Friday, April 01, 2005

Interesting Surveys

I was just looking at the results of a Gallup poll asking who people thought was the greatest American president. Reagan came in first with 20% and Clinton came in second with 15%. To me, that seems to imply that 35% of the respondents are partisan idiots.

To start with Reagan, you have 42% of Republicans voting for him. That's 3 times more than the number that voted for Lincoln. Yes, Reagan was quite possibly the strongest driving force toward ending the Cold War. For that, there is no doubt that he should be commended. It must be acknowledged, though, that Reagan's Cold War accomplishments could not have been possible without the groundwork done by previous presidents. Most notably, Nixon's diplomatic work with China. However, in addition to the good work that he did, you also had Iran-Contra, for which he should have been impeached. And the invasion of Grenada, the aftermath of which has led to leadership by a "conservative and corrupt elite." Then, you have Reaganomics. A.k.a., trickle down economics or supply side theory. The vast majority of economists agree that trickle down theory is a bunch of wishful thinking. If you give a billionaire an extra $1 million, they're not going to turn around and invest that $1 million in opportunities that will lead to jobs for thousands. He'll invest a small portion of it, but not nearly the amount the trickle down theorists believe. And of course, there's AIDS, which I believe is Reagan's greatest error. A great leader would have listened to the advice of the doctors doing the research and taken a bold stand to support that research. Instead, he ignored it because the social conservatives would have crucified him due to its correlation at the time with gay sex. Yes, Reagan did some good things. But the greatest president? Definitely not.

That brings me to Clinton. The most moderate president in recent history for certain. Yes, he was popular. Yes, he helped to enact a lot of good, pro-environment legislation. Yes, there was an economic boom. Yes, he was very skilled at the art of compromise, as evidenced in the Don't Ask/Don't Tell policy for the Armed Forces. Yes, he gave us many humorous quotes ("I didn't inhale."). But he also gave us Waco, Whitewater, and Monicagate/Zippergate. He committed perjury and was impeached. He failed to act during the Rwandan genocide. The economic policies that led to that boom were also what led to some of the corrupt accounting tricks that led to the recent corporate scandals. But the thing that aggravates me the most is that he didn't learn. He had faced sex scandals before. Yet, he continued to engage in the activities that led to such scandals. Had he not given the lunatic, right-wing fringe the easy target, he could have accomplished so much more. Again, the greatest president? Not even close. I imagine Clinton's long-term legacy will be more like Andrew Johnson's, who is primarily known as the other president who was impeached.

So who is the greatest? I can't decide for sure, but I can think of 5 names. In chronological order, Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, and JFK. Washington led the colonial forces in war to gain our independence from the world's strongest empire of the time. He established the de facto 2 term limit tradition that was followed for almost 150 years. As an independent, he tried to warn against the practice of political parties because of the corruption that leads into such groups. Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and one of the driving philosophical forces behind the founding principles of our country. He made the Louisiana Purchase and supported the Lewis & Clark expedition. Lincoln ended slavery and prevented the nation from splitting in two. FDR led the country out of the Great Depression and was in command for the vast majority of WWII. JFK was perhaps the most dynamic, inspirational leader the country has seen. He founded the Peace Corps. When the world held its breath during the Cuban Missile Crisis, he stood strong and told the Soviets that he would not allow them to build an arsenal of nuclear weapons 90 miles from our coast. Putting a man on the moon was his vision.

I am not saying that these men were flawless. If they were president today, Jefferson, FDR and JFK would have been faced the same public flogging as Clinton did for their sex scandals. However, the legacies of these five far surpass the combined accomplishments of Reagan and Clinton.

It is curious to note, though, the way the vote broke down by age group. The most popular among 18-29 year-olds (who tend to be more liberal) was Clinton. The most popular among 30-49 year-olds (who are more conservative) was Reagan. The oldest of that group would have been 7 or 8 years old when JFK was shot. So, it is my completely unproven hunch that the majority of respondents in these age groups voted for the person they liked most among their party's recent presidents. Hence, Clinton came in first for the Dems and Reagan came in first for the Repubs. For independents, both of these came behind Lincoln, JFK, and FDR.

So my conclusion is, as I said much more harshly above, that most respondents let their votes be influenced by their personal politics than by facts. It was an interesting study to think about.


At 5:15 PM, Anonymous JJ said...

Only time will tell us how great Clinton and Reagan really were. It's very difficult to divorce yourself from modern day partisan feelings, especially these days. Time also has a tendency to make legends out of those presidents who served when we were not alive.

FDR is generally considered beloved these days, but many, many people hated him during his presidency. I don't think people of those times were qualified to judge whether or not he would be one of the great presidents. It was just too close timewise to the presidency.


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