Second-Term Bush Model: Reagan Redux

The icy inaugural ceremonies last week put some Washington veterans in mind of the coldest Inauguration Day ever, which took place 20 years ago. At dawn on the Monday Ronald Reagan was to take his second presidential oath, the mercury had not risen above zero and the wind chill was 30 degrees below.

When it gets that cold, the nation's capital simply capitulates. Most everything closes down and most everyone stays home. So when such a freeze enveloped the city on January 21,1985, the nation's leader was installed indoors for the first time ever.

Reagan took his oath and gave his speech in the Capitol Rotunda, surrounded by members of Congress and a relative handful of guests. The parade was cancelled, and scores of high school bands glumly boarded buses for home without having trod a yard of Pennsylvania Avenue.

This year's inaugural weather was not nearly so inclement, but it brought back memories of Reagan bundled against the wind, his famous head of hair bare and vulnerable.

But the connection between the two inaugurals did not end with the climate. When you look back at the speech Reagan gave that day, you find at least one source of inspiration for what George W. Bush had to say 20 years later.

Reagan's 1985 speech reprised the groove he had worn smooth through two decades as a commentator, candidate and officeholder. He spoke of how government was not the people's master but their servant. He said the system of our Founding Fathers had not failed us but that we had failed the system, giving too much power to the federal government that belonged at the local or state level — or in the hands of individuals.

And Reagan celebrated freedom, the wellspring of his rhetoric throughout his political career. He used the term nearly a score of times, including a flurry of references near his conclusion:

Human freedom is on the march... freedom is one of the deepest and noblest aspirations of the human spirit... America must remain freedom's staunchest friend, for freedom is our best ally. And it is the world's only hope to conquer poverty and preserve peace. Every blow we inflict against poverty will be a blow against its dark allies of oppression and war. Every victory for human freedom will be a victory for world peace.

This reliance on mantra-like repetition of the word was not lost on the current president and his speechwriters. In his speech last week, President Bush cited freedom 27 times (and made another 15 references to liberty).

But this was not the only point of similarity between the speeches. While both talked of an aggressive, expansive approach to world affairs, both took aim at the government establishment of the New Deal and the Great Society (while avoiding those terms). President Bush even went so far as to cite several iconic programs by name and call for their reform — including Social Security.

Another echo could be heard in the response of the beaten Democrats. In 1985, Reagan had carried 49 of 50 states while holding his majority in the Senate and closing the gap in the House, where conservative and moderate Democrats were giving him a working majority on many issues.

The Democratic speaker of the House, Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, promptly announced that the president was in charge and that the opposition would wait for him to propose solutions to the deficit and other matters. The president responded with a book of proposals for revising the tax code, then waited for his ideas to prevail in the Hill debate that followed.

President Reagan seemed to have a mystic power over the electorate that Democrats could only understand in terms of personal charm — a species of movie star charisma translated into political force. The news media, too, having come late to belief in Reagan's connection to voters, seemed ready at last to accept him as a force of nature.

Even many partisan Democrats were ready to give up on the Reagan wars, give the man his due and move on to fighting his successor. Perhaps by building Reagan up in his last White House years, they could make his would-be successors appear unworthy — or at least undersized.

Although the Democrats have nowhere near the same reverence for Bush, they see a similar magic aura in his use of Sept. 11 and the war on terror. That is a magic that could fade in a difficult second term, of course, much as Reagan's did in his latter years (think Iran-Contra, the loss of the Senate and the defeat of the Robert Bork nomination to the Supreme Court). Moreover, what's left of the magic by 2008 may prove difficult to transfer to a Republican successor.

Those reflections offer the Democrats their best hope for a return to power, now as they did then.

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