Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Politics: The Election Ahead

Bruce Bartlett perfectly describes the political problem with George W. Bush:
It is a fact of life that perception is often more important than reality. This is especially so in politics, where people can be dogged by impressions even when they are completely untrue. A classic example is the notion that former Vice President Dan Quayle is stupid, a view still widely held that I know to be false, having worked with him dating back to his days in the Senate. Nevertheless, once this idea took root, it became impossible to dislodge. Everything Mr. Quayle did was interpreted through this prism, magnifying any mistake he made, no matter how small.

I believe President Bush is in danger of creating a perception about himself that may prove equally hard to eradicate if it is allowed to continue. That is the view he is "Nixonian," having an approach toward politics and policy paralleling that of Richard Nixon. It is characterized by a willingness to subordinate everything to one's re-election — to say and do anything to advance this goal, with no concern whatsoever for the long-term consequences.

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This is very dangerous for President Bush. Nixon is one of the few presidents in history reviled almost equally by left and right. The former will never forgive him for Watergate and bringing down Alger Hiss. The latter remains disgusted by Nixon's wage and price controls, his creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and other regulatory agencies, and his overtures to the Soviet Union and Red China.
On the other hand, President Bush exhibits no signs of the rampant paranoia that helped bring Nixon down. And when it comes to overall philosophy, President Bush may actually prove more dangerous than Nixon. This president advocates “compassionate conservatism,” a concrete-bound altruist muddle that mixes the worst of leftism and neo-conservatism. Nixon was just nuts. He was an obsessive-compulsive politician constantly seeking public adulation. The turning point for Nixon came when he lost the presidency in 1960 (under questionable circumstances) to John Kennedy. After that, Nixon became consumed with both avenging his defeat and becoming more popular than the Kennedys.

(One sees Nixon’s political personality revived in the form of Al Gore; his endorsement of Howard Dean—a candidate that bears little resemblance to the Clinton-Gore campaigns—suggests the former vice president is consumed with avenging what he considers a tainted defeat.)

And we should keep in mind that Nixon’s disastrous politics got him re-elected in 1972 by an overwhelming margin over a radical Democrat. Many have already drawn the Dean-McGovern parallel. But that too may miss the point. Dean is far better organized than McGovern ever was, and he will have far greater command of the Democratic Party when he takes the nomination next summer in Boston. McGovern was a candidate born of chaos; Dean, whatever his policy faults, is arguably the best organized candidate ever heading into the primary season. That doesn’t mean Dean will win the presidency; it just means he won’t be casually dismissed as a fringe lunatic. President Bush, on the other hand, is starting to lose control of his base. When that happened to his father eleven years ago, it was pretty much game over by the conventions.

The only saving grace for Bush is that he won’t face a primary challenge as his father did from Pat Buchanan. The only two postwar presidents to lose re-election—George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter—were irrevocably weakened by strong early primary challengers. A third president, Lyndon Johnson, pulled out of a re-election race when a number of strong challengers entered the field. Bush’s clear path to re-nomination gives him a strong incumbency advantage heading into 2004, and that may be enough to secure reelection. But the question remains, how much philosophical and economic damage will the president do on his path to reelection? The Medicare bill was the largest political attack on free market philosophy since Bill Clinton pushed through his tax increase in 1993. I shudder to think what Bush has in mind for a second term encore.

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