They were very dissimilar. Ronald Reagan was an imperfect statesman. George W. Bush was a political freak.
The Iran-Contra affair, which involved the trading of weapons to Iran in exchange for the release of U.S. hostages in the Middle East, occurred near the middle of Ronald Reagan's second term in office. Eventually, Iran-Contra morphed into support for the Contra rebels in Nicaragua, a violation of the Boland Amendment passed previously in Congress. Did Ronald Reagan know what members of his administration were passing funds to the Contras in violation of law? Whether he did or whether he didn't, despite what he'd learned from Pope John Paul II about the atrocities Central American Christians were suffering at the hands of their reactionary governments, Reagan had made a huge and embarrassing mistake.
The new Ronald Reagan legacy builders want us to forget that indelible stain on his presidency. They hope that we'll believe that Ronald Reagan walked on water. In reflex to this obviously untrue depiction of history, those who opposed Ronald Reagan's policies now tend to describe him as the political equivalent of the devil.
What makes it easier for Reagan's opponents to depict him as luciferian is the fact that George W. Bush, who claims to be the second coming of Ronald Reagan, is almost nothing like the man of whom he claims to be the protege'.
Tax Cuts. Ronald Reagan learned that tax cuts without a matching decrease in spending does not work. George W. Bush either didn't learn or didn't care about such things. Bush was the first president in American history not to increase taxes during wartime.
Vision. Since his early days, Ronald Reagan looked outward and wanted to make a difference in people's lives. He committed that his life would be great in the service of his fellow human beings. George W. Bush was a hotshot who only stopped drinking when he decided that he wanted to be famous.
Treatment of the Military. Reagan would have never second guessed his military generals. Bush did it all the time. Reagan would never have sent national guard and reserve troops on multiple tours of duty. Bush took reservists from their families for long periods of time on a regular basis.
The Evil Empire. In referring offhandedly to the Soviet Union as an Evil Empire, Ronald Reagan was signaling to the captive peoples behind the Iron Curtain that someone on the outside wished for their freedom. Bush used the term "Axis of Evil" only because it sounded Reaganesque. Only after the U.S. military got bogged down in Iraq looking for non-existent weapons of mass destruction did Bush change his tune to claim unconvincingly that the real purpose for the invasion had always been to bring democracy to the Middle East.
Reagan's tough outward talk toward the Soviets was carefully and passionately mixed with behind-the-scenes diplomacy. The greatest legacy of both Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev is that they worked together to reduce not only the number of nuclear weapons pointed at each other, but also the threat that their weapons posed to each other. Their joint efforts brought liberty to the peoples behind the Iron Curtain. Bush, with his mind already hopelessly made up, quickly obliterated the Reagan diplomatic legacy. Having caricatured his Axis of Evil enemies as less than human, he categorically refused to engage in peace talks with them, preferring to pound the the drums and rattle the sabres of war until enough propagandized Americans practically begged for his dispensation of shock and awe upon the heads of the little brown people.
The Iraq Invasion. Ronald Reagan stated publicly that killing civilians in reaction to terrorism is "terrorism itself". Even though he was incessantly bombarded by administration members to attack Panama and remove Manuel Noriega from power, he refused. It wasn't until George H. W. Bush took office that American troops found themselves in Panama. Nearly all historians and other foreign policy experts agree that Ronald Reagan would not have invaded Iraq in the aftermath of 9/11.
Bruce Bartlett of the New York Times recently contrasted Reagan the statesman with Bush the megalomaniac:
I think Bush should have the courage to do what Ronald Reagan did in Lebanon. Reagan sent American troops into that country as part of a multinational peacekeeping force in 1982. But after the situation continued to deteriorate and, in October of 1983, 241 Marines were killed when a truck loaded with explosives blew up outside their barracks, Reagan pulled out.
At the peak of the Cold War, this was a very hard thing for Reagan to do. He knew it would show weakness and undermine his position in dealing with the Soviet Union. But he realized, as Bush does not, that you cannot undo a mistake by continuing to make it.
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George W. Bush is a Republican. So was Ronald Reagan. Like Reagan, Bush served two terms as President of the United States. Beyond that, the two are not very similar. It's beyond unfortunate that one hijacked the legacy of the other, and in doing so, fostered an uncivil debate as to who Ronald Reagan really was. How anyone can seriously conflate the two, I'll never understand.