POLITICIANS, pundits, and scholars will continue to argue about the Reagan presidency for years to come. That's partly because Ronald Reagan's overall record is complex and many-sided, and partly because political values naturally color how any observer sees it. In one area, though - that of leader of his party - the President's record and performance are so distinct that little disagreement is likely. Few presidents in American history have worked as hard as Mr. Reagan to advance their party's, as distinct from their own, political fortunes. Few have dominated their party the way he has.
This feature of his presidency was much in evidence Monday evening in Reagan's farewell address. The strength of his call for continued GOP rule through a Bush presidency seemed unsurprising only because his entire approach over the past eight years has been party-centered. Reagan has never been reluctant to expend his own prestige on behalf of Republican causes.
Such efforts are by no means risk-free, which is why many other presidents have shunned them. Even highly popular presidents have recognized the real limits on their capacity to transfer their own standing to others in their party.
In the fall of 1986, an immensely popular Reagan traveled 25,000 miles and appeared on behalf of party hopefuls in 16 states in an effort to maintain GOP control of the Senate. No president ever tried harder to ``nationalize'' off-year Senate races by arguing that they were a kind of composite measure of voters' regard for himself and his administration. When the Democrats prevailed, many in the political community thought - incorrectly - that the fabled Reagan magic was ebbing. His political opponents were thus emboldened.
Reagan's strong exertions this year on behalf of Mr. Bush, almost certain to continue through Nov. 8, contrast with the halfhearted efforts three decades ago by another popular Republican president for his vice-president. Reagan is undoubtedly closer to Bush personally than Dwight Eisenhower ever was to Richard Nixon, and he brings robust health to the 1988 campaign, while Ike's health was failing in 1960. The fact remains, though, that Reagan sees himself unreservedly as his party's leader, responsible for nurturing it as the essential vehicle for continuing his programs and philosophy. President Eisenhower would never assume such a role.
Reagan's willingness to spend his own popularity to strengthen his party accords with judgments political scientists have long made. In their view, stronger political parties are needed to restrain the powerful centrifugal forces inherent in the American system of separation of powers. The Reagan model - being willing to expend energy and prestige for party development - is much preferred by political scientists to the Eisenhower model, which would hoard personal popularity and use it to govern primarily through trans-partisan appeals.
From our present vantage point, following eight years of determined party leadership by Reagan, it's hard to recall how different expectations for his role were in 1980. Reagan was viewed then as someone who, if elected, would serve as a detached ``chairman of the board,'' as a rigid ideologue, or as some combination of the two. In fact, he has proved comfortable with the role of active leader of an entire party, as opposed to a faction.
What does he have to show for his efforts? Whatever happens Nov. 8, Reagan leaves the GOP stronger than he found it. It is not the majority party. The country doesn't have one of those now, and maybe it won't soon again, as an ambivalent electorate makes its choices in an environment of media-dominated campaigns. But the Republicans have strengthened their position in party identification over the Reagan years - and nowhere more substantially than among young voters, as a generational realignment continues.
Perhaps the greatest impact, though, can be seen in Reagan's reshaping of the GOP philosophically and in his dominance over it. Not all Republicans see things the same way, of course, but temporarily, at least, it no longer makes sense to describe the party as divided between conservative and moderate wings. The ``C'' word is too much in vogue in GOP circles, and ``Reagan Republicans'' are too large a slice of the party for that. In the last century, only Franklin Roosevelt's dominance of the Democratic Party compares with Reagan's ascendancy over the Republicans, evident in New Orleans this week.
Everett Carll Ladd is executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research and professor of political science at the University of Connecticut.