Missing the Big Picture on Reagan andClinton

Stuart P. Stevens is a Republican political consultant and novelist

We never saw it coming.

Nov. 3 was probably the worst day for Republicans since some guy named Butterfield let it drop to Sen. Sam J. Irvin Jr. that President Richard M. Nixon had a thing for Memorex. It wasn’t only that we lost five seats in the House--lost, when we were going to pick up 40 seats just a few weeks ago--or that Democrats took governorships in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina (that’s the solid South, remember, the part of the world that Republicans owned), or that we blew chances to win Senate seats from California to New York. No, what made it really a lousy night was the inescapable conclusion that Bill Clinton had beat our brains in once again.

This is really getting annoying.

For almost seven years now, Republicans have failed to grasp the appeal of Clinton, and we’re a heck of a lot worse off for our failure. He drives us so absolutely batty, we constantly overreact with one tone-deaf mistake after another. It’s not so much that we disagree with the man; it’s simply that we think he’s unworthy to be president of the United States.


Which is exactly how the Democratic elite felt about a fellow named Ronald Reagan.

Remember how they laughed about Reagan and Bonzo, how they trotted out those Chesterfield cigarette ads with the grinning Gipper in the Arrow shirt? He was an actor, a reader of lines, a prop, not a president. Democratic wise man Clark M. Clifford called him “an amiable dunce.” “He knows less than any president I’ve ever known,” said Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. (Remember him?)

All those smart guys, Jimmy Carter, Walter F. Mondale, Michael S. Dukakis, those students of government, they felt honor-bound to show us they knew better. Like when Mondale promised to raise taxes and Dukakis gloated about fish rotting from the head.

It’s tempting to say that both Democrats and Republicans have underestimated the importance of personality, to conclude that Americans are drawn to Reagan and Clinton because they are likable guys, the sort of fellow you want to hang out with, have over to dinner. (Unless, of course, you have a daughter, and Clinton is coming over--no, no, no, see, I can’t help myself.) Our age is the triumph of celebrity culture, so that thinking goes, where casting is more important than story.

Well, that’s true. But in each side’s loathing of the other, we lose sight of the fundamental fact that both Reagan and Clinton had an intuitive ability to deliver what the American people wanted. They understood their market and then delivered. Both also have been blessed with fortuitous timing, capitalizing on the intriguing phenomenon that the most successful presidents tend to be the mirror opposite of their predecessor.

Reagan was the big guy, the antidote to the smaller-than-life, cardigan-wearing Carter. Reagan was the quintessential wartime president: strong, slightly aloof. He had a challenge fitting to his image: staring down the evil empire. What the Democratic intelligentsia never appreciated was how much America needed to believe in a president, after the disappointing string of Nixon, Gerald R. Ford and Carter. Reagan delivered: The Berlin Wall did come down. Reagan won.

Clinton, of course, has been the domestic alternative to Reagan/George Bush, and the raging economy has been a constant reminder that, yes, we wanted him to “focus like a laser on the economy,” and, hey, take a look, it has worked. Clinton has won.

What Republicans can’t accept is that Americans actually believe Clinton has done a good job as president. We think it’s all a result of the Republican Congress. After all, up until 1994, when Republicans took over, the Clinton presidency was such a disaster that the poor guy was reduced to pleading on television that he was “still relevant,” a pretty pathetic moment for the most powerful man on Earth.


The rich irony, naturally, is that Republicans probably did save Clinton, both with our successes and our monumental blunders. We drove the guy off an agenda of gays in the military and nationalized health care and onto tax cuts, welfare reform and a balanced budget. With stunning blunders like shutting down the government, we positioned Clinton exactly where he wanted to be: the middle.

But then, to be fair, the Democrats did the same for Reagan. It was Carter’s intrinsic smallness, his bumbling, his Desert One debacle and malaise mutterings that made us long for Reagan’s bold conservatism. Carter spent all his time telling us what he wouldn’t do--lie to us--and what we couldn’t do--like free the hostages--that he became the quintessential president of limits. So when Reagan came along, talking about a shining city on a hill, America, of course, fell for it.

So here we are, with 2000 staring us in the face, and it’s time for Republicans to accept that Clinton has emerged as the dominant figure of this decade. There are lessons, however painful, in his ability to connect with voters. Though Republicans feel he stole our agenda, we have to go about the business of reclaiming it, not whining.

Well, at least we have the 22nd Amendment helping us, or we’d probably never get rid of Clinton. He’ll never be impeached, and as long as the economy holds, he’ll always be popular.


It’s time for Republicans to start inventing our next big guy, someone who has a strong enough personality to hold together the warring factions of the party combined with a positive agenda that seems relevant to the challenges ahead. The other side is stuck with Al Gore, and we can beat that guy.

Can’t we?