Reagan and Bush: The politics of optimism

Posted: Feb 25, 2004 12:00 AM

It's morning in America -- again. The 2004 presidential election is beginning to look more and more like a 1984 repeat.

During the first three years of President Reagan's administration, millions of jobs were lost, the deficit ballooned, and critics questioned the president's hard-line foreign policy. During the fourth year, unemployment dropped drastically, and the market began to climb. But deficits remained high, and foreign policy remained a political question mark. As of Feb. 9, 1984, 38 percent of Americans approved of Reagan's foreign policy, while 49 percent disapproved.

Yet Reagan completely dominated Walter Mondale in November 1984. That election, like this one, was driven by message. While Reagan offered a message of hope, Mondale and the Democrats offered a message of dissatisfaction and anger in a time when things were truly getting better, not worse. The Mondale/Ferraro slogan: "America needs a change."

Today's Democrats are playing the same game. Take Howard Dean's slogan (truly the mantra of the Democratic Party in general): "Taking Back America." Democrats are hoping that Americans hate Bush so much they'll vote for change, just for the sake of change. John Kerry's message is relentlessly depressing. Instead of stumping for a better America, a stronger America, a better and brighter America, Kerry has chosen to focus on attacking the president in the strongest possible terms. It's working now. It won't work forever.

The Democratic Party message worked against Reagan for a while. Even before the Democrats had anointed a candidate, back in February 1984, polls showed a dead heat between Reagan and either Mondale or John Glenn, the two leading Democratic candidates. Pollster Louis Harris told U.S. News and World Report that Reagan had "polarized the nation more than anyone since Franklin Roosevelt ... This looks to me to be very close -- a 50-50 election." Four months before the election, Mondale led Reagan by 2 percentage points. Since Mondale only won the nomination in July, that August poll showed Mondale at his high point, with Reagan at his low. By Election Day, the 2-point deficit had become an 18-point blowout.

As it did in 1984, the negativity of the Democratic election machine will begin to grate on the American public this year. After all, the economic outlook is strong. Unemployment is down to 5.6 percent, the lowest level in two years, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average is over 10,000 again. This despite the severe shock of Sept. 11, coupled with the spate of corporate scandals. And George W. Bush's foreign policy is far more popular than Reagan's was during his re-election campaign.

But the Bush administration cannot afford to look downbeat, as it has recently. President Bush's appearance on "Meet the Press" was hardly inspiring, and his economic advisers made the error of overestimating job growth. Still, it looks as though the Bush administration is beginning to see the light. "We have seen remarkably pessimistic rhetoric from the president's opponents," Scott Stanzel, a spokesman for the Bush campaign, told USA Today. "We believe that will provide a clear contrast between President Bush's positive, forward-looking record and the anger and negativity from the president's opponents."

The forward-looking message began Monday night, with Bush's address to the National Governors Association. "Regardless of your party, I hope you have this sense of optimism I do," Bush stated. "I was elected ... to make this country hopeful."

This message needs to be honed and emphasized. The new slogan adopted by the Bush administration -- "Steady Leadership in Times of Change" -- needs to go. The slogan aches of uncertainty and fear. It sounds like an investment ad. The Bush administration needs something bold, optimistic and colorful: "A new American sunrise." Or "America rising." Or "America on the ascent."

It's not guaranteed to work. There are some significant differences between the 2004 election and the 1984 cycle. Reagan's administration looked wonderful in comparison with that of Jimmy Carter; for Bush, comparison with the most recent Democratic president means a Bush/Clinton matchup. On national security, John Kerry has been able to make headway, largely because of intelligence failures and Bush administration public relations weaknesses. Kerry's military experience is sure to remain a major issue as well.

Nevertheless, this campaign should be one of broad visions for America. If Bush sets himself up as the optimist and Kerry keeps his long-face politics, this could be 1984 all over again.