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How Reagan's passing helps Bush

The Gipper's passing won't be enough to re-elect George W. Bush, but it may well help the president in terms of timing, tactics and message. Howard Fineman reports.
George W. Bush's ties to the Reagan era are literal as well as ideological and symbolic: Bush's father was Reagan's vice president.Ron Edmonds / AP file

As if he didn't have enough to deal with — a gaggle of  cooks in his campaign kitchen, a job-creation surge that muddles his economic message, an air-hogging, book-hawking Bill Clinton — Sen. John Kerry now has to deal with this: a week of justifiable nostalgia for the late Ronald Reagan. The Gipper's passing won't be enough to re-elect George W. Bush, but it may well help the president in terms of timing, tactics and message.

After a series of closed-door strategy meetings in Boston last weekend, Kerry was set this week to pop forth with a newly revised economic message, designed to stress the quality and salary level of jobs rather than their mere existence. But the rollout is now delayed, or smothered, as Kerry sensibly goes dark for most of the week, which will be dominated by Reagan's funeral.

A master of the theatrical in politics, Reagan chose an exquisitely perfect time to depart the stage, especially from Bush's point of view. The former president died just as the remnants of his own, Greatest Generation were gathering to listen to Bush and other leaders remind us of the need to defend freedom, whatever the cost.

The parallels between World War II and the post-9/11 world are inexact and, in the case of the war in Iraq, probably more misleading than inspiring. Saddam was evil, but no Hitler. Baghdad was under siege, but not Paris. The Republican guards were brutal, but no match for the systematic genocide in Europe.

And yet, Osama bin Laden and his theocratic ideology of hatred, death and terrorist mayhem are every bit the threat to Western ideals of freedom that the Nazis were.

The heritage of Ronald Reagan
George W. Bush is no Ronald Reagan, and no Franklin Roosevelt and no Winston Churchill. Voters can and should question the strategy he is pursuing. There are many who think that Iraq, unlike Normandy, was the wrong invasion in the wrong place at the wrong time. But, as commander in chief in the "war on terror," (which really is a war against extremist theocratic Islam) Bush projects an elemental refusal to accept the "realists'" notion of live and let live. In that attitude at least Bush can claim the heritage of Ronald Reagan.

Now we know what the Republican convention in New York is going to be about, other than showing off Rudy Giuliani et. al., and replaying the videotape of Bush, bullhorn in hand, at Ground Zero. It's going to be about the legacy and ideas of Reagan — a show that might have seemed ghoulish had he still been alive, but sadly lost in the oblivious world of Alzheimer's. Now the tributes can be full, and you can be sure they will be, and filled with emotion when, say, Nancy Reagan and the Reagan children wave to the crowd.

Little to risk, much to gain
There is little risk, and a bit to gain, for Bush in associating with the Reagan aura. Voters on the left who think the comparison is damning to Bush weren't going to support him anyway; voters on the right who think the comparison makes Bush looks small are going to vote for Bush anyway. Voters in the middle who still aren't sure what to make of Bush may see a wee bit more vision in his thinking — and vision is a thing every president (and every president running for re-election) needs.

This season of remembering Reagan helps the Republicans in another way. It diminishes the accomplishments of the Democrats' two-termer — Clinton — who is launching a nostalgia tour of his own this month. The Clinton years were among the most prosperous in modern American history. But even Democrats would have to admit that Reagan's signal achievement — joining  Maggie Thatcher, Lech Walesa and Pope John Paul II in toppling the Soviet Union — is a tad more significant than outlasting the Vast Right Wing Con-spiracy.

Howard Fineman is Newsweek’s chief political correspondent and an NBC News analyst.