The Magazine

The Good Fight

Jan 22, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 18 • By ROBERT KAGAN and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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President-elect George W. Bush's aides often compare their boss to Ronald Reagan. Some of the time, this is just a defense against the widespread perception that Bush knows little about foreign policy. Reagan, they suggest, didn't know the details either, and look how well he did. More recently, they have been suggesting that Bush will have a management style similar to Reagan's. He will delegate a lot of authority to competent cabinet officers and advisers and concentrate on the big tasks of the presidency, setting forth the broad outlines of his policy vision and selling it to the people.

But, truth be told, the qualities Bush's people talk about are not really the ones that made Reagan a great president. They are more like the qualities that made Dwight Eisenhower a competent president, the genial CEO of America, Inc. What made Reagan the most important and successful American leader of the last fifty years was something very different. It was a quality he shared with Harry Truman: a willingness to fight.

Many people look back on Reagan's first term as if all his legislative achievements, on the economy and on defense and foreign policy, were foreordained and all he had to do was smile his engaging smile. But Reagan didn't win a huge increase in defense spending, support for the Strategic Defense Initiative, military aid to El Salvador and the Nicaraguan freedom fighters, and the deployment of intermediate range missiles in Europe by smiling. He fought hard and tenaciously for everything. He spent large amounts of political capital and watched his poll ratings dip. He fought on controversial issues, and sometimes on unpopular ones. He fought when the editorial pages of the New York Times and Washington Post and the three network anchors were against him. He fought when some of the European allies opposed him. He fought when Tip O'Neill and Jim Wright and the Democrats in the Democrat-controlled House and narrowly Republican Senate were on the warpath. He continued fighting when his critics called him a warmonger and an ignoramus, and even when they called him a criminal. At the end of the day, it was Reagan's steel spine, not his folksy humor, that made him great.

Of course, that was the 1980s. A good part of what made Reagan a fighter was his conviction that the country was headed in a dangerously wrong direction, both at home and in the world, and that fundamental change was needed to pull us back from the brink. This was different from Eisenhower's perception that 1950s America was in pretty good shape and needed a steady hand and sound executive management. Maybe America had the right president for each era. Maybe sometimes you need an Eisenhower just to keep the ship on course more than you need a Reagan to turn it around.

What do we need now? Or, perhaps more to the point, what does President-elect Bush think we need now? The answer will determine his actions and agenda in the first six months of this year, and could well shape the contours of his first term.

It seems fair to say that Bush campaigned more as an Eisenhower than as a Reagan. Believing Americans did not want radical changes, either at home or abroad, he proposed none. Reagan in 1980 scared people, to the point where he had to spend the last few weeks of his campaign assuring everyone he did not intend to blow the whole world to pieces. Bush's campaign from the beginning was designed not to scare anyone, anywhere, on any issue.

But now Bush is about to become president, and judging by some of his personnel decisions -- notably the selection of Donald Rumsfeld to run the Pentagon, Tommy Thompson at Health and Human Services, and John Ashcroft to serve as attorney general -- and some of his early policy pronouncements -- above all his determination to press ahead with a major tax cut -- he shows signs of understanding that his presidency cannot mostly be about continuing to let the good times roll. Maybe the Bush who campaigned as an Eisenhower will govern more like a Reagan. Maybe Bush understands that the country is going to need a fighter in the White House, a leader with Reagan's willingness to challenge a sloppy and irresponsible conventional wisdom and turn things around. Maybe Bush knows that a good management style and the presence of "adults" in the cabinet will not substitute for steely determination in the Oval Office.