The Washington Times

The legacy of an American politician has two main components. One of them relates to policy, the way in which the country’s affairs, its position in the world and world order itself changed as a result of the politician’s guiding hand. On this score, Ronald Reagan looms larger with each passing year. The second component is only slightly less consequential: It is a politician’s political legacy. If politics is the art of the possible, then a great politician has an effect on what is possible not only during his own term in office but also in the years that follow. By now, the imprint that Mr. Reagan left has been visible for fully a generation and shows few signs of fading anytime soon.

To see the way in which the policy and political components of a legacy intertwine, consider the case of Franklin Roosevelt. FDR was more than just the New Deal and, for that matter, World War II: He also bequeathed a vision of American political liberalism that would dominate U.S. politics for almost two generations and ensure the dominance of the Democratic Party in Congress. The New Deal was, in its own right, vast in terms of its policy changes. But its premise – a self-confident government willing to intervene in areas of people’s lives that had long been left alone for the intended purpose of the betterment of their lives – would continue as the animating force of American politics until, well, Ronald Reagan’s appearance on the scene [but we are getting ahead of ourselves].

A generation after FDR began the New Deal, Lyndon Johnson was proposing and winning passage of still more sweeping policy changes, the Great Society, pointing in the same direction FDR had set. Indeed, when the Clinton administration came into office in 1993, its top policy priority was a health care reform program providing universal coverage, which many of its officials saw quite explicitly as the completion of the New Deal legacy.

In terms of political legacy, Ronald Reagan is the only comparable figure of 20th century American politics. He was a conservative – but in the context of a political liberalism enamored of activist government. In fact, Mr. Reagan was a classical liberal in the sense of his faith in freedom, the free market and the defense of the free world against its great adversary, Soviet Communism.

Mr. Reagan’s unsuccessful attempt to deprive Gerald Ford of the Republican presidential nomination in 1976 was surely one of the reasons for the incumbent’s defeat at the hands of Jimmy Carter. What Mr. Reagan knew was that his party and the country were close to being ready for the policy prescriptions he was offering – lower taxes and an end to “stagflation” at home and a military buildup to challenge the Soviet Union abroad. These themes swept him to two landslide victories in 1980 and 1984.

But more than that: I think most observers would agree that the 1988 election of George H.W. Bush owed a debt to Mr. Reagan far beyond Mr. Bush’s good fortune to have been picked as the running mate of the man whose domestic program he had dismissed as “voodoo economics.” The first President Bush had Mr. Reagan’s economy and a tottering Soviet Union, but more than that, as a backdrop to his candidacy he had the mantle of Mr. Reagan’s classically liberal spirit – an optimism about the prospects for the American people and the American nation. When Mr. Bush stumbled in office, it was not as a result of trying to be more Reaganesque than Reagan, but something like the reverse.

Democrats, meanwhile, had learned something by 1992 about the domestic and international progress of the classical liberalism associated with Ronald Reagan. Bill Clinton would run as a “New Democrat,” which is to say, a candidate explicitly repudiating his party’s old-style New Deal/Great Society legacy. Upon reaching the White House, however, the Clinton administration lurched in the old direction, which in turn paved the way for the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994. Just before that congressional election, Mr. Reagan announced in a handwritten note that he had Alzheimer’s, effectively retiring from public life. The GOP got a genuine sentimental boost as a result, but more to the point, it was the political legacy Mr. Reagan left Republicans that finally enabled them to win Congress. Mr. Clinton acknowledged as much when he declared, “The era of big government is over.”

There have been many comparisons between George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. But it seems that the weight of the latter may have a direct bearing on still one more election, 2004. Mr. Bush has been having his difficulties, not least because he rightly has insisted on pursuing a classically liberal Reaganite vision abroad. Now, he has an opportunity to associate himself with its great originator. For Mr. Bush, to praise Mr. Reagan properly is to inherit Mr. Reagan’s legacy. In the coming days, he will either establish what he has in common with Ronald Reagan or how he fails to measure up. That’s probably the election, because that’s how big Mr. Reagan is.