TCS Daily

Richard Milhouse Bush

By James Pinkerton - October 9, 2002 12:00 AM

The Republican president, a man from the west in his mid-50s, was elected in a squeaker--with less than 50 percent of the vote, in a three-way contest--running on a platform that stressed domestic issues, consciously saying little about foreign affairs. But once in office, he found that foreign war occupied most of his time. Indeed, he even found that foreign affairs gave him the strongest hand to play, politically. And so on the home front, he left key domestic issues to his high-profile lightning rod of an attorney general, letting many other domestic issues default by neglect to the left.

Does that sound a bit like George W. Bush? Maybe, but it also describes Richard Nixon. Nixon, of course, was a Californian who eked into office with just 43 percent of the vote. His campaign was mostly homefront slogans such as "law and order" and "bring us together," including also a specific pledge to purge the legacy of Lyndon Johnson's soft-on-crime attorney general, Ramsey Clark. Yes, the Vietnam War was raging all during the 1968 campaign year, but Nixon offered nothing about the war, other than to say he had a "secret plan" for ending it. But once in office, he found foreign affairs to be more congenial than domestic matters, and he left much of the domestic cut-and-thrusting to his attorney general, John Mitchell, who became the chief spearcatcher on hot-button issues including crime, civil liberties, and judicial selection. And in the 1970 midterm elections, Nixon found that talking about the war--although he didn't so much praise the Vietnam conflict as attack anti-war protestors--made for effective vote-getting. Ultimately, Nixon's neglect of the economy hurt him as well as the country; the Watergate scandal coincided with the 1973-4 recession, leaving Nixon with little support among those who worried about the economy, stupid.

Thirty years later, President Bush could find himself following a similar scenario. Elected as a "compassionate conservative" who would "restore honor and integrity to the Oval Office," he now finds himself focused on foreign military theaters. As White House pollster Matthew Dowd told a Republican audience in June, "The number one driver for our base motivationally is this war." And so like Nixon before him, this Western president, who talked domestic issues in his presidential campaign, is now talking war issues in his party's midterm election campaign. Some Dowdian base-motivating calculation seems to have worked its way up to the presidential podium, as when Bush, campaigning for '02 Senate candidate Doug Forrester, told a New Jersey throng that the Democrats in the Senate were "not interested in the security of the American people." That was strong stuff, and Bush quickly backed off, but the point was made.

Polls suggest that Bush has indeed been wise to pivot attention overseas. According to the latest Newsweek survey, Americans approve of Bush's handling of the "war on terror" by 70:23. Not bad. They even approve of his program of "regime change" in Iraq by a 60:30 margin. But on domestic issues, the numbers turn south. On handling the economy, Bush scores a mere 50:41, and on health care, he has a microscopic 44:43 edge.

Faced with those numbers, Karl Rove & Co. can hardly be blamed for wanting to talk about foreign affairs. Similarly, the Loyal Opposition can hardly be blamed for wanting to talk about domestic issues. Of course, if war and rumors of war dominate the headlines, the Republicans can expect to do well next month, as Americans rally 'round the flag. From a strictly Republican point of view, that may seem like a happy ending to this little tale of electoral one-upsmanship. But for those who think more about market-oriented policy than GOP politics, Bush's recasting as a neo-Nixonian war president who has little impact on the course of domestic events is ominous indeed.

To be sure, there are huge differences, three decades ago and now. For openers, Bush is not a crook. Nixon was.

Second, Nixon always wanted to be a foreign policy president; he really did have a secret plan to end the war in Vietnam--by going to China and thus discombobulating the communist bloc. By contrast, Bush was almost entirely focused on domestic issues; the one foreign topic he staked out was improving relations with Mexico--a backburner concern today.

Third, on domestic issues, Nixon was sometimes a closet liberal, citing the precedent of Tory British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, who sometimes outbid the political opponents to his left; Nixon relished the thought of "dishing the Whigs." And so he proposed big-government programs, including welfare reform and steps toward national health insurance; he even imposed wage and price controls in 1971. But it must be remembered that the Zeitgeist was different; the country was still in the thrall of the New Deal, few voices spoke up for limited government many more clicks to the left on economic issues than it is today. And so even as Nixon pursued his Democrat-dishing agenda, the Democrats of the late 60s and early 70s were dishing right back, deriding Nixon as too conservative--a derision infinitely amplified by a radical-chic media. And so while Nixon attempted to control spending through presidential "impoundment"--a practice disallowed by the courts, the 37th president had little choice but to go along with new agencies and programs, pressed by Democrats and the Left, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. Indeed, 1972 election results suggest that most Americans agreed with both sides: both Nixon and a substantial Democratic majority in Congress were re-elected handily that year.

Third, America was attacked on September 11, 2001. And so Bush was forced to change course, just as happened to earlier domestic-reform-minded presidents who found themselves in wars, including William McKinley, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt. And so America became a world power.

But of course, the logic of world power presupposes the logic of big government.

