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Commentary: Bush and Clinton legacies are at stake in election

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  • Meena Bose: Bush and Clinton have brief roles at party conventions
  • Both former presidents have their legacies at stake in outcome, Bose says
  • Bose: Bush legacy could be helped by McCain's support for Iraq war
  • Obama's policies were largely shaped by Clinton-era approach, she says
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By Meena Bose
Special to CNN
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Editor's Note: Meena Bose is a professor and director of Hofstra University's Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency. She is co-editor of "The Uses and Abuses of Presidential Ratings" and author of "Shaping and Signaling Presidential Policy: The National Security Decision Making of Eisenhower and Kennedy." Bose teaches courses on the presidency and other topics at Hofstra, which is hosting the third and final presidential debate on October 15.

Meena Bose says George W. Bush and Bill Clinton aren't on the ballot Nov. 4 but their legacies could be at stake.

(CNN) -- President George W. Bush did not attend the Republican National Convention, but spoke to the delegates via video conference.

His predecessor, Bill Clinton, had a moment in the spotlight at the Democratic National Convention last week, but the party then witnessed a key transition in leadership with its nomination of Barack Obama.

Yet even though Bush and Clinton were largely on the sidelines of their party's conventions, each has a significant stake in seeing his party win the presidency in November. Their legacy in American politics hinges on the result.

Evaluating presidents during their tenure or in the early years after they leave office is risky business. Declassified records, inside stories from administration officials and the long view of history all can change our perspectives in significant ways.

Scholarly surveys of presidential "greatness" typically put George Washington and Abraham Lincoln at the top of the pantheon and James Buchanan and Warren G. Harding at the bottom, but consensus disappears with recent presidents. A recent survey ranked both Clinton and Bush II in the middle of the list, leaving much room for the two to move up or down in the future.

Judgments are typically based on a president's ability to enact his policy agenda, respond to events and improve American politics and prospects over the long term, among other factors.

The initial appraisals of the Bush and Clinton presidencies share a common theme of squandered opportunities that could be mitigated by a November victory for their party.

The narrative of the George W. Bush presidency has many twists and turns, with opportunities to achieve presidential greatness that have not helped the president's current approval ratings but could have long-term effects. The disputed election results in 2000 suggested he would be a one-term president, just like previous American presidents who won despite losing the popular vote.

But the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, made Bush a wartime president, and he unhesitatingly rose to the challenge. The Bush administration asserted its right to take military action to prevent future attacks on the United States, making the Iraq war a war of choice that Bush's supporters said would promote democracy in the Middle East.

But the premature declaration of "mission accomplished" and continuing battles with the Iraq insurgency sharply divided the American population and prompted heated criticism of the administration's agenda, though the results of the surge of U.S. troops has produced some more optimistic assessments.

Despite the host of other issues that will define the Bush presidency - tax cuts, military tribunals, surveillance of suspected terrorists, Supreme Court nominations, response to Hurricane Katrina (and now Gustav) - the Iraq war will be the most significant, and disputed, part of his legacy. And the results of that war remain to be seen.

If Iraq achieves a stable society and a working democracy in the next decade, then Bush will be viewed as a visionary, in this area at least.

John McCain's election is critical for Bush because it will endorse and continue his Iraq policy. Party control of the White House for twelve years tends to be the exception rather than the norm -- when George Bush won election after eight years of the Reagan Presidency in 1988, he was the first sitting vice president to win the White House since Martin Van Buren in 1836.

A victory for Barack Obama could greatly enhance Clinton's legacy. Bill Clinton, the first Democrat to win election to two terms since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, redirected the Democratic Party to pursue more centrist policies such as welfare reform. The balanced budgets of the late 1990s are at least partly credited to his leadership.

But scandal and impeachment dominated Clinton's second term, and current assessments of his presidency are divided over their long-term consequences for American politics.

Had Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton won the Democratic nomination and the White House this year, her victory would have validated her husband's centrist governance. It also would have put to rest charges that history would view Clinton's impeachment as overshadowing his policy achievements.

One of the former president's most difficult burdens surely is the knowledge that his impeachment may have hindered his wife's presidential campaign, raising concerns about more drama in a second Clinton administration.

Still, Bill Clinton has a clear interest in seeing an Obama victory in November. Troubled economic times usually tilt voter support away from the incumbent party, so a Democratic loss this year would be potentially catastrophic for the party's future.

And if Obama is victorious, then both Clintons will make a strong case for attributing that success to their leadership of the Democratic Party for almost two decades. Despite Obama's efforts to distinguish his agenda from Clinton's policies, his proposals for deficit reduction, health care and foreign policy are grounded in Clinton-era policy making. He needs Sen. Clinton's 18 million supporters to win, and the Clintons need an Obama victory to achieve their policy goals.

The jury will be out on the effects of the Clinton and Bush presidencies for some years to come. But each one will be sure to claim personal and political victory if their candidate wins the White House, with the expectation that their historical reputation will reap results, as well.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

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