The Magazine

HISTORIANS AND THE REAGAN LEGACY

Sep 29, 1997, Vol. 3, No. 03 • By JAMES PIERESON
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While Clinton could take some comfort from Schlesinger's speculations, which mirrored his own self-assessment, the ISI panel came to a different conclusion. Twenty panelists rated Clinton "below average," and 10 judged him a "failure." The panel's pessimism about the Clinton presidency derives from the avalanche of scandals that has buried his presidency, any one of which might eventually discredit him, as well as his failure so far to take the difficult steps required to keep our old-age entitlement programs solvent. As far as the ISI panel is concerned, Clinton will be hard pressed to achieve even an "average" ranking.


But Clinton, to be sure, can claim some accomplishments. His term has coincided with a generally prosperous economy and a stock market that has more than doubled during his nearly five years in office. Though his health- care scheme went down in flames, he has worked with Congress to reduce the federal budget deficit and to reform the welfare system. By coopting Republican themes (made popular by Reagan) in the areas of crime, welfare, and fiscal responsibility, he has brought the Democratic party nearer to the political center and has sown dissension and confusion in Republican ranks.


Clinton, then, despite his talk of change during the 1992 campaign, has been essentially a status quo president, riding a strong economy and a bull market in stocks and putting off some especially tough issues for his successors. In so doing, he has confirmed and consolidated Ronald Reagan's contribution, while moving his own party toward the center to blunt the advances made by Republicans from 1980 through the congressional elections of 1994.


In this sense, Clinton's main *asks have had less to do with the presidency than with saving his party and its favored programs from destruction at the hands of the Republicans. Though he has so far succeeded in these limited tasks, such a defensive formula does not make for greatness in a president. If Clinton gets through his term without any great debacles, he will in all likelihood be viewed by future historians as an "average" president, like McKinley orTaft, who was fortunate to govern during good times. If he is undone by scandal or a failing economy, he may do worse.

 

SCHLESINGER VS. ISI SURVEY RANKINGS

SCHLESINGER SURVEY


ISI SURVEY

GREAT


Washington, Lincoln


Washington, Lincoln

  

F.D. Roosevelt

NEAR GREAT


Jefferson, Jackson, Polk,


Jefferson, Jackson, Reagan,

T. Roosevelt, Wilson, Truman


T. Roosevelt,

  

F.D. Roosevelt, Eisenhower

HIGH AVERAGE


Monroe, Cleveland, McKinley,


J. Adams, J.Q. Adams

Eisenhower, Kennedy,


Cleveland, McKinley, Taft,

L.B. Johnson, J. Adams


Coolidge, Truman, Polk,

  

Monroe

LOW AVERAGE


Madison, J.Q. Adams


Madison, Van Buren, Ford,

Van Buren, Hayes,


B. Harrison, Hayes, Garfield

Arthur,


Arthur, Bush

  

B. Harrison, Taft, Ford,

  

Carter, Regan, Bush, Clinton

BELOW AVERAGE


Tyler, Taylor, Fillmore,


Tyler, Fillmore, Wilson

Coolridge


Kennedy, Nixon, Hoover

FAILURE


Pierce, Buchanan, A. Johnson,


Buchanan, Grant, Harding,

Grant, Harding, Hoover, Nixon


L.B. Johnson, Carter,

  

Clinton, Pierce, A. Johnson




James Piereson is executive director of the John M. Olin Foundation.