Magazine article Insight on the News

Republicans' Pact Recalls the Gipper

Magazine article Insight on the News

Republicans' Pact Recalls the Gipper

Article excerpt

Six years ago, Ronald Reagan packed his bags and headed for his ranch on the West Coast, leaving behind Washington and the world of politics he had dominated for eight years.

He's back. Sort of.

Though Reagan, 83, has not taken an active role in politics since his retirement, the 1994 election is being fought on terms set by the former president, whose ideological legacy looms large over the current campaign. When a Democratic House speaker appears on national television bragging about having voted with President Reagan, as Thomas S. Foley did recently, something clearly is up.

"Reagan defined the two parties, and that definition has outlasted George Bush and, with Bill Clinton's help, has continued to define the two parties today," says conservative strategist Jeff Eisenach.

Many Republicans and Democrats, each for their own reasons, are thrilled to have the Reagan element introduced into the campaign, a feat accomplished by Republican House candidates in September in announcing their "Contract With America." Though the document doesn't specifically mention the GOP's patron saint, its themes of tax reduction, congressional and welfare reform and a decentralized federal government are pure Reagan.

"There's nothing better that we can ask for than the Democrats making a comparison with Ronald Reagan during the time Bill Clinton is serving as president," says Donald Devine, a Republican running to unseat Democratic Rep. Steny H. Hoyer in Maryland's 5th District.

"I don't think people are going to respond in a negative way to accusations that the contract is warmed-over Reaganism," says Dave Mason, director of the Congress Project at the Heritage Foundation. "The ideas were ones that fundamentally the American people agreed with. Reagan gave voice to that, so we shouldn't be surprised they continue to be popular. They are ideas based in principle, so they don't change."

Says GOP consultant Keith Appell: "We're willing to put Reagan's peace and prosperity against Clinton's war and anxiety any day."

But others think there are risks for both parties in invoking the Reagan name. "I think that it's an interesting gamble on the part of the Republicans," says Democratic direct-mail consultant Ross Bates. "By now, people know that Reaganomics didn't work. If it's Reaganomics vs. Clintonomics, the Republicans lose. If it's a nostalgic memory of Ronald Reagan vs. a cynical view of Bill Clinton, the Republicans win."

Democratic strategists such as Raymond Strother consider the contract a timely gift from its chief sponsor, House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia. "What I'm seeing now is Democrats able to exploit what people don't like about Reaganomics without attacking Reagan," says Strother. "I think Gingrich opened a Pandora's box."

Other strategists, among them Eisenach and his colleague Vin Weber of the Progress and Freedom Foundation, believe that doctrinaire Reaganism is of limited use. Eisenach points out that Reagan's mind-set was formed in a political environment dominated by the New Deal and the Cold War. The Cold War is over, and the New Deal is breathing its last, he says. Moreover, he adds, conservatives ought to be finding ways to make Reagan's "timeless" principles -- free markets, limited government, personal responsibility and a recognition that religion has a role to play in civic life -- relevant to a society whose structures are changing radically.

"What we're looking for is not a new set of principles, but a new way of applying them and explaining them," he says. "The central concept today is decentralization vs. centralization or, put another way, entrepreneurship vs. bureaucracy."

If people are nostalgic for Reagan, it is in large part because they view Clinton as his opposite, notes David Frum, author of the new book Dead Right, which criticizes Reaganites for failing to abide by their antispending, anti-big government rhetoric. …

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