraq War, allowing the others to commence another round of attacks on the Islamofascisterroristicexpialidocians.
So where was I? Oh yeah, ABC was showing the highlights of the latest installment of the GOP's traveling exhibition of lucha libre (that would be "wrestling match" to all you one-time Tancredo supporters) and I was sitting on the couch unable to sleep. For some reason, almost every clip that was broadcast included some worshipful reference to Ronald Reagan or his presidency. It was as though the country was in need of rescue from twenty uninterrupted years of Democratic leadership and only a return to the bedrock values of our last Republican president could save us. If any man named Bush had ever served in the White House, you sure couldn't tell it from these post-debate excerpts. You would only know that Bill Clinton's five terms as Commander in Chief had evidently transformed our once-powerful republic into an overtaxing, atheistic, sexually confused paper tiger that responded to terrorism with folk songs.
(To be fair, the Democrats went through this, as well, erasing Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter from their collective memories for at least a generation, continually harkening back to Kennedy, Truman, and FDR long after what would have been JFK's seventieth birthday.)
I've already done my takedown of the Reagan years, so there's no need to repeat myself. The Ronald Reagan spoken of today should be unrecognizable to anyone who actually endured the 1980s. He was, to be sure, a popular, grandfatherly figure, but nobody alive in 1989 thought that we were witnessing the retirement of America's Churchill. The Ronnie we knew was a divisive president, brutally partisan, and given to serving up laughable gaffes about trees causing pollution and crypto-racist fairy tales about Welfare Queens driving Cadillacs. Even a lot of his supporters were, frankly, relieved to see his eight years in office conclude.
But here's the thing: if there is any president that most closely resembles Ronald Reagan in the entire annals of American history, it is George W. Bush. Both were big state governors accustomed to working relatively short hours and overly reliant on their handlers and advisers. Neither was especially popular upon taking office, but each saw his approval rating skyrocket in the wake of an unexpected crisis (9/11 for Bush, the Hinckley assassination attempt for Reagan). Both possessed a political cunning that compensated for an occasionally embarrassing intellectual laziness.
In terms of economic policy, Reagan and Bush are parallel lines. Each cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans (Reagan a bit more generously) and each engaged in profligate deficit spending. They both dumped millions into the military-industrial complex without requiring accountability, and stood on the losing end of multi-billion dollar trade deficits with Asian nations (Japan then, China now). Reagan's second term concluded with economic unrest, just as it appears Bush's will.
The Gipper and W both prided themselves on an intuitive, gut-check approach to sizing up Russian leaders. Reagan saw promise in Mikhail Gorbachev even as his advisors were warning him against trusting any Commie. Bush famously looked into Vladimir Putin's soul and saw goodness where others saw only the remnants of a career with the vicious KGB. Perhaps Ronald Reagan was simply a better judge of character than Bush (I have, indeed, argued that previously). Perhaps he was just lucky. Had Gorby been Putin, I suspect we would all remember the late 1980s much differently and nobody would be speaking about victory in the Cold War.
On immigration, Saint Ronnie of Hollywood joined with the Democrats on an amnesty plan in 1986 that was so generous that it turned Lou Dobbs from financial wizard into populist carnival barker. The link to W in this case is too obvious to mention. Somehow, in all their genuflecting before their plastic Gipper icons, the Republican debaters invariably forget to mention that it was Reagan who opened the floodgates, or created the stampede, or fathered the reconquista, or whatever trite language they're using these days.
Finally, many of the seeds of George W. Bush's crackdown on civil liberties were planted in the Reagan White House. According to Washington Congressman Jim McDermott:
"From 1982 to 1984, Colonel Oliver North assisted FEMA in drafting its civil defense preparations. Details of those plans emerged during the 1987 Iran-Contra scandal. They included executive orders providing for suspension of the Constitution, the imposition of martial law, internment camps, and the turning over of government to the President and FEMA."
There were, of course, also distinctions between Reagan and Bush, other than the fact that the former was a better actor. One of the biggest differences was the Democratic House of Representatives that the Gipper faced during his eight years in the White House. Not only did Bush enjoy Republican majorities in both the House and Senate for most of his presidency, he also benefited from the peculiar post-9/11 cowardice that has afflicted the Democratic Party's congressional leadership. Many of Ronald Reagan's more elaborate and Bush-like goals were thwarted through the offices of Tip O'Neill and Jim Wright, two House Speakers who took seriously Madison's musings about checks and balances in Federalist 51.
I'm not sure if irony is quite the proper word, but there remains an amusing inconsistency between the Republican candidates' devotion to Reagan's memory and their careful avoidance of even speaking the word "Bush". Because, really, by predilections, policies, and, in many cases, results, it would be difficult to name two presidents in history with such a lengthy catalog of similarities. Bush, lacking adult supervision, may have failed more spectacularly than his predecessor, but he did so only after carefully studying and following the Reagan playbook.