George Bush's State of the Union address was a significant political event for the same reason that Jeff Hostetler's passing in the Super Bowl will long be remembered. In both cases, guys with career records of being barely adequate came up with superb performances when the pressure was really on them.
Football scholars will have to determine who inspired Hostetler's play, but in Bush's case, the model is clear. It was Ronald Reagan whose rhetoric was recalled in the presidential address. And that is very bad news indeed for Democrats.
President Bush is unlike his predecessor in almost every way -- from his family background to his manner of handling his job. One difference we all have come to take for granted lies in their method of communication. Reagan, the trained actor and professional raconteur, relied on formal television speeches to maintain his hold on the public. His news conferences were rare and awful.
Bush is just the opposite. His news conferences are frequent and effective. His televised speeches have been few and forgettable.
That he and his strategists were able to pull off a Reagan-size triumph with the State of the Union was therefore an important political breakthrough. And it was no accident. As they groom him for reelection, the Bush team is looking very closely at the things that made Reagan a 49-state winner in 1984.
Peace and prosperity were the key to that landslide, as they must be for Bush. But positioning was also important. And the point to be noted about this State of the Union is the Reaganesque way Bush went about positioning himself for 1992.
Some of the borrowings were obvious. "Star Wars," or SDI, Reagan's favorite high-tech weapons system, was not mentioned in Bush's 1990 State of the Union. This year, with the Patriots' success against the Scuds, SDI drew presidential praise.
The surprise in Bush's domestic package, the proposal to turn back at least $15 billion of federal programs to the states, is a descendant of the "new federalism" plan that was the centerpiece of Reagan's 1982 State of the Union. Reagan talked then of "a single bold stroke, the return of some $47 billion in federal programs to state and local government, together with the means to finance them."
Other themes were transplanted whole from that 1982 Reagan speech to Bush's 1991 address, including the plea to "bring thousands of Americans into a volunteer effort to help solve many of America's social problems," as Reagan put it back then. Bush's speechwriters even found use for Reagan's favorite gimmick -- the guest in the balcony -- and for the phrase Reagan used to describe the period in which we live. "An era of American renewal," Reagan said in 1982; "an appeal for renewal ... to reach the promise of a renewed America," Bush echoed this week.
But the breakthrough Bush made in the State of the Union lies not in the appropriation of these obvious Reagan touches but at a deeper level. Reagan understood, better than any chief executive since FDR, the symbolic value of linking his presidency to two intensely American traits -- optimism and patriotism. Until this week, Bush had barely attempted to touch such emotional chords.
But as a wartime commander-in-chief, Bush made that twin linkage. His confident assertion that America and its allies will defeat Saddam Hussein and his fervent praise of America's servicemen drew spontaneous cheers from his mostly Democratic audience and sent goose bumps down the spines of television viewers. And in the process, Bush made himself the embodiment of values that unite Americans -- just as Reagan did well in advance of that patriotic reelection campaign of Olympic year 1984.
Fortunately for the Democrats, Bush also used the State of the Union to link himself to another Reaganesque notion about which the American voters are very dubious. Like his predecessor, Bush argued that the American people have a unique and God-given responsibility to lead the struggle for freedom in the world, no matter the cost in lives and treasure. And like Reagan, he said Americans have to accept that world leadership will leave their government with a limited capacity to provide for the well-being of all its own citizens.
More than ever before, Bush indulged in the Reaganesque tendency to describe America's international aims in bold circus type (a New World Order, no less!) while reducing Washington's domestic responsibilities to a few footnotes.
Voters question those priorities, which is one reason they've kept electing Democratic majorities in Congress. And Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine) cleverly turned that argument against Bush by saying in his response to the State of the Union that he wished the inventor of the New World Order "would join us in putting our own house in order."
That's the opening that Bush, like Reagan before him, has left the Democrats to exploit. But Mitchell, for all his shrewdness, could not touch the emotional chords Bush and his invisible mentor, Reagan, reached.
The bad news for the Democrats is that Bush has learned his lessons well, not just in small ways but in the big ways that win elections.