Jewish World Review June 14, 2004 / 25 Sivan, 5764
Reagan and Clinton
One was obsessed with his public image and reveled in the company of stars and starlets, frequenting Hollywood at every opportunity; the other was self-contained, confident of what he stood for and needed no adoring mobs to satiate his ego or vindicate his sense of self-worth.
It's odd that the former is Bill Clinton and the latter Ronald Reagan.
Standing astride the two cultures of Hollywood and Washington, Reagan abjured the seductions of both insisting, proudly and independently, on his own vision and persona. Every time he stepped onto a set, Ronald Reagan played someone else. That was his job. But in the Oval Office, he played only himself.
How ironic that it was Reagan's agenda which dominated the Clinton administration: The 42nd president's signal achievements of welfare reform and a balanced budget owe their intellectual and political foundations to the vision of the 40th.
Historian David Eisenhower speaks of "ratifiers" in American politics presidents who take office after a giant of the other party has left it, who adjust, but basically leave in place, the innovations of their predecessor. He writes of his grandfather as the ratifier of FDR, leaving in place both his internationalism and the programs that came from New Deal domestic activism.
In the same light, Clinton was Reagan's ratifier. Taking office a decade after the Reagan Revolution, the Democratic president left the budget reductions largely in place, accepting the philosophical mandates of limiting government, balancing the budget and curbing welfare and embracing them as his own.
Welfare reform, the very embodiment of the Reagan agenda, stands out as the Clinton administration's signal achievement. Its requirement of work as a precondition for receiving benefits and time limits that preclude a lifetime on the dole are right out of the Reagan platform. And Clinton's tenure-long focus on balancing the federal budget echoed the Reagan agenda a decade after the Gipper had left office.
But if Reagan's political ideas imprinted the Clinton presidency, his psyche did not. Clinton depended on ratings, hanging as breathlessly on them as would any Hollywood starlet.
But Reagan, the actor, did not need the applause of politics or the buzz of Hollywood to tell him who he was. Supremely self-contained, he went about actively imprinting his vision on his era, rather than let the age imprint itself on him.
Reagan, aloof from the daily management of the White House, left so pervasive a mark upon the government that he literally changed its direction. It was Reagan who reversed 10 years of defeatism and 80 years of government growth.
But it was Clinton, the liberal, who accepted the construct imposed on his presidency by Reagan a balanced budget, welfare reform and government re-invention and reduction. It was Clinton who boasted that he had pruned the federal payroll to its "lowest level since Eisenhower" but it was Reagan's vision that made him do it.
The gravitational force of the Reagan presidency reached out to the future and did more to shape Clinton's agenda than any other single factor. And his force reaches still into the Bush White House. A decade after his last public statement and now after his death, Reagan keeps dominating history.
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JWR contributor Dick Morris is the author of, most recently, "Rewriting History", a rebuttal of Sen. Hillary Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) memoir, Living History. (ClickHERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.) Comment by clicking here.
© 2004, Dick Morris