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In the shadow of three Presidents

By Ciaran Ryan - posted Friday, 9 May 2008

The American presidential election is as much about three past presidents, as it is about who will be the next one.

Presidential elections always represent a departure from the status quo: a movement into the uncertain, with no going back. But the 2008 presidential election to date has been as much about the past as it is about the future, as America wrestles with her self image and seeks to determine which way to go. In this election cycle, the shadows of three past presidents - Reagan, Clinton and Bush - loom large.

The “Reagan Revolution” might have ended nearly 20 years ago when the “Great Communicator” exited the stage, but within the Republican Party allegiance to Reagan orthodoxy remains the litmus test in selecting his successor. All of the main candidates who sought the party’s nomination had painted themselves as the next Ronald Reagan: promising to slash taxes and red tape, cut back big government and keep the military strong to defeat the new “evil empire” - al-Qaida.


In case anyone in America missed this, John McCain has used a TV commercial with 1980s footage of the senator meeting with Reagan in the Oval Office: but the conservative wing of the party sees more differences between the men than similarities. Their big gripes with McCain are that he opposed Bush’s tax cuts, advocated an immigration policy that critics called “amnesty for illegals”, supported stem cell research and overhauled campaign finance laws.

Despite these “heretical” stances, McCain has gone on to become the party’s inevitable nominee because of one word: character. John McCain was, after all, a prisoner in the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” during the Vietnam War, and despite savage beatings and regular torture, he refused a “get out of jail” offer because of the POW code of honour which states, “You go in the order in which you came”. Ronald Reagan’s electoral success was largely due to his ability to tap into the patriotic yearnings of the American people, to make them proud to be American again. McCain may not have Reagan’s speaking abilities, but his story speaks for itself; and its powerful message will be hard to overcome in the general election.

On the Democratic Party side, another former president’s shadow has at times overwhelmed the entire debate over who will be the party’s nominee, and this case, how that debate turns out could actually put that president back into the White House. William Jefferson Clinton was America’s 42nd president, and arguably, one of its most controversial. The 22nd amendment to the Constitution mandates that as he has served two terms as president, he is ineligible to run again. But the constitution says nothing about a president’s spouse seeking the top job, and if Hillary Clinton becomes the first woman president, Bill will be back at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on how people judge the Clinton years.

As Hillary Clinton likes to remind voters, the 1990s were a time of unprecedented expansion for America’s economy, with the national debt replaced with a surplus, with the welfare rolls cut in half and Americans generally feeling good about themselves. With the Cold War behind them, Bill Clinton’s foreign policy focused on creating more opportunities for trade, and his limited use of military force (which was generally confined to surgical strikes conducted from a safe distance) won respect abroad.

Barack Obama sees things differently. Stating that the Democrats had “no new ideas” during the Clinton years, he recalls the 1990s as a time when America closed down its factories and shipped them to Mexico, when issues like healthcare were botched and when the nation was distracted by Bill and Hillary’s constant stream of scandals: from “White Water” to “Travel-Gate”, from the Lewinsky Impeachment to the last minute pardons of convicted drug dealers and tax cheats, and to the alleged “looting” of White House furniture for their New York home. The Clintons, Obama says, are the past: it’s time to turn the page and bring about change.

But as Hillary points out, what’s more important: change or experience? Hillary knows how to run the country, (she was effectively co-president with Bill for eight years), and if elected, she’ll hit the ground running. Obama, as she often says, will require “on the job training”. But whether it’s Hillary or Obama v McCain, each side will have to confront the shadow of anther president: George W. Bush. And this election is as much about him as it is about anyone.


Eight years ago, candidate Bush promised that if elected he would be a fiscal conservative who would promote a foreign policy of “humility”, disavowing a “nation building” mentality. That agenda perished on 9-11, and Bush became the very antithesis of his platform. Declaring himself a “war president”, he invaded Afghanistan and Iraq and transformed the biggest surplus in American history into its biggest deficit. A reckless spender, Bush failed to veto a single spending bill that came from his Republican controlled Congress, no matter how much “pork barreling” was involved. For his transgressions, the Democrats swept both Houses of Congress in the 2006 mid-term elections.

But when grappling with Bush’s record, even his critics have to concede one positive aspect of his presidency: in the years since 9-11, he has kept America safe from terrorist attacks. His actions, moral or immoral, have worked: six and a half years since the Twin Towers fell, al-Qaida’s plots to strike America have been foiled time and time again. It’s a legacy that Americans wish to see continued, and therefore despite almost universal disdain for George W., the issue of national security could trump all others and keep the White House in Republican hands.

The shadows of Reagan, Clinton and Bush may loom large, but whoever becomes president in November - be it the first woman, the first African American or the first Vietnam veteran - he or she will step out from the shadows, and begin to make history on their own.

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About the Author

Ciaran Ryan has a PhD in American Presidential History from the University of Southern Queensland.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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