WASHINGTON – Both loved big tax cuts and brought America bigger deficits. Both set broad agendas and let underlings work out the details. Ronald Reagan (search) railed against the Evil Empire, George Bush the Axis of Evil (search). The parallels between these two presidents are many. Whether the similarities are seen as good or ill depends on the beholder.
Bush himself drew a connection to Reagan when he was asked about European animosity toward himself during his weekend visit to France and Italy to mark the 60th anniversary of D-Day (search).
"They felt the same way about him," Bush said of Reagan. "That doesn't mean a fellow like me should change my beliefs."
While Bush's tributes to Reagan have been generous since his death Saturday, the president rarely invokes Reagan's name or legacy day to day. Still, the former president's influence is ever evident in this president — in some ways even more apparent than the impact of Bush's own father.
Ideologically, Bush's conservatism is more closely tied to the direction of the Republican Party charted by Reagan than with the more moderate brand of politics practiced by the first President Bush
Even so, says historian Robert Dallek: "Reagan was more pragmatic about his conservatism than this Bush is. Reagan never really pushed the social agenda the way George W. has pushed it."
One of Bush's favorite stump lines is his saying that "the strength of America lies in the hearts and souls of our citizens."
In his 1999 autobiography, Bush credits the idea to Reagan.
"President Reagan realized the greatness of America was found not in government in Washington but in the hearts and souls of individual Americans," he wrote. "I admired President Reagan's optimism. He had a sunny spirit and a contagious faith in the goodness of our country."
As the son of Reagan's vice president, Bush had a unique vantage point, but his dealings with Reagan go much further back. When the younger Bush made his first bid for office in 1978, Reagan endorsed Bush's opponent in the Republican runoff for a seat in Congress. Bush suspected it was because Reagan feared his election would give his father another foothold in Texas to challenge Reagan for the presidency in 1980.
Bush won the nomination nonetheless, but lost the election.
Sixteen years later, when Bush made his next try at elective office, he realized the support of so-called Reagan Democrats in conservative East and Central Texas was crucial for his election as Texas governor.
Now that Bush is president, any number of parallels can be drawn between the two presidents.
Presidential scholar Fred Greenstein of Princeton said each began his presidency pressing a huge tax cut, "and out of that came huge deficits and a lot of economic debate about whether the economy was helped by allowing all the extra money to be there or hurt by the huge deficits."
Both men were known to delegate the details of policymaking to aides, although Greenstein said Bush appears to be "more down in the grass than Reagan was" on the big issues. Pointing to Bush's impromptu press conference last week where he spoke about plans for Iraq, Greenstein said, "Reagan would have been smoother, but less substantial."
Whatever their rhetoric, Reagan and Bush both had the ability to frame issues in black and white — Reagan, for example, with his indictment of the Evil Empire, Bush pointing his finger at the Axis of Evil.
Bush in 2002 praised Reagan's "moral clarity, a willingness to call oppression and evil by their proper names."
Reagan, nonetheless, was "more prudent in the use of military force," said Lee Edwards of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. Reagan's idea, said Edwards, was to rely on local "freedom fighters" in places such as Afghanistan, Angola and Nicaragua, rather than commit large numbers of U.S. troops - so many then devoted to the Cold War - to an actual war.
Bush and Reagan are worlds apart on communication skills. Reagan, with his Hollywood-smooth delivery, was nicknamed the Great Communicator. Bush jokes about the limitations of his speaking abilities.
Both men, though, have been underestimated by critics who initially dismissed them as western governors with no foreign policy experience and questioned their intellectual heft once in the Oval Office.
Reagan, despite his critics, was able to generate significant support from outside his party among those who came to be known as Reagan Democrats. Pollster Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, said Reagan's appeal to Democrats stands in sharp contrast to Bush, who "has no Democrats who are going to rally to his side. ... Reagan wasn't nearly the polarizing figure that Bush is, nor was his father."
Reagan's broad appeal showed in the numbers. In January 1989, when he left office, 59 percent of the public rated him an above-average or outstanding president, compared with 36 percent and 44 percent ratings for the first President Bush and Clinton, respectively, when each left office, Kohut said.
Bush, for all his kind words about Reagan in recent days, declined a reporter's invitation to style himself "a Ronald Reagan Republican."
Instead, in an interview with NBC News, Bush suggested the label "a George W. Republican - different era."