History Lesson

Presidential Legacies

Why Reagan and Clinton remain partisan heroes.

In the last month, Ronald Reagan’s death and Bill Clinton’s book tour have confirmed the two former presidents as political giants. Of course it’s still too early to state with confidence how either man’s historical reputation will shake out. (Indeed, the very notion that “history” will at some point render a final judgment is fallacious. As the Dutch historian Pieter Geyl said, “History is an argument without end.”) But for now, they’re the only two presidents to serve two full terms * since Dwight Eisenhower. Both can boast of having presided over relative peace and prosperity. And their gregarious, charismatic personas trigger warm, nostalgic associations—at least for members of their own parties.

This last qualification points to the limits of each man’s achievement. What both Reagan and Clinton indisputably accomplished was to have overhauled their parties’ dominant ideology and made them competitive in national elections. Thus, although they’ve ascended to canonical status within their own parties—their party-mates, when defining themselves, drop Reagan’s and Clinton’s names with enthusiastic abandon—the aura of nonpartisan greatness that attaches to Lincoln, Washington, or Franklin Roosevelt seems likely to elude them.

Presidential aspirants have long tried to ride the coattails of beloved predecessors. William Howard Taft declared himself Theodore Roosevelt’s heir in 1908, and leaflets touted him as brimming with TR-like spunk. (His actual style was quite plodding. On the stump, he read from his judicial opinions, a practice Roosevelt made him stop.) Lyndon Johnson summoned John F. Kennedy’s memory to secure not just his own election in 1964, but also civil rights and antipoverty legislation. Indeed, Democrats were playing the Kennedy card as recently as 1992.

After Kennedy, however, there were no great presidential legacies to invoke. Johnson’s Great Society might deserve mention, but LBJ carried the baggage of Vietnam. Nixon, stained by Watergate and resignation, never even got invited to another GOP convention. Few benefits could accrue from a Gerald Ford endorsement. The costs of rubbing shoulders with Jimmy Carter or George Bush Sr. easily outweighed the benefits.

Reagan’s stature in Republican circles thus stems not just from his achievements but from the dearth of Republican role models who preceded him. Now that the GOP is ascendant, it’s easy to forget how swiftly Reagan restored his party to viability. Watergate had led to a Republican rout in 1974, and Ford’s pardon of Nixon further damaged the party in 1976. But Reagan’s stunning 1980 victory over Carter gained the Republicans 12 seats in the Senate and control of the body for the first time since 1955.

Reagan became shorthand for the electoral success of conservatism. No election has passed without Reagan serving as proof that low taxes and small government work. In 1992, Pat Buchanan based his right-wing challenge to George Bush Sr. on the argument that Bush had betrayed Reagan’s legacy. In 1996, presidential aspirants Phil Gramm, Lamar Alexander, Steve Forbes, and Bob Dole all claimed him. In 2000, John McCain billed himself as “a proud Reagan Republican” and even began spouting morning-in-America rhetoric. George W. Bush countered with television ads calling his proposed tax plan “Reaganesque.”

If Reagan became a hero to his party overnight, it took Clinton some time. In 2000, Al Gore ran from his boss’s legacy. In part, this reluctance simply reflected a candidate’s perennial need to distance himself from a popular predecessor so as not to pale by comparison. Nixon faced this challenge in 1960 in trying to succeed Eisenhower, and in 1988 George Bush Sr. felt pressure to declare himself his own man. But Gore also didn’t want the effluvia from Clinton’s sex scandals to infect his candidacy. He heeded the inside-the-Beltway thinking that the most popular president to depart the White House since FDR was somehow radioactive.

He’ll probably be the last Democrat to make that error. Though Clinton may have been holed up at his Chappaqua escritoire last year, his shadow haunted the primary race. Wesley Clark, an Arkansas-born Rhodes Scholar who staffed his campaign with Clintonites, fashioned his campaign as the Second Coming of Bill. Sen. Joe Lieberman styled himself the candidate of the Democratic Leadership Council, the centrist group Clinton made famous. Rep.Dick Gephardtboasted of serving as Clinton’s right-hand man in passing the landmark 1993 budget bill. Even Howard Dean, though unfairly tagged as a left-winger, lifted Clinton’s policy positions on the budget, trade, and health care (William Saletan has noted the similarities). Now John Kerry trumpets Clinton’s achievements; he cited the former president’s name a dozen times during a recent trip to Arkansas that included stops at Clinton’s favorite Little Rock diner and the spot of his last 1992 rally.

Like Reagan, Clinton gets mentioned by his party-mates because he made the party viable after years in the wilderness. Again, it’s easy to forget how pathetic the Democrats seemed in 1991. That spring the New Republic published a whole issue on the party’s demise, with a cartoon of a hospitalized donkey on the cover. Since Clinton, though, the Democrats have had at least as strong a claim as the Republicans to the loyalties of a majority of the public.

And like Reagan’s name, Clinton’s conjures up memories of economic good times: the bull market, 22 million jobs, surpluses instead of deficits. Yet just as Democrats don’t like to credit Reagan with the 1980s expansion, few Republicans acknowledge Clinton’s role in creating the 1990s boom. That neither man can gain across-the-board credit for the prosperity they oversaw underscores the enduring partisan nature of their appeal.

Indeed, though they safely inhabit their own parties’ pantheons, Clinton and Reagan have had scant success in winning acclaim from former opponents. (Reagan enjoys a slight edge in bipartisan acclaim: More time has passed since his presidency, allowing partisan passions to cool, and, of course, the Soviet Union began to crumble on his watch.) Liberals will always associate Reagan with Iran-Contra and a host of lesser corruption scandals; conservatives will long praise his part in ending the Cold War. Democrats see Clinton as having opened the gates to the post-Cold War era of global interdependence; conservatives seem unlikely ever to get over Monica Lewinsky, Paula Jones, Gennifer Flowers, and company.

At the conventions this year, activists will surely sing the praises of Clinton and Reagan. Their names will probably be enlisted to appeal to those “Reagan Democrats”—whom Clinton made into “Clinton Democrats”—and who may decide the 2004 race. But they won’t enjoy the transcendent stature of our most vaunted presidents. For now, Clinton and Reagan remain decidedly partisan heroes.

Correction, June 29, 2004: Due to an editing error, this article originally and incorrectly stated that Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan were the only two presidents since Dwight Eisenhower to win two terms. In fact, they were the only two presidents to serve two full terms.(Return to corrected sentence.)