We live in an age of extreme contrariness and unintended consequences, so it is hardly a surprise to hear Democrats on Capitol Hill praising Ronald Reagan for his leadership and his commitment to restoring America's greatness. While the aspiration to a certain graciousness and respect at a time like this is understandable, one must be willfully forgetful not to understand the undercurrents of ambivalence and reticence that attend the Democratic accolades.
Ronald Reagan, after all, was the person who did the most to dismember and demoralize the Democratic Party in the 1980s, putting in place a conservatism so attractive to many Americans that Democrats still have not found a comfortable way to counterpunch against it.
Mario Cuomo tried in his keynote address at the 1984 Democratic Convention. "In order to succeed, we must answer our opponent's polished and appealing rhetoric with a more telling reasonableness and rationality," he said. "We must win this case on the merits. We must get the American public to look past the glitter, beyond the showmanship -- to reality, to the hard substance of things."
The hard reality of things was Reagan's overwhelming popularity, which reduced Democratic hopes to a bug on the windshield. After Reagan's 1984 landslide reelection, there was open discussion about whether Democrats could ever win the White House again. Despite Cuomo's best efforts to rally Democrats, it was a bad period from which the party has yet to fully recover.
But this is a week to make nice.
"Ronald Reagan served our country with dignity and he died with dignity," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, in a statement issued by her office. "As an American, I appreciate Ronald Reagan's great leadership and service to our country. As a Californian, I admire the special grace and humor that endeared him to millions.”
John Kerry, who once led his own investigation into the Iran-Contra affair, was seen standing beside the Reagan casket, making the sign of the cross, confirming for all that he is indeed a man of faith.
There is a sense in Washington that the former president's death has occasioned a momentary suspension of hostilities between the partisan camps -- but that it is a tenuous and short-lived détente. The guerrilla forces known as 527s have not observed the truce, for example.
But the soft praise Democrats have offered for the former President is partly a political posture, one that presumes the Reagan sendoff will turn into a GOP pep rally that will help President Bush. They are not alone in that presumption: The Bush campaign has turned its campaign website into a Reagan memorial.
But, as has been noted, this is a contrarian age. So instead of President Bush simply grabbing hold of Reagan's coattails, his administration is defending its restrictions on stem cell research, restrictions that Nancy Reagan opposes. Mrs. Reagan's advocacy for stem cell research, and her belief that such research could save people like her husband from the misery and trauma of his last ten years, are so stridently pragmatic that they have the potential to paint the administration as a bunch of overheated ideologues. It is not a message they want to send to independent swing voters.
The ironies proliferate. There is no question that President Bush is, politically and ideologically, more an offspring of Reagan than of the first President Bush. (This may be a political calculation, aimed at repeating Reagan's reelection success and avoiding his father's rejection by the voters.) But President Bush may not always benefit from encouraging comparisons between the 40th and 43rd presidents.
The Great Communicator was never at a loss for words; President Bush has a hard time finding the right ones. Reagan was masterful, in tough times, at reassuring Americans that things were never as bad as they seemed. September 11 presented Bush with that same challenge, though perhaps a more difficult version than faced by any president before him. At first he seemed to have met it with distinction, but his excursion into Iraq has raised serious questions that he has yet to answer; hence his anemic approval ratings. The truth is that a year ago, Democrats thought that if President Bush went to war and won (which was never in doubt), he would be unbeatable this November. But he went to war and won -- sort of -- and now Democrats are more confident than ever.
The run of the Democrats' good news, from the dip in Bush's approval numbers to the recent special election win in South Dakota, has some Democrats singing hallelujahs in anticipation of a big November victory. Some remain worried, though, concerned that their candidate is better when under pressure.
"That's the only time he listens to anyone else," says one former Kerry staffer. There are others who think the party is simply more comfortable when faced with long odds and is at its best under those circumstances.
"We are Democrats. We like being the underdog," says one Democratic Senate aide. "We have to be losing to win."
p>Terence Samuel is the chief congressional correspondent for U.S. News & World Report. His column about politics appears each week in the online edition of The American Prospect.