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Reagan Loyalists Say Bush Has Dropped the Torch

They cite an array of perceived betrayals of the former president's conservative legacy.

October 21, 2005|Edwin Chen | Times Staff Writer

When President Bush attends the ribbon-cutting ceremony this morning for a new exhibit at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, he will bask in the legacy of the most revered icon in contemporary Republican circles.

But many Reagan loyalists are rejecting Bush's claim as Reagan's political heir.

"Maybe he believes it, but I don't think it's objectively true," said Bruce Bartlett, a Reagan administration domestic policy aide and author of a forthcoming book, "Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy."

Bartlett said his own breaking point came when Bush signed a bill adding prescription drug coverage to Medicare, which Bartlett called "a new, beyond-the-pale entitlement program."

Aside from the battle against terrorism, "Bush has not governed as a conservative ... and like his father is showing himself to be indifferent, if not actively hostile, to conservative values," wrote Robert H. Bork, Reagan's unsuccessful 1987 nominee to the Supreme Court, in an opinion piece in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal.

Lyn Nofziger, a longtime Reagan advisor, said he had heard of similar unhappiness with Bush and shared in those sentiments but declined to elaborate.

"I hear a lot of complaints, but I don't want to get into that," he said, adding that many disgruntled Reagan administration staff members are loath to publicly attack a Republican chief executive when he is mired in his lowest job-approval ratings to date.

Some Reagan supporters fault Bush for an array of perceived betrayals of the Reagan legacy.

These include an increase in federal spending, signing a broad campaign financing bill that some believe curtails free speech, and passage of the No Child Left Behind Act that many say interferes with states' rights.

More recently, many are livid over his nomination of Harriet E. Miers to the Supreme Court.

Bush was never shy about his admiration for Reagan, lauding his optimism and "clear vision." As a presidential candidate in 1999, Bush said that, after his father, Reagan was the president he most admired.

"Bush launched his presidency with many believing that he was going to be the second Reagan, and so there was a lot of enthusiasm for him among Reaganites," said Harvard professor David Gergen, who worked for Reagan. "But there is an increasing amount of disillusionment," particularly with Bush's domestic policies.

Kenneth Khachigian, a former Reagan staff member and a veteran California political strategist, noted that Reagan had been attacked by allies for perceived transgressions, such as running up budget deficits.

"When you can identify with someone who was also criticized a great deal, but who's now being belatedly recognized for his strengths as president, then Bush can take some solace in that," Khachigian said.

Any discontent notwithstanding, the assembled Reagan loyalists are unlikely to air grievances while Bush is at the Reagan library -- either out of a sense of decorum or a fear of retribution, said Bartlett, an early proponent of supply-side economics. Bartlett was fired Monday by the conservative National Center for Policy Analysis in Dallas in the latest manifestation of the rift in conservative circles over Bush and his domestic priorities.

"Many [Reagan supporters] are critical -- but behind closed doors," Bartlett said in an interview. "Maybe they don't want to end up like me."

Making his 15th visit to California as president, Bush arrived in Los Angeles on Thursday and attended a $1-million fundraiser for the Republican National Committee at the Bel Air home of Robert Day, chairman of the TCW Group, an asset management firm.

Former First Lady Nancy Reagan is scheduled to attend this morning's ceremonial opening of an Air Force One exhibit at the Reagan library.

The plane going on permanent display is the one that Reagan used throughout his eight years in the White House.

Six other presidents, from Richard Nixon to the current President Bush, have flown in it.

After the ceremony, Bush will have lunch with Mrs. Reagan and an array of former Reagan administration officials before returning to Washington.

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