A generation after Ronald Reagan, the face of the Republican Party has turned from a smile into a grimace.
Reagan was a sharply polarizing politician during his presidency, a fact sometimes obscured in the commemorations that marked his death three years ago. But even old adversaries saluted Reagan's signature political trait: optimism.
It was conveyed in genial quips, patriotic homilies and a sunnyside-up world view that skeptics said often took flight from reality. But by the end of his first term, polls showed that the mood of the country had turned dramatically more upbeat, and the once dour public image of Republicans was given a makeover.
But optimism is in distinctly short supply on the eve of the season's first GOP presidential debate, which will take place Thursday at the Reagan Presidential Library, just steps from the 40th president's grave.
A gloomy war in Iraq — a conflict indelibly linked to a Republican incumbent and his congressional supporters — has made the triumphal rhetoric and good cheer of the Reagan era inappropriate, political analysts and Reagan scholars say.
And the hard numbers of politics — President Bush's low approval ratings, combined with a GOP drubbing in the recent midterm elections — have cast a mood of pessimism about the party's candidates and electoral prospects in 2008. The doubts among many strategists and operatives, frequently acknowledged in private conversations, have even been voiced publicly by partisans such as Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich. In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll late last month, 66 percent of respondents said the country is "off on the wrong track."
Could any Republican politician manage to project optimism in a climate like this?
"Yes, it is possible today," said Michael Deaver, a public relations operative who was one of Reagan's closest aides. "The key is helping Americans believe in themselves again. Sixty-five percent of Americans do not believe that things are going to get better for this country. Clearly, so far, there isn't anybody at the national level talking about trying to change that."
"All of these guys are wavering under the very heavy weight of George W. Bush," said Lou Cannon, a veteran journalist and Reagan biographer. "It isn't just Bush's positions — Bush has created a difficult situation for the country and for the Republican Party. Now, all the candidates will be affected by this, no matter what they say. But, hey, maybe they won't be affected by it later."
Other Reagan scholars said the GOP field — 10 candidates at Thursday's debate, with possibly more to come as others explore options — will be affected by this Republican malaise as long as the Iraq war remains the dominant national issue.
"We are in a situation where optimism no longer flies," said John Patrick Diggins, author of the recent book "Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom and the Making of History." "I don't think someone can get up and say to an audience that we need to be optimistic about this war, it's progressing and it's going to come to victory."
John McCain, most notably, has sought to use that brand of rhetoric. But he has put the emphasis mostly on the need for perseverance and what he calls the potentially disastrous consequences of leaving Iraq prematurely.
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani conveyed strength to his stricken city in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but his presidential campaign has yet to take on definition. The same might be said for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and others who will be on the stage Thursday, at an event co-sponsored by The Politico and MSNBC.
Dan Schnur, a former McCain adviser who is neutral in the 2008 contest, described the conundrum facing this year's field: "It's difficult for even the best communicators to strike that necessary balance between optimism and realism. If you are too optimistic, people think you are out of touch with reality. If you are too realistic, no one wants to follow you."
But the best politicians in both parties have managed to strike that balance. Almost without exception in modern presidential politics, the more optimistic and future-oriented candidate has prevailed.
In 1980, Reagan emphasized how poorly the country was doing under incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter, but he did so always in the context of how things were about to get better. An example was an exchange that fall over the proper economic description of the latest unemployment figures. "A recession is when your neighbor is out of work, a depression is when you are out of work and recovery is when Jimmy Carter is out of work," Reagan chortled. By 1984, an improving economy led to Reagan's gauzy "Morning in America" reelection campaign, amid polls showing that many more voters then thought the country was on the right track than in 1980.
Bill Clinton's political trajectory followed a similar pattern. In 1992, he excoriated the state of the country under President George H. W. Bush, all to the tune of his Fleetwood Mac campaign anthem, "Don't Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)." In 1996, Clinton cast GOP nominee Bob Dole as a sour, backward-looking figure while boasting that his administration was "building a bridge to the 21st century."
But the challenge of conveying optimism may be getting harder in each new cycle of presidential politics. The forces that tend to demystify and deconstruct politicians are stronger than they were a quarter-century ago.
"I don't know if it's possible today," said Schnur, an instructor at the University of Southern California and the University of California, Berkeley. "The growth in the news media in size and of the news hole the media has to fill makes it much, much tougher for any public figure to stay above the fray. ... I wonder if any candidate or elected official can portray this sense of optimism in the face of so much criticism, so much analysis."
By Daniel W. Reilly and John Harris
TM & © 2007 The Politico & Politico.com, a division of Allbritton Communications Company