By PETER BAKER
WASHINGTON — It says something about American politics that it has come to this: For the record, Bill Clinton does not actually support Mitt Romney for president no matter how many times Mr. Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, cites him in his speeches.
To listen to the candidates on the campaign trail these days is a form of political whiplash. Mr. Romney lavishes praise on the very Democratic Mr. Clinton for breaking with his party’s traditional big-government orthodoxy, while Mr. Obama harks back to the very Republican Mr. Reagan for agreement that millionaires should not pay lower tax rates than the middle class.
The inside-out rhetoric, of course, is mainly about scoring points against the opponent in an increasingly fiery election year. When Mr. Romney refers favorably to Mr. Clinton, it is to make the point that Mr. Obama has abandoned the centrist legacy of his Democratic predecessor. When Mr. Obama invokes the spirit of Mr. Reagan, it is to argue that the Republican Party of Mr. Romney has drifted far away from its popular roots.
But the admiration expressed for the two former occupants of the White House also testifies to the fluidity of presidential reputations. Lost to history, it seems, is just how much Democrats loathed Mr. Reagan in the 1980s as an anti-communist zealot who thought that ketchup was a vegetable. Or how much Republicans despised Mr. Clinton in the 1990s as a slick huckster who dishonored the Oval Office. In the space of time, polarizing presidents have become historic statesmen.
“Presidential candidates occasionally seem to recant their onetime political opposition to a recent president of the opposite party,” said the presidential historian Michael Beschloss. “One reason is that with some historical distance, they may sometimes come to genuinely appreciate leadership qualities they didn’t notice before.” But, he added, “more often it’s politics.”
Mr. Beschloss recalled that Gerald R. Ford and the elder George Bush opposed Harry S. Truman in 1948 but after entering the White House themselves cited him, genuinely, as a role model. Richard M. Nixon derided George McGovern for not living up to the legacy of Mr. Truman and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Even Mr. Reagan cited John F. Kennedy in arguing for tax cuts, overlooking his own past criticism of the Democrat’s economic policies as “old Karl Marx.”
Frank J. Donatelli, a former Reagan White House political director, said the flattery had less to do with genuine admiration than calculation. “You want to show that your opponent is at odds with a respected former president from his own party as a way to marginalize him,” Mr. Donatelli said. “It’s a bid for centrist voters who nevertheless admire Reagan and Clinton’s records and results.”
Still, the notion that Democrats could hold out Mr. Reagan as a model or Republicans could do so with Mr. Clinton suggests how passions fade over the years. Both left office with high approval ratings and came to be appreciated for their successes, while failures and scandals have been overlooked. Mr. Reagan today is remembered for restoring national confidence and helping end the cold war. Mr. Clinton is remembered for reforming welfare and balancing the budget. It helped that both presided over periods of economic growth with comparatively little armed conflict overseas.
Mr. Obama began citing Mr. Reagan during the 2008 campaign as a political jab at his primary opponent, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Unlike her husband, Mr. Obama said, Mr. Reagan had been a “transformative political leader.” Now with Mrs. Clinton in the cabinet and Mr. Clinton on the campaign trail alongside him, the president has dropped the comparison, but he still cites Mr. Reagan to make arguments in favor of economic, immigration and nuclear disarmament policies.
He quoted Mr. Reagan just last month as he pushed for a new tax on millionaires. “That wild-eyed, socialist, tax-hiking class warrior was Ronald Reagan,” Mr. Obama said. “He thought that in America, the wealthiest should pay their fair share, and he said so.”
A couple weeks later, Mr. Obama was at it again. “Ronald Reagan could not get through a Republican primary in this election cycle,” he said. “Could not get through it. Here’s a guy who raised taxes. That in and of itself would have rendered him unelectable in a Republican primary.” Standing with him that evening was none other than Mr. Clinton, no longer a poor shadow of Mr. Reagan in Mr. Obama’s rendering but now a president who accumulated a “remarkable record” as he turned around a party that “was a little bit lost.”
Mr. Clinton has become a frequent touchstone for Mr. Romney lately as well. Instead of the president impeached for lying under oath to cover up an affair with an intern, Mr. Clinton in this telling is the apostle of fiscal responsibility as opposed to that “old-school liberal” now in the White House.
“Almost a generation ago, Bill Clinton announced that the era of big government was over,” Mr. Romney said this week. “Even a former McGovern campaign worker like President Clinton was signaling to his own party that Democrats should no longer try to govern by proposing a new program for every problem.
“President Obama,” he went on, “tucked away the Clinton doctrine in his large drawer of discarded ideas, along with transparency and bipartisanship. It’s enough to make you wonder if maybe it was a personal beef with the Clintons, but really it runs much deeper.”
From Mr. Romney’s perspective, it does not hurt to remind centrist Democrats of the past tensions and disagreements between Mr. Obama and the Clintons.
Not that every president from another party becomes suddenly acceptable. Mr. Romney has implicitly compared Mr. Obama to Jimmy Carter, while Mr. Obama routinely links Mr. Romney to the policies of George W. Bush. When Mr. Bush endorsed Mr. Romney before ducking into an elevator this week, Mr. Romney made little note of it, but the Obama camp eagerly spread the news.
To guardians of the former presidents’ legacies, the latest campaign-trail tributes ring hollow. John D. Podesta, a former Clinton chief of staff who now leads the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund, said it was “ironic that Romney is so exuberant in embracing Clintonomics” since Mr. Clinton raised taxes on the wealthy, invested in education and technology, and balanced the budget. “Maybe Romney was too busy firing people in the ’90s to have noticed,” Mr. Podesta said.
Craig Shirley, a conservative consultant and Reagan biographer, likewise said that Mr. Obama’s invocations of Mr. Reagan were off base. “At first blush, I would say good for him,” he said. “But deeper, I would say Obama is profoundly misinformed if he thinks Ronald Reagan would agree with any of his policies. The fundamental difference is Reagan believed in people while Obama believes in government.”