A large group of Republican presidential candidates gathered in South Carolina over the weekend for the “Freedom Summit” event, and a CNN correspondent asked much of the field an interesting question: Who do you think is the greatest living president?
“Obviously the greatest president of my lifetime is Ronald Reagan,” said Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
“I’ll leave that to the people to decide,” said Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, which is his guaranteed go-to line for questions he doesn’t want to answer. “Certainly the greatest president of recent generations was Ronald Reagan.”
“I was a big fan, a very big fan of Ronald Reagan,” real estate mogul Donald Trump said.
The problem, of course, is the degree to which the answer doesn’t match the question. Reagan can’t be the greatest living president because, as a factual matter, Reagan died in June 2004.
No, Republicans, “alive in our hearts” is not an acceptable answer.
There’s arguably a small flaw in the question itself: we’re dealing with a very small universe of options. There are, after all, only five living presidents.
I imagine if the question were posed to Democrats, Presidents Clinton and Obama would both fare pretty well. President Carter might struggle, but Clinton and Obama are very popular figures in their party.
For Republicans, it’s far trickier. Their choices are limited to George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. The former was an unsuccessful one-term president who raised taxes; the latter was a failed two-term president, generally considered one of the worst in American history.
They also happen to be close relatives of one of the leading GOP candidates this year. What’s a poor Republican presidential candidate to say, exactly?
Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) understood the question well enough not to mention Reagan, but he told CNN, “Probably a Bush,” which at least covers the partisan bases.
Stepping back, I’ve long found it interesting that today’s Republican Party really doesn’t much care for most of history’s GOP presidents, which only helps fuel the borderline unhealthy obsession with Reagan. Consider the modern list: H.W. Bush raised taxes; Nixon resigned; Ford pardoned Nixon; Eisenhower was quite moderate by contemporary standards; and Hoover failed miserably.
The original question asked about “living” presidents, but if the inquiry were opened up to include any chief executive ever, I suspect quite a few Republican votes would be divided between Reagan and Abraham Lincoln, the only two GOP presidents the party faithful are proud of.
Steve Benen, MSNBC