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Back To The Good Old Days?

As the Republicans assemble in Philadelphia to nominate George W. Bush, all signs indicate that they are more unified and more confident of victory than at any time since 1984, the year of the second Reagan coronation.

Ah, those were the days: a GOP golden age of huge tax cuts and soaring deficits that, in effect, stifled all liberal efforts to spend more federal money on domestic social programs. The Republican faithful even had a phrase to describe this happy time. They called it "Morning in America."

But it was too good to last. Just two years later, the Reagan White House was embroiled in the Iran-Contra scandal and Democrats recaptured control of the Senate they had lost in the first Reagan landslide.

All of a sudden, as Republicans braced themselves for the end of Ronald Reagan's reign in Washington, it began to feel more like Monday Morning in America.

Many of them regarded Vice President George Bush - father of this year's GOP standard-bearer - as a wishy-washy choice to succeed their hero - at best, a sort of Reagan Lite. And there was no doubt that the Veep had an image problem, which, in a notorious cover story, Newsweek described as "the wimp factor."

So, when the Republican delegates gathered in New Orleans in August 1988, they were edgy and grumbling, and they had ample grounds for pessimism. For months, the elder Bush had trailed Gov. Michael Dukakis in the polls and in the latest one the Democratic nominee had a whopping 17-point lead.

Nor were they impressed with Bush's choice of a running mate. Dan Quayle was perceived as the GOP's weakest vice presidential candidate since William Miller, the inept New York congressman who ran with Barry Goldwater to a landslide defeat in 1964.

But Bush revived their spirits with a rousing acceptance speech, in which, among other things, he promised to transform us into "a kinder, gentler nation." (In response to that pledge, Nancy Reagan turned to her companions in the VIP section and icily inquired, "Kinder than whom?")

That speech launched a comeback that would put Bush in the White House, although the chief cause of that outcome may not have been his political prowess so much as the ineptitude of the Dukakis campaign. The first Greek-American to run for president, Dukakis was so lacking in passion and pizzazz that critics called him, "Zorba the Clerk."

In any event, when he ran for re-election four years later, Bush found himself in trouble again. A sluggish economy had many voters worried about their future, and hence, they were more receptive than usual to a call for change in political leadership.

And this time, instead of Dukakis, his opponent was the savvy and vigorous Bill Clinton, the most dynamic and effective campaigner to be nominated by the Democrats since the 1960's when John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson led their party to impressive victories.
Nor was Clinton the only challenger Bush had to wory about. The protest campaign waged by Ross Perot cut so deeply into the mainstream that the Texas maverick wound up with 19 percent of the vote - the strongest showing by a third-party candidate in 80 years.

Even more dispiriting, the president had trouble maintaining control of his own party. The speech that caused all the commotion at the 1992 Republican convention in Houston was delivered by the conservative firebrand, Pat Buchanan, who had run against Bush in the primaries that year.

His speech was a blistering diatribe against feminism, gay rights, and other minority causes that Buchanan denounced as the enemy in what he called "a cultural and religious war … for the soul of America."

It was the kind of raw-meat performance that once prompted the late columnist Murray Kempton to describe Republican conventions as "that quadrennial assault on decency and reason."

For their part, Democrats pounced on the speech as convincing proof of their accusations that the Republicans were inflexible foes of tolerance and diversity, and the Bush campaign was never able to regain the offensive. Clinton went on to win a decisive victory, especially in the electoral vote.

The Republicans had even less reason to cheer in 1996. By then, President Clinton had a booming economy working in his favor and, with his formidable political skills, he seized every opportunity to exploit that edge.

At the GOP convention that summer in San Diego, where Senator Bob Dole was nominated, the prevailing mood was one of irritable resignation. Oh, the party's leaders did their best to talk the talk, but even then they seemed to sense that when crunch time came in the fall campaign, it would be Clinton and his cohorts who would walk the walk.

And that of course is what happened. Clinton cruised to victory, and this time by an even larger margin than his triumph four years earlier.

Which brings us now to the current election year and the wave of euphoria that has swept through the Republican rank and file. In a determined effort to recapture the glory days of the Reagan era, they have once again placed their faith in a popular, two-term governor from a large Western state.

The GOP stalwarts are convinced that in George W. Bush, they have another tall-in-the-saddle hero who will dominate the political landscape. And for the most part, the younger Bush has given them ample reason to believe that he is indeed their shining knight, their man on horseback.

Yes, there were a few anxious moments during the primaries when Bush, thrown off balance by John McCain's unexpectedly strong challenge, seemed to lose his grip and resort to the strident behavior that has doomed other Republicans who have appealed only to a narrow base of supporters.

But that snarling, pit-bull phase did not last long enough to inflict any serious damage on his genial image or his reputation as a self-proclaimed "compassionate conservative." And i the months since he subdued McCain and locked up the nomination, the governor's moves have been almost letter-perfect.

By adhering to his party's perennial, hard-line positions on the gut issues that form the core of the Republican dogma - such as taxes, abortion and gun control - Bush has been able to strengthen his base and keep the true believers in line.

And the party faithful were also heartened by the governor's choice of running mate, for Dick Cheney has long been recognized as a pillar of the Old Guard, a rock-solid Reagan conservative.

Yet at the same time, on a number of other issues - such as education, health care, immigration and the rights of minorities - Bush has taken less orthodox stands in a conscious and sustained effort to reach across party lines and draw support from independent and Democratic voters.

These moderate overtures represent the "compassionate" half of the new-age philosophy that the governor trumpets as his political raison d'être.

And if all goes according to plan, this is the conciliatory tone that will prevail throughout the convention. Bush has passed the word that he wants the proceedings to steer clear of the harsh ideological rhetoric that has undermined previous GOP conclaves. There have even been hints that the inevitable attacks on the opposition party will be mild and restrained.

But that may be a little too much to ask for. This is, after all, a political convention - and we really shouldn't be surprised if the Republicans renege on their promise to mind their manners and project an image only of sweetness and light.

For it is altogether likely that as the week goes on, the delegates will get caught up in the heat of battle and revert to their tradition of viewing, with alarm and revulsion, the Democrats and all their works.

And while their high expectations for November may be justified, the Republicans would be well advised to give at least some thought to the last time they held their convention in Philadelphia.

The year was 1948, and on that occasion as well, they were supremely confident of gliding to victory behind the leadership of a popular, twice-elected governor of one of the nation's largest states.

His name was Thomas Dewey, and we all know what happened to him on his way to the White House.

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