January 27, 2008

Reaching for a Place in History - washingtonpost.com

This is a very interesting column from Lou Cannon and Carl M Cannon (maybe his son?).

Cannon is the author of what I think is by far the best book on Reagan, one that came out in 1991 originally (if I recall correctly) and so thoroughly captured Reagan's politics and personality than no book has come close. Cannon was a journalist in California and then followed Reagan to DC to cover him there, and he defined Reagan so well that nobody has added much to the portrait.

I was at a conference last summer and someone pointedly asked a professor who was blithely declaring Bush the worst president in history how he thinks the inevitable revisionism might look. The professor, a pompous sort even given the context, declared that it would never happen. But it always does (except for regarding Buchanan perhaps). So, this piece is worth reading as food for thought.

(For the record, I am confident as a historian that the Bush era will always be seen as an unmitigated disaster and I can't imagine how someone will argue otherwise, though I know how these things shift. I suppose it is possible that the next administration could be worse, but that is a terrifying thought. Almost forgot to mention, Bush increased NSA spying powers today)

Reaching for a Place in History - washingtonpost.com: "By conservative lights, federal court appointments are even more important; tax cuts can be repealed, but federal judgeships are for life. Here too, Bush has justified the faith conservatives placed in him -- and then some. His two Supreme Court appointees, John G. Roberts Jr. and Samuel A. Alito Jr., made many of the party faithful even happier than Reagan's less predictable troika of Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony Kennedy and Antonin Scalia. When he leaves office, Bush will have appointed approximately one third of the judges on the federal bench, tilting it indisputably to the right. Terry Eastland, a Justice Department official in the Reagan administration and now publisher of the Weekly Standard, calls Bush's judicial appointments his 'strongest achievement.'"

If we considered just the domestic front, the Bush-Reagan comparisons would be more flattering to the younger man. But in the wake of U.S. anger and activism after 9/11, Bush led the nation into a preventive war against Iraq. Notwithstanding the complicity of a malleable Congress (including virtually all the Democrats with presidential aspirations, save Sen. Barack Obama), this was Bush's war. We doubt it would have been Reagan's. Despite the widespread support for the 2003 invasion among Reaganites in Congress, our research has convinced us that Reagan -- prone to lower-key measures such as arming the Nicaraguan contras, burned from sending the Marines to Lebanon in 1983 and generally inclined to see the United States as a shining exemplar rather than a mailed conqueror -- would not have undertaken Bush's nation-building war. We can't know how Iraq will turn out either, but it is decisively shaping near-term perceptions of Bush's presidency.

In 1980 and 1984, Reagan's coattails carried hundreds of Republicans into seats in state legislatures. In eight years of Reagan's rule, the percentage of Americans who identified themselves as Republicans grew from 33 percent to 42, while the proportion of self-identified Democrats fell below 50 percent for the first time since the era of Franklin D. Roosevelt. These trends let the Republicans capture both houses of Congress in 1994 and hold them until 2006. Much of Newt Gingrich's famed "Contract With America" was drawn from Reagan's ideas, recycled from his second-term State of the Union addresses.

That is all in peril now. "It took 30 years to build the Reagan coalition," Catholic University political scientist John Kenneth White wrote on the eve of the 2006 midterm elections. "It has taken George W. Bush just two years to destroy it."

This harsh judgment attributes too much to one man. For one thing, Reagan's role in helping end the Cold War removed one of the pillars that united conservatives and made their philosophy palatable to a majority of Americans. For another, Bush is hardly responsible for every legislative miscalculation, grotesque budget "earmark" or outright bribe accepted by congressional Republicans during his tenure -- all key factors in helping drive Americans away from the GOP.

Nonetheless, politics is ultimately about keeping score. Bush's approval rating is now in Carter territory, less than 30 percent of Americans hold a positive view of the Republican Party, and Democratic presidential candidates have overtaken the Republicans in campaign money, votes and crowds. The Republicans' chances of taking Congress back from the Democrats are slim. So we can indeed reach a short-term political judgment of George W. Bush: He is a disaster -- if not the worst president of all time, then at least the worst since Carter, Hoover or any other recent failure. But who knows how the story will end?

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