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updated: 9/5/2012 12:02 PM

Ex-presidents can be a burden or a blessing

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  • Former President Bill Clinton speaks at the Democratic National Convention in Denver in 2008.

      Former President Bill Clinton speaks at the Democratic National Convention in Denver in 2008.
    Associated Press

 
Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- Bill Clinton's in, George W. Bush is out. Jimmy Carter gets only a cameo. Ronald Reagan is ever-present, almost a quarter century after his presidency and eight years after his death. The way Democrats and Republicans treat their ex-presidents at convention time reflects each man's personal popularity -- and how well he's weathered changing party politics.

It helps to be a dynamite speaker, too.

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Clinton scores on all three: His speeches are rousing, if long; his popularity extends to coveted independent voters; and his centrist appeal plays well across today's Democratic Party. It's no wonder Democrats have forgiven, if not forgotten, that business about Monica Lewinsky and impeachment that seemed to have permanently marred his presidency as it ended a dozen years ago.

"Expect Clinton to deliver the most powerful case for re-election that is made at the Democratic convention," predicted Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an authority on political speech and director of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center.

President Barack Obama is entrusting Clinton with a convention slot of strategic importance -- introducing Obama's name for nomination during prime-time TV on Wednesday night. It seems like a safe bet: Two-thirds of Americans rate Clinton favorably, according to a Gallup Poll. Half of Republicans do. He could help especially with groups where Obama needs a boost, including men, working-class white voters, Southerners and senior citizens.

This year's address will be freed of the drama surrounding Clinton's convention speech four years ago, when his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, had just lost to Obama in a bruising primary battle littered with hard feelings. Now she is Obama's secretary of state. And Bill Clinton can do a little burnishing of his own legacy in Charlotte, N.C.

"Clinton's not just a successful president for the Democrats," said GOP pollster and strategist Mike McKenna. "He's the guy that led them out of the wilderness. He's their Moses. ... He was the one who sort of settled the issue of what kind of party they were going to be, how they were going to proceed.

"And people like him," McKenna added.

Not so much the Republican president who followed him, George W. Bush.

Americans are just as likely to view Bush unfavorably as favorably, according to polling over the past year, and many blame him for the Great Recession. Tying Republican nominee Mitt Romney to Bush is a favorite strategy of Obama's re-election campaign.

Even among Republicans, reviews of Bush are mixed. The Tea Party and other fiscal conservatives have pushed the party to reject Bush's record of spending hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to expand Medicare and rescue banks during the fiscal crisis.

"As long as the Tea Party is rising, Bush is hard to characterize as anything within the party except a divisive figure," McKenna said.

Neither Bush nor his father, President George H.W. Bush, spoke at the GOP convention last week in Tampa, Fla. Instead, the father-son duo appeared in a video tribute to each other that was more folksy than partisan. The only other prominent mention of George W. Bush came from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who said he felt obligated to defend his brother's White House record before launching into a speech on education.

Other Republican speakers preferred to recall their beloved icon Reagan, one of the nation's most popular presidents, whom they also lauded with a video tribute.

In Charlotte, it was Carter who got short shrift. His remarks were relegated to a long-distance appearance by video, hours before most viewers had tuned in Tuesday.

Republicans are eager to link Obama to Carter -- as presidents who left Americans feeling they were worse off than four years earlier.

"I'm not sure why they're having him have a role at all," Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak said of Carter. "It just makes those comparisons so easy."

The parties aren't sentimental when a former chief becomes more of a burden than a blessing. "Failed presidencies are buried at conventions," Jamieson said. "Richard Nixon doesn't even exist in the Republican rhetoric."

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