Most GOP presidents in this century have helped advance American prosperity and security in enduring ways. Teddy Roosevelt busted the trusts. Eisenhower kept the peace while keeping the military-industrial complex under control and building our modern transportation infrastructure. Nixon opened China to the US, helping to sap Soviet strength and provide an engine for global growth that's still chugging. Reagan helped feather down the Soviet Union peacefully, as did Bush Sr., while turning back Saddam's aggression and helping to lay the foundation for the balanced budgets of the 1990s.
Lots of twitterers, including James Fallows and Ezra Klein, have noted that while Bill Clinton mentioned George W. Bush three times in his speech last night, mostly positively, none of the GOP speakers in Tampa mentioned him by name. That's not surprising. Bush was a disastrous president on all fronts -- busting the budget, getting tens of thousands of US soldiers and Iraqi and Afghan civilians killed and maimed in two botched wars, permanently compromising U.S. civil liberties, massively eroding the nation's soft power. Not even Republicans can defend that record of faillure.
What's perhaps more striking is that Republicans almost never invoke any of their presidents of the last century except Saint Ronnie, with an occasional wave at TNR. Eisenhower and Bush Sr. were both, by current GOP standards, tax heretics -- Eisenhower resisting the radical tax cutters in his party (and maintaining a top marginal rate over 90%!), Bush Sr. acceding to a modest tax hike in a balance-the-budget deal.
Nixon's paranoia is sometimes downplayed, but the record of documented criminality is too extensive to defend with any sustained energy. Domestically, he advanced policies to the left of Obama's, however cynically or distractedly. Hoover, a gifted man with an impressive record of accomplishment outside the presidency, is admired as a president only by economic flat-earthers. And how many partisans of Harding and Coolidge have you encountered?
Democrats, on the other hand, proudly recall basically every president of their party serving in the 20th and 21st centuries except for Jimmy Carter, who is lamented more on tactical than policy grounds (not to mention the sheer bad luck of a horrendous recession taking hold in the runup to his reelection). Jonathan Bernstein will tell us that Wilson was a disaster on many fronts, but he's still admired as a formulator and forerunner of the international principles and institutions that took hold after World War II. LBJ was in bad odor for a long season, but is now widely admired for his legislative acumen, on which front many have favorably contrasted him with Obama in the last couple of years.
So what's the point? It's not that Republicans haven't put up capable presidents. Its rather that the present party has moved so far to the right that it can only fully own one of its successes. Indeed, by contemporary standards, even Reagan was a flaming liberal, acceding to a long series of tax hikes to partially, incrementally offset the structural deficit he opened up with his original massive tax cut. That retroactive apostasy has yet to be fully absorbed, except by Democrats.
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