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Estrich: The bear in the woods

Moscow's favorite: That used to be us Democrats. We were the ones who had to worry—and we did, every four years—about being tagged as "soft on Communism" and paying for it at the polls.

The Republicans were the party of the "bear in the woods." If you're not familiar with it, "Bear," its official title, is one of the most famous ads in recent political history. The 1984 ad was in support of Ronald Reagan and against Walter Mondale.

It's all about whether there is, or isn't, a bear in the woods. It went like this: "There is a bear in the woods. For some people, the bear is easy to see. Others don't see it at all. Some people say the bear is tame. Others say it's vicious and dangerous. Since no one can really be sure who's right, isn't it smart to be as strong as the bear? If there is a bear." A man is seen right near the end. Then the bear takes a step back. You have to see it. It was quite brilliant.

It was the way Reagan sold to the American public his tough talk to the Russians—and it worked, I should add, overwhelmingly so.

"Tear down this wall, Mr. Gorbachev," President Reagan demanded. And he did.

The lines from today's Republican outlets: "Let's make a deal; open up a back channel; applaud 'patriotically minded' citizens who have reached out to the Russians." No "man vs. bear" story here.

What is going on with the Russians' love affair with Donald Trump? Why were they so eager to have him over Hillary Clinton? And why is the Republican Party just letting it go, or worse?

There are so many ironies to unpack here. Female candidates have traditionally faced charges that they are not "tough" enough to confront the challenges of a dangerous world. At the state-elections level, that would be conveyed by ads on crime; if a woman was running for Congress, that message would be conveyed through ads about foreign policy and national defense.

Now we have a president who is beloved by the Russians, who beat the first woman to come close to the presidency—a woman who, very clearly, the Russians did not love. The candidate the Russians liked least: that used to be a pretty good indicator of a candidate who would win, not lose. Why not this time?

Political types will tell you that for President Trump right now, it's all about the base—the 40 percent or so of this country that put him in office and feels good about it. He skipped the part where you reach out and try to unify the country. From Day 1, he's been shooting at his electoral opponents and the press from the bunker. At this point, it's the only strategy.

That's the reason, I suppose, he keeps coming back to the Steve Bannon's hard-right, America-first agenda. But how do we square that agenda with the Russians' "patriotic" support for Trump?

And really, the question is not how we square it, but how Trump's traditional, older, whiter, more conservative base does. Those are people who voted for Reagan, or wish they'd had the chance to.

Can you imagine Mikhail Gorbachev being accused of running a secret campaign for Ronald Reagan? Can you imagine if it was President Hillary Clinton who was the toast of the Kremlin? The Republicans would be screaming bloody murder. The Republican base would be screaming treason.

So why are those same people so comfortable with the Russians' clear decision that Trump's election would be the choice of "patriotic" Russians?

They are not American patriots.

Throughout my lifetime, at least, we have operated on the assumption that what helps the Russians is generally not the same as what helps us. Russia and the United States are different. Ideologies matter. We co-exist rather than cozy up. That is why a unified Europe matters. Does this president not get that? His recent trip suggests that he may not, and that Vladimir Putin had every reason to support Donald Trump.