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Reagan's legacy lesson

August 29, 2007|RONALD BROWNSTEIN

Like george w. bush, Ronald Reagan began the final two years of his presidency at low ebb. In the November 1986 election, Democrats recaptured a Senate majority, providing them complete control of Congress for the first time in Reagan's presidency. Almost immediately, the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal erupted. Just two years after his landslide reelection in 1984, Reagan appeared crippled.

Instead, he staged a stunning political recovery that helped win the 1988 election for his preferred successor -- Vice President George H.W. Bush. There's a lesson in there for George W., though he seems determined to ignore the example.

Reagan's road to recovery wasn't smooth or easy. He struggled to regain his footing through early 1987. "Reagan's Ability to Lead Nation at a Low," a New York Times headline said that June. Nor did Reagan enjoy especially warm personal relations with the prickly and florid Democratic congressional leaders at the time, House Speaker Jim Wright and Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd. "Partisanship is the order of the day," Reagan fumed in one 1987 entry of "The Reagan Diaries." But Reagan overcame these obstacles to fashion a productive final 24 months.

Two overarching principles helped Reagan steer that course, recalled Ken Duberstein, his last White House chief of staff. One was a focused determination to improve the GOP's chances in 1988 by restoring his own political support. Reagan cited being replaced as California governor in 1974 with Democrat Jerry Brown as a precedent to avoid. "He was fond of saying," Duberstein recalled, "that 'if I rebuild my clout, I will make sure that what happened in California doesn't happen in America.' "

Second, Duberstein continued, Reagan recognized that a key to political recovery was legislative successes, and that meant compromising with the new Democratic majorities. "He recognized that we weren't able to get 80% of what we wanted, like he was able to get in the first term [when Republicans controlled the Senate]," Duberstein said. "But the American people always thought that 60% was pretty darn good."

That didn't mean the two sides banished conflict. The Senate, in a bitter confrontation, rejected Reagan's nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. Democrats and Reagan narrowed but never eliminated their differences about aiding the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. Over his final two years, Reagan vetoed 19 bills.

But in some cases, even after a veto, Reagan reached agreement with congressional Democrats on revised legislation. That happened, for instance, in 1988, after Reagan vetoed a major trade bill because he opposed a provision requiring businesses to notify workers before closing a plant; Democrats removed the provision, Reagan signed the bill and then allowed legislation imposing the plant-closing requirement to become law without his signature. Conversely, Democrats accepted Reagan-backed welfare reform that took a step toward requiring work from recipients.

With both sides making such practical concessions, Reagan and Congress agreed on a torrent of legislation in his final year. A fair-housing law, the reauthorization of federal education programs, free trade with Canada, an anti-drug bill, the trade and welfare bills -- all these and more passed through Congress and cleared Reagan's desk in 1988. At the same time, Reagan held breakthrough summits with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev. The agreement they reached to withdraw intermediate-range nuclear missiles from Europe was ratified with 93 Senate votes.

The cumulative effect was to rebuild and broaden Reagan's support. His approval rating, which had sagged to 43% in early 1987, routinely exceeded the critical 50% mark in 1988, before rising into the mid-50s during the fall campaign. The rehabilitation succeeded to the point where Reagan could blunt Democratic calls for "change" in 1988 by defiantly declaring at the GOP convention, "We are the change."

Today, President Bush is heading in the opposite direction from Reagan. Bush has shown little inclination to reach common ground with Democrats on Iraq or almost anything else. Senate Democrats count 46 bills Bush has threatened to veto, including energy legislation that drew support from 20 Senate Republicans and an expansion of healthcare for children that 18 backed.

Karl Rove, in his fiery flurry of exit interviews, touted a veto strategy, especially on spending bills, to sharpen differences between the parties for the next election. That's Bush's default answer to every political question, but Reagan showed that a weakened president can better serve his party, not to mention the country, by accumulating accomplishments rather than stockpiling vetoes. Today's Democratic leadership is tough, partisan and sometimes belligerent, but certainly no more than the leaders Reagan faced. If Bush wants to spend his final months governing instead of campaigning -- building up rather than tearing down -- the Gipper offers a blueprint for how to do it.

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