PARIS -- In the European Edition of London's Financial Times, Christopher Caldwell, a senior editor of The Weekly Standard, wrote last week that only three presidents have succeeded since World War II. His choices are interesting: Eisenhower, Reagan and Clinton.
Dwight Eisenhower and Bill Clinton each served eight years and left office with, at best, mixed reviews. Now Eisenhower's historical stock is going up. And it could be said that Clinton's record on the economy and his success (or luck) in avoiding foreign policy disaster make him look better than he did only a couple of years ago.
Caldwell himself, a conservative and one of America's better political essayists, makes the point that he chose his big three because they were superior to the other eight postwar leaders. They look better because of the clear failures of Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush. (Caldwell offhandedly dismisses John F. Kennedy, saying that had he lived, his war in Vietnam would have made him look as inept as Bush.)
It is hard, however, not to agree with his evaluation of Ronald Reagan. The politics we are seeing now, particularly in the Republican Party, really mark the end of the 28-year presidency of the cowboy actor who came riding out of the conservative west in 1980. Like Franklin D. Roosevelt before him, Reagan reigned long after he left the White House. The New York liberal, I would argue, and so would many others, ran the country for at least 40 years.
Both Roosevelt and Reagan governed by changing the way Americans viewed government itself. Their successors could fundamentally disagree with their ideas, but could not escape their long shadows. Nixon, the embracer of Keynesian economics and Earth Day, governed within the liberal tradition of FDR, as Clinton became a rhetorical champion of lower taxation and expectations, but never could talk fast enough to outrun Reagan or destroy the Republican Party the Californian created.
Reagan was the nucleus of a governing Republican Party, one with enough orbits to contain and control political conservatives, economic conservatives, religious moralists and other cultural conservatives, old-fashioned moderates and militarists, Democrats of the old and new Souths, and even the neoconservative Democrats of New York and environs. It was a stupendous political achievement, holding together cantankerous natural enemies -- say, Jerry Falwell and Richard Perle -- for more than two decades.
In his piece, Caldwell considers the idea that George W. Bush may be remembered as the worst president in history. He concludes: "Mr. Bush may be remembered, should the Mideast one day turn democratic, as the first person to have believed in that dream enough to act on it. He may also be remembered as the man who recklessly started a wide, region-engulfing war. Future generations will judge him on whether the hope of the former was worth the risk of the latter."
That is the best face a conservative can put on the Bush presidency, but this president's ignorance and arrogance are only part of the reason that the Grand Old Party is spinning out of control.
As Democrats did in the 1960s and 1970s, the Republicans have simply run out of agenda. Like the Democrats when the Roosevelt era finally ended, the Republicans are left with more candidates than new ideas. The Reagan agenda has became law or fact or forgotten. There is nothing left for the Republicans to run on except dislike of the Democrats who would be president. It is easier to analyze why all of the Republican wannabees should lose than to figure out which one might win.
My own hunch is that the last man standing will be John McCain, even if he is at a low point now, supporting the most unpopular of wars and pandering to the most intolerant of religious Republicans. Bad as McCain looks, the others might look worse down the muddy road of nomination politics.
At the end of the day, the end of the race, American politics is usually cyclical. One party runs out of energy and the other takes over until it runs out of energy. American election laws are a contract between the two parties to ensure the survival of both. So when the energy of the Reagan era is finally gone, the Democrats will probably find out how much they have after their desert years under a Reagan sun.
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