Kiron Skinner: Bush Has Been Sounding the Same Themes for Years (Just Like Reagan Did)

Roundup: Historians' Take

Kiron E. Skinner, in the WSJ (2-2-05):

[Ms. Skinner, assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon and research fellow at the Hoover Institution, is currently working on a book on Reagan and U.S.-Soviet relations.]

The element of surprise is often associated with George W. Bush. For many, his re-election was the biggest surprise of all. More recently, some were startled by the strong content and direction of his second inaugural address -- the "Freedom Speech." Tonight's State of the Union address might generate further surprises, but those who register astonishment simply haven't been paying attention.

Despite their reputation as the party of the elite, key Republican presidents tend to have had a grass-roots campaign strategy that blindsided Democrats. Like President Reagan before him, however, President Bush's policies and his strategy for electoral victory have actually been available for public scrutiny for a long time, in some instances well before he occupied the White House. Yet for some reason, his and Reagan's pre-presidential policies -- the source of their strategies in office -- never found a place in the Beltway consciousness. In fact, the reason for their success may very well have been the understated nature of their activities.

Reagan stood out from the field of contenders in the GOP primaries in 1980. Despite the fact that he was a former governor who had been out of office for five years and had never held a national public office, voters knew him and his message everywhere he campaigned. And despite the 2000 electoral wrangle, President Bush won in 2004, carrying Florida and Ohio, states Sen. John Kerry expected to win. Mr. Bush lost to Vice President Gore by 324 votes in Ohio's Clark County in 2000, but four years later he carried the county with a 1,406-vote margin. Many are still mystified.

The very principle used by Karl Rove and others to help President Bush prevail in 2004 contributed also to former Governor Reagan's success: to wit, a close attention to the Republican Party's rank and file during the electoral interregnum. Between January 1975 and October 1979, with a short break during his 1976 bid for the presidential nomination, Reagan used his nationally syndicated radio program to talk to the American people about major domestic and foreign-policy issues. Long before the age of Oprah and talk radio, he spoke for three minutes a day, five days a week, to between 20 million and 30 million Americans. By 1980, his message was widely known -- precisely where it mattered.

In a similar vein, Republican strategists recruited an estimated 1.4 million campaign volunteers after the 2000 election. These grass-roots volunteers, spread throughout the country but with especially strong numbers in swing states like Ohio, beavered away on uncommitted voters. This intensive "sway the vote" effort paid off on Nov. 2, 2004. Reagan and Mr. Bush both secured their base while expanding their reach.

Both men had more than electoral strategies. Each, as a presidential hopeful, had a clear message and a detailed policy plan. In his radio essays and other writings of the late 1970s, Reagan presented four theories on the Cold War that many considered to be heretical: 1) The sole source of legitimacy of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe is the Red Army of occupation; pull the Red Army out and the countries will go their own way; 2) The Soviet economy is so weak and the incentive structure so poor that Moscow can't sustain a sophisticated military technology race with the U.S.; 3) Even in the face of defeat in Vietnam, the American public is prepared for something like rearmament as long as their leaders clearly distinguish the strategy of strength from the objective of mutual cooperation; and 4) the American economy is so fundamentally strong that it can sustain a technology race with the Soviet Union. Before the end of his presidency, these "heresies" were the conventional wisdom.

Sept. 11 led to the most comprehensive revision of strategic priorities and doctrine since the early days of the Cold War, but much of the content of that revision was outlined by Gov. Bush in speeches and statements he made from late 1999 through 2000. On Sept. 23, 1999, three months after he officially announced his presidential aspirations, Mr. Bush gave a major address on foreign and defense policy at the Citadel. He talked about his belief that freedom establishes the condition for peace, and about the need to combat new threats posed by the intersection of weapons of mass destruction and "car bombers and plutonium merchants and cyber terrorists and drug cartels and unbalanced dictators." He declared that as president he would give his secretary of defense "a broad mandate" to transform the military, and he would break out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty if he found it necessary in order to protect the U.S. and its allies. He also firmly committed himself to homeland security: "I will put a high priority on detecting and responding to terrorism on our soil. The federal government must take this threat seriously." These themes were emphasized in other speeches and statements in 1999 and 2000. In an address at the Reagan Library on Nov. 19, 1999, Gov. Bush espoused the concept of "democratic peace," the idea that mutual democracy blocks mutual belligerency....

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