WASHINGTON -- Ronald Reagan had been dead for less than three days when one of President Bush's top advisers last Tuesday forecast to me the political fallout. The chorus of Democratic praise for the conservative Republican president would climax with renewed pressure on Bush to reverse his stand against embryonic stem-cell research. This aide predicted the president would be under intense pressure but would stand firm.
Four days later, Sen. John Kerry broke a supposed weeklong moratorium on overt political campaigning by delivering the weekly Saturday Democratic radio address. He called for government to "lift the barrier" on stem-cell research to fight Alzheimer's disease. Suggesting a cure "must not be too far away," he added: "I'm sure that Nancy Reagan, the wife of an eternal optimist, calls it hope."
It is a perfect storm for Democrats. Ronald Reagan, more popular in death than he ever was in life, is depicted as the victim of a dread disease that might be nearing extinction, save for Republican intransigence. The Democratic presidential candidate is the protector of Mrs. Reagan, also more popular today than she was as first lady. The Republican president is put in the posture of tormenting the widow, though a reversal of position would threaten the loss of his social conservative base. The Associated Press described Kerry's Saturday speech as endorsing Mrs. Reagan's position favoring stem-cell research.
This situation is predicated on Democrats kidnapping Reagan during the week of mourning. Fearful that Bush would seize the Reagan mantle, Democrats declared themselves born-again Reaganites. Kerry changed plans and viewed the former president's remains in California. Kerry was a junior liberal senator when Reagan took office 24 years ago, but he told reporters aboard his plane enroute to Simi Valley: "I met with Reagan a lot more than I've met with this president." The implication: I knew Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush is no Ronald Reagan.
Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, who has contributed much to making the Senate a partisan cockpit, took the floor last week to declare: "The decline of civility in politics and public discourse is not good for America. . . . President Reagan spoke to all that was good and decent in America. We should honor him by restoring decency to our politics."
Such comments depict an idyllic Reagan Revolution. During 16 years since Reagan left office, a new generation of bureaucrats, legislators and journalists has come to Washington. They have no recollection of the fierce struggle between the Democratic-controlled House and the Republican presidency. Kate O'Beirne, now Washington editor of National Review, remembers as a young Reagan administration official being tortured by such Democratic House chairmen as John Dingell and the late Ted Weiss.
Democratic eulogies of Reagan (especially by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi) portrayed a loving relationship between Reagan and the late House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill. In reality, O'Neill was a fierce partisan who amused fellow Democrats by expressing his low opinion of the Republican president's intellect and principles. Reagan's success in the House was thanks to renegade Democratic members, led by Texans Phil Gramm and Kent Hance (both of whom later became Republicans).
In kidnapping Reagan last week, Democrats obscured how tough and how conservative he was. No Democrat (and very few Republicans) noted the decisive thrust of his first year in office when he broke the illegal air controllers strike and barred a return to work by the strikers. Behind the smiling face was a hard antagonist.
Democratic restructuring of Reagan also ignored that he, not George W. Bush, originally restricted stem-cell research. As president, Reagan prohibited working on tissues that were products of abortions. Mrs. Reagan's call last week to end the ban on using embryos reflected broader disagreements with her husband on the issue of abortion.
But his widow's position now is before the country, and momentum is building on her side. A majority of the Senate, including 14 Republicans, has asked Bush to drop his opposition. But in the midst of last week's Reagan veneration, Laura Bush declared that her husband had not changed his position on stem-cell research. Despite the Democrats' clever use of the Reagan legacy, President Bush has no other choice.