The Man Who Would Be Reagan

Forget the squeaker election: Bush plans to govern as if he won like the Gipper

When he steps to the podium to take the oath of office as the 43rd President of the United States, George W. Bush will return to the inclusive themes that propelled him to the White House as a new kind of compassionate conservative. But soon after the revelry subsides, he plans to shift to a political strategy that will be as tough as his Inaugural message was soothing.

Confronted by congressional Democrats who question his legitimacy, Bush has concluded that the best approach to the Presidency is to act as if he won the 300-vote Electoral College by the landslide he expected. He plans to model much of his governing style on another Western governor who was greatly underestimated by foes--Ronald Reagan.

The differences, however, are stark: Reagan took office at 70 as the longtime leader of a conservative movement inherited from Barry Goldwater. Bush, almost 20 years younger, is a political work-in-progress who represents a new-wave Republicanism that seeks to broaden the party's base. But Bush shares Reagan's optimism, stubbornness on core issues, and belief that the President's job is to provide thematic leadership on the command deck while subordinates man the battle stations.

"Bush grew up watching Reagan get all the glory and his father stuck with mopping up the mess," says Samuel L. Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego. "He decided he'd rather be Reagan."

It was no accident that Bush's transition seemed like a flashback to the Reagan era. Bush hung his Stetson at his new Crawford (Tex.) ranch, evoking memories of Reagan photo ops at Rancho del Cielo. And Bush has displayed a Reaganesque fondness for hyper-delegating, styling himself as Chairman of the Board while leaving details to his team. To make this system work, he's relying on savvy insiders, such as Vice-President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State-designate Colin Powell, and given them lots of running room.

"Like Reagan, he'll focus on what's important," says Robert N. Burt, CEO of Chicago-based FMC Corp. and chairman of the Business Roundtable. "Instead of a thousand points of light, there will be four or five laser-beam priorities."

There's another reason Bush feels compelled to adopt some of Reagan's machismo. While Reagan won in a landslide and swept congressional Republicans along with him, Bush lost the popular vote and saw his party give up ground on Capitol Hill. A Jan. 11-15 Washington Post-ABC News poll found that only 41% of Americans think Bush has a mandate, while 51% oppose his centerpiece tax cut. He hopes some early bravado will build public support and create at least the illusion of power. In a Washington where perception is everything, that might be enough.

Thus far, Bush has made few concessions. Heavyweight Democrats for his Cabinet? Sure, he conferred with moderate Democrats, but he never dangled plum jobs. Retreat on tax cuts? No way. Bush is brushing off Hill Republicans' advice to break his $1.6 trillion tax cut into more digestible chunks, insisting that his entire plan be enacted, pronto. "Whether we won by 9 votes or 9 million is irrelevant," snaps Mark McKinnon, the campaign's media guru. "We won. There's nothing in the book that says we have to compromise at this point. Compromise on what?"

He may have a point. Cutting deals too early would transform Dubya into Poppy II, a politician whose limp pragmatism riled right-wingers. While compromises loom down the road, at the outset "Bush needs to begin with a principled posture for the economic program he ran on," says William F. Connelly Jr., a political scientist at Washington & Lee University. "Why preemptively throw in the towel?"

Many business leaders agree. "He's doing exactly what he ought to be doing," says James G. Gidwitz, CEO of Chicago-based Continental Materials Corp. "He's following through on things he campaigned on."

BACKLASH? Others fear overkill. "It's a risky strategy," says pollster John Zogby. "Here's a guy who won 48% of the vote and isn't seen as legitimate by some. This is the very time for him to compromise." Adds James H. Hunt, CEO of EYT Inc., a technology consulting outfit in Chantilly, Va.: "I can only hope it is posturing. The country would be better served by a President willing to consider reasonable compromise."

But at least in the formative days of Bush's Administration, expect the "Full Gipper." While moderates want him to emphasize the "compassionate" part of his message, reaching out to women and minorities, he's intent on continuing a Reagan-style courtship of his conservative base. That means standing by Attorney General-designate John Ashcroft, banning federal funds for international family-planning agencies, and overturning last-minute regulatory decrees issued by Bill Clinton. "The Right is very happy with Bush," says David A. Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union. "He has fired up our base."

A victory in the Ashcroft battle would be an early display of might. As Reagan discovered in his 1981 showdown with striking air-traffic controllers, a splashy victory tends to magnify Presidential authority. "You can create political capital by your actions," says Karl Rove, Bush's top White House political strategist. "You can also lose it by missteps, such as the confusion over goals, which hurt Jimmy Carter."

Rove's plan is to slowly build political chits for his boss through a series of quick wins on such near-consensus issues as school reform, increased defense spending, and a drug benefit for seniors. Once Bush gains ground on these more bipartisan measures, he may have more clout for the tougher battles ahead: preserving the big rate cuts in his tax plan, revamping Medicare, and pushing for private Social Security accounts.

"Details of these plans don't matter as much as the perception that Bush is driving the process," says a top business lobbyist. "Is he going to get his tax cut the way he campaigned on it? Of course not. But by controlling the process, he can still be seen as a leader." Adds ex-Reagan Chief of Staff Kenneth M. Duberstein: "On a handful of items, Bush will advance the ball. Like Reagan, he will benefit from being underestimated."

Whether Bush is ultimately perceived as a leader on a par with Reagan is an open question. Despite Reagan's reputation as a lightweight, he was an avid student of conservative theory, from Edmund Burke to Milton Friedman. Bush, who some allies politely characterize as intellectually uncurious, has crammed for his big job but lacks Reagan's heft and intense devotion from movement conservatives.

Then there's "the big C" problem. Even his top advisers concede that Bush lacks the Gipper's gift for communicating via television. Without it, he must rely on surrogates to make the case for his agenda. Meanwhile, he'll play the inside game, using his one-on-one magnetism to persuade Washington power players to back him. In that sense, he'll be more like John F. Kennedy than Reagan, predicts Rove.

However he manages it--via Reaganesque bravado, JFK-like charm, or Clintonian cunning--Bush must struggle to overcome a weak political hand. That's why his first major policy address to Congress, expected within a few weeks of his swearing-in, will be marked by a sweep and swagger that seems out of proportion to his political muscle. The choice between genuflecting before Washington's power elite and hanging tough was no choice for George W. Bush, the President who would be Reagan. Says ex-Reagan imagemeister Michael K. Deaver: "Bush's macho may be a posture, but it's also his best shot at getting things done. He has to lead."

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.