The Gipper and the Stripper

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According to a recent poll by the Associated Press, 83 percent of Americans have a favorable view of Ronald Reagan, while fully 53 percent have an unfavorable view of Bill Clinton. As a result, Clinton’s recent campaign to sell his autobiography, My Life, is about more than earning royalties. It is about repairing a broken image.

One can hear Rush and Sean and O’Reilly clucking in approval at the poll results. Ronald the Great compares well with Bill the Pill! They knew it all along.

But there seems to be something amiss with this poll. What, after all, was the purpose of conducting it on June 18-20, so soon following that highly-rated Reagan Funeral miniseries on the Nostalgia Channel? Could it be that suspect timing created desired results?

Of course it could. The fact that the results are being trumpeted at all tells us much about the public relations concerns of the federal government during a time when its wealth-transferring and debt-creating activity is at an all-time high and when undeclared and unconstitutional pre-emptive wars are the order of the day.

To those in power, Reagan will always be deemed as a more important historical figure than the pathetic Clinton. Reagan will be remembered for his smile, grandfatherly countenance, and Cold War rhetoric that coincided with the Soviets’ inevitable collapse — a collapse that had long been predicted by thinkers as disparate at Ludwig von Mises and Winston Churchill.

Clinton, on the other hand, will be remembered as the arch-nihilist who wondered what the meaning if the word "is" is. He will be seen as the accidental president who presided during an era sandwiched between the Cold War and the War on Terrorism. His administration will be judged as one robbed of moral authority that can only be achieved during times of international crisis.

While both men were equal masters of televised media, Reagan’s persona was that of a man you would like to have as a neighbor. Clinton’s was that of the charming huckster who is always after your wallet (or your sister). According to syndicated columnist Debra Saunders, his "genius has been in getting the public to root for him even when everyone knew he probably was lying." By his second term, many who were on to his shtick were beginning to wonder if perhaps all successful presidents were simply effective liars.

This explains much of this year’s dose of Reagan worship, planned soon after the former president’s fall into the depths of Alzheimer’s. Reagan’s memory is something the federal government of today craves because it offers a gloss that masks the growth of the transfer state. To veil domestic policies that could have been written by Aldous Huxley or the Democratic National Committee, it is a gloss that George W. Bush sorely needs.

Despite his best efforts, Clinton’s memory lacks that gloss, and as a result, he left a much needed and unintended legacy. Clinton brought back an element of distrust toward the presidency that is essential to a free society where individuals, families, and communities operate autonomously to would-be overseers in Washington, D.C.

Ironically, to those concerned about the state of liberty and its relationship to a growing federal government, the seedy Lewinsky scandal was a critical affair. It effectively sidelined any designs that Clinton may have had in expanding the State. The government became even more blessedly divided and restrained.

It is no coincidence that this resulted in a growing economy, because a restrained government makes for more secure capital and greater return on labor. We can thank Clinton’s girlfriend and her bizarre amorous appeal (noticed only by Clinton) for thwarting policies that would have squelched much of that economic growth. Good things sometimes come in blue dresses.

Of course, from today’s vantage point, all of that seems dated. Today, the G.O.P. controls both houses of Congress and the White House, and the government is growing at a pace not approached since the 1960s. The fruit of divided government is long gone, while a yawn of a presidential contest between two near-indistinguishable partisans of big government is underway. A backlash, until now restrained by the war in Iraq, is long overdue.

The memory of Reagan provides something of an antidote to that backlash. After all, his 1980 election provided a similar antidote to a backlash that fomented throughout the 1970s. This is the great irony of Reagan. His memory keeps those who would otherwise agitate against overweening government at bay, and it therefore plays an important role in the growth of a Republican welfare state.

In contrast, Clinton’s memory reminds us of the federal government’s proper irrelevance, and in so doing, it serves a greater libertarian purpose. Until 9/11, George W. Bush upheld this legacy well, but after that time, it has been hiding in a bunker. Part of the popularity of Clinton’s new book (which has the number one sales ranking at at the time of this writing) suggests that many feel nostalgic for that 1990s-era irrelevance and resent the return of the imperial presidency.

To those who benefit from its return, well-timed presidential polls serve important purposes. In the battle of the Gipper vs. the Stripper, these polls indicate that the Gipper is winning. It appears, however, that he is winning for the wrong reasons.

Chris Westley [send him mail] teaches economics at Jacksonville State University, Alabama.

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