Over the past month, we’ve launched a new tradition at The Recovering Politician: a great virtual debate on the issues of the day among our recovering politicians; with provocations, rebuttals, responses, and defenses. Our first discussion focused on presidential leadership; our second on legalizing marijuana; our third, Tim Tebow; our fourth, expanded gambling, and our fifth, the GOP primary mudfest.
On this Presidents’ Day, Artur Davis leads off a discussion on presidential greatness. What makes a president stand out among others? Who are the greatest chief executives of our lifetime? Join in the fun:
Let’s assume that there are two presidents whose greatness is not is dispute: Lincoln and FDR, both won defining wars that might have gone the other way absent superior leadership; both defined their political times by in Lincoln’s case, creating a new party, and in FDR’s case, re-conceiving a stagnant, fading party into a modern progressive one. I would venture there are three others who weren’t tested quite as severely but who dramatically strengthened the country and the office of president: Washington (who affirmed that the country was governable as a republic) Thomas Jefferson (who affirmed that the country’s future was westward, and expansionist) and Teddy Roosevelt (who enshrined the ideal of restraining corporate power and size, and who did so in an era when both parties were dominated by economic conservatives).
Then for good measure, throw in Andrew Jackson and Harry Truman at the bottom of the top tier, for all their petty prejudices and their small-mindedness toward their enemies, both had their transcendent moments: Jackson democratizing a country that was veering toward becoming an oligarchy, and Truman shoring up vulnerable democracies from Greece to Israel, and as a result, denying the Soviet Union ownership of the second half of the 20th Century.
Is there a modern president who makes a claim for membership on that list? I’m spending a lot of my time now at an institution that venerates John Kennedy. The argument for Kennedy is that he revitalized the ideal of civic commitment at a time when McCarthyism and fifties materialism had gutted it; that his decision-making skills in the Cuban Missile Crisis averted a nuclear war; and that he gave the cause of civil rights a moral boost at a time when it desperately needed it. The case against Kennedy is that his thousand or so days was too brief, too devoid of serious legislative accomplishments; that he laid the foundation for a disaster in Vietnam,; and that he was too late to the cause of civil rights to deserve much credit for it.
My old friends in the DLC, center-left of the Democratic Party have some strong points to offer about Bill Clinton. The case for Clinton greatness goes something like this: eight years of a rare kind of prosperity, one that substantially expanded wealth and reduced poverty at the same time; an electric rate of job growth that coexisted with the most effective deficit reduction campaign in the modern era, and a recasting of the Democratic Party as a middle-class friendly, communitarian enterprise. The anti-Clinton brief is that the nineties were just too inconsequential, that Clintonism was too many narrow initiatives–SChip, charter schools–too little in the way of defining policy shifts. It is also undeniable that a vital year and a half was spent fighting off impeachment, and that the fight and what it was about contributed to the trivialization of our politics.
And then there is Ronald Reagan, whose grade usually depends on the political cards you bring to the equation. The conservative cause lionizes Reagan for facing down communism and reversing decades of confiscatory taxation, while the left describes the eighties as the ratification of an ethic that undermined the social contract, marginalized the poor, and legitimized deficits.
I will risk a cautious verdict based on one premise: the top tier of presidents, all seven in my opinion, can all claim credit for settling a broad historical question about the scope of the country and it ambitions, and doing so in a way that survived their presidencies and shaped politics for at least the next generation.
By that standard, Reagan wins, Kennedy and Clinton fall just short. Neither Kennedy’s ethic of civic engagement over special interests, nor Clinton’s modernization of the Democratic Party, survived their presidencies. By the time the sixties ended, the country had reverted to hostile camps whose broad outlines of polarization exist in the red-blue map, and the sharp regional divide on culture, faith, and race and gender that define America circa 2012. The Democratic Party today is not Clinton’s party—it is narrower, more ideologically insular, more inclined to confuse reform with more regulation, and innovation with more bureaucracy, than the one that elected Clinton twice.
Whatever you make of Reagan’s domestic agenda, it is essentially the conservatism that prevails today—one convinced that lower tax rates are a condition of growth, that government is inefficient and prone to make things worse, and that redistribution is counter-productive—and it’s a mindset that has constrained public policies for three decades. By the way, anyone who doubts the durability of that blue-print should note the number of times Clinton and Obama have yielded to it, in the programs they have scaled back and the initiatives they haven’t pursued.
Was Reagan a “great president”? That depends on what you want America to be. Was he a consequential president who altered the country’s vision and its politics in a way that lasted? Undoubtedly, without question.