Friday, May 04, 2007

The Gipper triumphs as the sage for all seasons

It wasn’t even close. I scored it this way: Gipper 14, Decider 2.

In other words, 14 favorable remarks about Ronald Reagan; and only two about He Who Shall Not Be Named.

Actually, for President Bush, the disparity was far worse than that. While the 10 Republican presidential candidates were debating last night, I also tracked the number of putdowns directed at Reagan, versus the number of putdowns aimed at Bush. Final score: Gipper 0, Decider 11.

For a party in the throes of an identity crisis (strategist and former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed said last month, “We’re in the political equivalent of a world without the law of gravity”), there’s clearly scant appetite for treating the lame duck as sage and role model. Bush is the albatross who deserves to be assailed when not simply ignored; Reagan, on the other hand, is the northward arrow on the party’s compass, the font of all wisdom, the seer whose every act as president was (retrospectively) perfect.

Given the fact that Bush is still popular among the Republican base (which controls the nomination process), these candidates understand that overt Bush-bashing would be politically suicidal. But given the fact that Bush’s popularity is now confined to the Republican base, and that most swing-voting independents (who are pivotal in the general ekection) now view Bush as a disaster, these same candidates understand that they will never win the White House unless they cut loose from the guy.

Hence, the dissing. John McCain was particularly outspoken, apparently trying to compensate for his embarrassing rose-colored stroll through the war-torn Baghdad marketplace; he volunteered that “the war was terribly mismanaged, terribly mismanaged…We have to fix the mistakes that were made.” Over an hour later, he said it again, contending that, if he had been president instead of Bush, “I would not have mismanaged the war.” And, alluding to the fact that Bush has never vetoed a congressional spending bill, he declared that he would have vetoed spending bills, “in the tradition of Ronald Reagan.”

Bush was even cuffed around by the minnows in this candidate pool. Congressman Tom Tancredo said that “the great thing about Ronald Reagan was, he was a uniter” - as opposed to the guy who pledged that he would be a uniter, not a divider. Congressman Duncan Hunter complained that Bush has not been enforcing our trade laws, or showing sufficient spine on border security.

But the Bush-bashing prize goes to Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor. At one point, he accused Bush of deceiving the American public. Like many other Republicans, Huckabee is still peeved that Bush waited until after the ’06 election to fire Donald Rumsfeld, and, worse yet, praised Rumsfeld on election eve, even though he was already intending to dump him. When this issue was raised last night, Huckabee didn’t duck it: “I would’ve (fired Rumsfeld) before the election. I certainly wouldn’t have said that we are not going to do it, then, right after the election, done so. But that’s the president’s call. Clearly there was a real error in judgment.”

Then he went after Bush and his war planners (“civilians in suits and silk ties”) for ignoring the military’s plea for a much larger Iraq invasion force. And later, in a populist outburst at odds with the GOP’s big-business ethos, he assailed Bush (not by name, of course) for failing to stop the exodus of American jobs: “A president needs to make it clear that we’re not going to see jobs shipped overseas…and then watch as a CEO takes a $100-million bonus to jettison those American jobs somewhere else…That’s criminal, it’s wrong, and if the Republicans don’t stop it, we don’t deserve to win in 2008.”

Nobody quoted Bush about virtually anything. By contrast, Reagan’s honeyed words and purportedly flawless deeds were invoked at every turn, to justify whatever point the candidates were trying to make. They believe America needs “vision,” just like Reagan had; they believe America needs a strong defense, just like Reagan did. They twice invoked his “shining city on the hill.” And Rudy Giuliani wants to get tough with the Iranians, just as Reagan used to do (back in January 1981, said Rudy, “they looked in Ronald Reagan’s eyes, and in two minutes, they released the hostages”).

For instance, did you know that Ronald Reagan would have approved the Republican Congress’ intrusion into the lives of Terri Schiavo’s family down in Florida? I didn’t know that (I’ve always assumed that Reagan respected state’s rights), but long-shot candidate Duncan Hunter is sure of it: “Ronald Reagan said, ‘Err on the side of ‘life’.”

(That’s a fascinating claim, since even conservatives say that Ronald Reagan, as president, often failed to err on the side of life. Conservative author and former Bush speechwriter David Frum wrote this on page 65 of his book Dead Right: “To pro-life conservatives, the ghastliest proof of the unabated decay of American morality in the Reagan 1980s was the administration’s diffidence in the face of…the killing by abortion of nearly 2 million children a year. True, Ronald Reagan, as president, published an essay denouncing abortion, and appointed one justice, Antonin Scalia, who agreed that Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided. Otherwise, though, Reagan accomplished little for the anti-abortion cause.”)

And did you know that Ronald Reagan believed with unshakable conviction that “we should never retreat in the face of terrorism”? That’s what Giuliani says Reagan believed; Giuliani was trying to contrast the resolute Reagan with the current Democrats in Congress. The problem is, Giuliani was invoking Reagan myth, not fact. In October 1983, after suicidal terrorists in Lebanon blew up 241 American servicemen in their barracks, Reagan called it a “despicable act” and his administration vowed not to be “cowed.” But Reagan did not retaliate; instead, he moved the remaining troops offshore, where they could not be targeted. Then, in February 1984, he withdrew all his troops from Lebanon. (If Bill Clinton had reacted in that fashion, somebody on that stage last night would have brought it up.)

But the best Reagan invocation last night was offered by Mitt Romney. Usually Reagan is lauded as a man of unshakable convictions, but Romney did something different. In an effort to defend his track record of abortion flip flops, Romney said that he drew his inspiration from Ronald Reagan – because Reagan had been a flip flopper, too (signing a pro-abortion bill while governing California). Romney said: “I changed my mind (on abortion). I took the same course that Ronald Reagan…took.”

I’m sure that Nancy Reagan, sitting in the audience, appreciated that one.

Maybe Giuliani should have tried that same Reagan flip flop theme, on his own behalf. Because he clearly needed some help last night, as he struggled to sound coherent on the abortion issue. Maybe his image as America’s 9/11 mayor is more compelling to the Republican base; but if being soft on abortion is a deal-breaker for the base, then Giuliani will have problems.

On the one hand, he twice said “I hate abortion.” On the other hand, when asked whether he endorsed the repeal of Roe v. Wade, he said, “It would be OK. It would be OK to repeal. It would be OK also if a strict-constructionist judge viewed (Roe) as precedent.” (Translation of the latter sentence: If the high court says that Roe is still the law of the land, Rudy is fine with that.)

And later in the debate, he got tied in knots on the issue of taxpayer-funded abortions for poor people (and not for the first time, either, because a few weeks ago he said that he supported the concept, then spent days trying to dilute what he’d said). Last night, he first said that he was opposed to publicly-funded abortion. Then he tried to pass the buck: “States should make their decisions. Some decide to (pay for those abortions), most states decide not to do it.” But when it was pointed out that the state of New York did pay for those abortions during his mayoral tenure, he acknowledged that he supported that position at the time – although, today, in other states, “people could come to a different decision.”

Giuliani, at least, was clear about his support for science. He and six other candidates indicated last night that they do believe in evolution…But wait, I’ve got it backwards: By a show of hands at the debate, three Republicans who want to be president in 2008 – Huckabee, Tancredo, and Sen. Sam Brownback – declared that they do not believe in evolution.

Unfortunately, there was no time for them to explain. One of them probably would have insisted that Ronald Reagan had no room for science in his shining city on the hill.