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Reagan's contribution

THE assessments of Ronald Reagan's presidency are already coming in as he heads toward the final years of his second term. He's being compared to Franklin Roosevelt. And many leading Democrats who differ with Reagan on issues are conceding that he has emerged as a towering figure. New York Gov. Mario Cuomo admires the President's grace and commends him for setting a good example for children. And the New York Times, often a critic of Mr. Reagan, centerpieces a magazine article with the headline: ``The President has restored the sense of a leader as a force, of the White House as an institution, of conservatism as a power.''

Also -- although it has not been widely noted -- Ronald Reagan has brought back stability to the Presidency.

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Stability was something the country had gotten used to in the FDR years. And this public perception of steadiness at the top of the government remained on through Dwight Eisenhower's two terms.

Then came John Kennedy's tragically shortened term, followed by Vietnam, which first challenged and then interrupted Lyndon Johnson's hold on the presidency. Then came Watergate and its threat of destroying the presidency while pushing Richard Nixon out of the job. Gerald Ford got only the short term he had inherited. Jimmy Carter never seemed firm in the saddle, being retired after four years.

And now Ronald Reagan is well under way to finishing the first two-term presidency since the days of Eisenhower.

In addition, there is something stirring out there across America. People everywhere are welcoming this peaceful continuity in the White House. They are tired of the disruptions. They like this stability at the top.

It was widely believed that had Eisenhower been able to run for a third term, he would have won. Indeed, there seemed no limit to how long ``Ike'' might have stayed at the helm.

It was ironic that it was the Republicans who brought about the two-term rule -- to prevent another long, FDR-like stay in the presidency. So their own imposed limitation kept Eisenhower from running again, and, probably, winning.

And who would argue today that if Ronald Reagan could run again, he wouldn't win? His ability to sustain popularity has become an uncontested fact. That's why there's a move afoot to get rid of the two-term restriction and thus enable Reagan to seek another term. It won't get anywhere.

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The Democrats have a job ahead of them to remove the Republicans from the presidency, because going along with this public desire for maintaining stability is, obviously, a public support for continuity in the government that has brought this about. No Democratic presidential candidate can run on a platform of ``more of the same.'' A Republican obviously can.

Of course, a Democrat can win. But not if all things are perceived to be equal between two candidates. Then continuity and the Republicans will get the nod.

The Democratic candidate will have to emerge as someone who is quite obviously superior. And he, too, will have to project an image of reliability and strength.

Thus it is also arguable that we are moving into a period when the voters will be bringing in and keeping presidents for two terms -- after a generation of interruptions in that kind of voting pattern.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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