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Reagan's saddle a poor fit for Bush

OH, HOW the campaign to reelect George W. Bush would like to ride the memory of Ronald Reagan to another four years of power. Republicans look to Reagan as Democrats look to Franklin Roosevelt: presidents who transformed the political landscape as no others in their century.

Bush has never hidden the fact that Reagan is the model for his presidency, not his own father with all that "kinder, gentler" stuff. According to the president's campaign manager, Ken Mehlman, Bush's policies "stand on the shoulders of Ronald Reagan." But in a week in which the nation has been awash in Reagan nostalgia, Bush's ride on Reagan's shoulders points more to the contrast between them than the similarities.

They do have some things in common: straight talking, a few clear goals, and a bit of a Western swagger that got them both called cowboys. Both Reagan and Bush were underestimated by detractors who lived to regret it.

Reagan could have called himself a neoconservative, having abandoned the Democratic Party and the New Deal. There can be no doubt that today's neoconservatives, who have had so much influence on George W. Bush, see in Reagan's determination to defeat rather than to accommodate communism a model for their own version of transforming the world starting with the Middle East. Reagan's "evil empire" was the progenitor for Bush's "axis of evil." Even now, when so much has gone awry, the civilian hawks in the Pentagon take courage from Reagan's having been proved right when so many said his muscular foreign policy was wrong.

Reagan had his setbacks and fiascos in the course of his eight years, but he never led his country down to anything resembling the mess in Iraq.

Then as now, there were fights between the State Department and the Pentagon, but Caspar Weinberger at Defense in Reagan's day did not dominate the administration as Donald Rumsfeld has. Reagan's secretary of state, George Shultz, was never as humiliated as Colin Powell has been. But if you look carefully, the successful Security Council resolution on Iraq shows a marked shift back to what Powell has recommended all along. The UN is back in play, and the president is trying to build bridges back to European allies that Rumsfeld used to insult with unfailing regularity in the days before his Mesopotamian mess began to endanger the administration.

Hard right conservatives usually find a home in the Pentagon during Republican administrations, but in the past they have been balanced out by more practical people at State, the National Security Council, and at the Pentagon itself. It is only in this administration that they got to dictate policy, supported by the strange and secretive operations in Vice President Cheney's shop. Bush bought the neocon package with its obsession with Iraq, allowing them to push their Iraq agenda to the detriment of the war against Al Qaeda.

Reagan had strong goals and ideals, but he managed to keep the balance between practicality and ideology better than Bush has. According to Reagan's chief of staff, James Baker, Reagan knew it was better to get 80 percent of what he wanted rather that "go over the cliff with flags flying." The sorry truth is that Bush allowed his ideologues to take this country over the cliff.

Perhaps the greatest difference between the 40th and the 43d president was that Reagan knew how to bring people together. The term "Reagan Democrat" described those who might have opposed him but were drawn to him nevertheless. It is hard to imagine that Bush Democrats will play a major role in the upcoming election, for Bush has been the great divider, contrary to campaign promises made in 2000.

Margaret Thatcher said Ronald Reagan was able to end the Cold War and extend liberty and democracy into the old Soviet zones "without a shot being fired." George Bush, on the other hand, listened to bad advice and was persuaded that liberty and democracy could be inserted into the Middle East with guns firing. The price for this mistake will be that the political reforms that are badly needed in that part of the world will be held hostage to events in Iraq, which the Bush team has so badly mismanaged.

As communism was to Reagan, the real source of danger today is the militant Islam of al Qaeda and associates, thriving on the distraction and opportunities the Bush administration's mishandling of Iraq has given them.

The end of the Cold War, which happened on Reagan and George Bush senior's watch, was handled with considerable political skill, and the world was made a safer place. It would be hard to argue that about the younger Bush's performance in Iraq.

H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe. 

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