And more often than not, big governments and big empires get themselves into big wars. That's what happened to the British Empire in 1914. At the end of World War One, after they had suffered 908,371 dead, the British were in a mood to celebrate--and pay for--still more collective sacrifice. Just 13 days after the November 11 armistice, Prime Minister David Lloyd George exhorted Britons, "What is our task? To make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in." Who could argue against public comforting for veterans, and their widows, and their orphans? And for anyone else who sacrificed in the war effort? Nobody. And so Britain set on a course of public-sector expansionism--and for a time, red-flag socialism--that lasted for six decades, leaving Britain with a wonderfully strong government and a disastrously weak economy.

Of course, few today foresee that anything that the Bush administration has in mind will get us into anything like another Great War--even if nobody knows what the era of weapons of mass destruction portends.

Most likely, America will fight a "small" foreign war in Iraq over the next few months. But history shows that even small wars have not-so-small effects. Both Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson raised income tax rates to pay for the Korean and Vietnam wars. Indeed, the mostly bloodless Cold War saw a huge increase in domestic commitments, although those domestic-spending programs were often disguised as national-security programs, e.g., the National Defense Education Act of 1958. And so it is that the welfare state went hand in hand with the warfare state.

So now to Bush. No serious observer questions the need to respond to the 9-11 attacks, although many question his decision to extend the war to Iraq. But nobody can question that the huge commitment to greater spending, at home as well as abroad, has been made. On April 15, The Washington Post ran this headline: "2003 Budget Completes Big Jump in Spending." And here are the first few sentences, which should chills down the spine of any free-marketeer:

The Bush administration is poised to complete the biggest increase in government spending since the 1960s' "Great Society," the result of conducting the war on terrorism while substantially boosting the education and transportation budgets, according to a detailed analysis of government spending patterns. Spending on government programs will increase by 22 percent from 1999 to 2003 in inflation-adjusted dollars, according to the analysis by The Washington Post and vetted by budget experts in both parties.

And since then, of course, the President has inked a $190-billion farm bill, has signed on to a proposal for a Department of Homeland Security, and has committed to a bipartisan bidding war for prescription-drug benefits for seniors. After all, in a time such as this, as we mobilize for future sacrifice, who wants to be seen as diminishing, in any way, no matter how remote, the past sacrifice of "The Greatest Generation"?

And if Bush isn't interested in spending even more money, Congress is--to wit, more billions for drought relief. No wonder Congressional Budget Office projections on the surplus over the next decade have fallen from $5.6 trillion to $335 billion. And if spending continues to accelerate, for war or for peace or for both, that small surplus could become a swollen deficit. Democrats have their answer, of course: raise taxes. And Bush has sworn not to do that. Yet his father swore not to raise taxes--and he did, in 1990. Indeed, the deal that the first President Bush negotiated got much worse from a small-government point of view after August 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait. After that, he assumed the mantle of war president, and he was in no mood to attack the Democrats on domestic issues when he was trying to build a bipartisan foreign policy. History records that Bush did what he thought he had to do in 1990, but it also records that he lost his bid for re-election in 1992.

As for this Bush, let's stipulate that W. has much stronger free-enterprise instincts than either Nixon or his father. But let's also stipulate that history is a thicket of instincts gone awry. Consider: when's the last time W. made a major speech on the economy? Or on any other domestic issue? Or his judicial nominees, whom Senate Democrats block at will, paying, apparently, no political price? All his rhetorical firepower has been consumed by Iraq. And on Monday he gave yet another speech on the future of Saddam Hussein. Which is to say, Congressional Democrats and their government-engorging schemes are mostly getting a "bye" from the White House.

Put simply, Bush has made a choice: foreign policy is more important than domestic policy. And the Democrats have made their choice: domestic policy is more important than foreign policy. That is, they--most of them, anyway--will suppress their dovish instincts and support the war, even as they press for greater domestic spending. So it wouldn't be a surprise if both sides get what they most want: Bush will dominate foreign policy, and Democrats will dominate domestic policy.

But it could get worse for free marketeers. Bush could pull a complete switch, deciding that he likes foreign policy better. And why shouldn't he? After all, the foreign-policy mandarinate has already awarded him doctrinal status; the Bush Doctrine of pre-emption bids to rank up there with the Truman Doctrine of containment. Thus the Commander-in-Chief could get into the habit of forging bipartisan alliances on statecraft, leaving domestic details to others. That was in fact the path of previous Republican presidents: Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan in his second term, Bush.

From a libertarian/limited-government point of view, is this too bleak an assessment? Couldn't Bush come roaring back, energized by victory in Iraq to vanquish the Democrats? Perhaps, although one can recall that the same was once said of his father; in 1991, GOP cheerleaders predicted a liberal-busting "Operation Domestic Storm" in the wake of Desert Storm--and yet nothing happened. And yes, this President Bush could make a strong argument against the Democrats on taxes, spending and regulation; indeed, he might well prevail, challenging Tom Daschle & Co. to say specifically whether or not they would like to repeal his '01 tax cut.

So why isn't Bush doing it? The obvious explanation is that he has, in his mind at least, bigger things to worry about. And blunt lesson of history is that presidents only get so much political capital. If they spend it on one thing, they can't spend it on another; try as they might, they can't be all things to all voters. The smart presidents recognize their limitations; as Franklin D. Roosevelt observed in 1943, "It will be no longer Dr. New Deal. It will be Dr. Win the War." So it was for Nixon, too--his idea of the presidency was making deals with foreign leaders on foreign policy and making deals with Democratic leaders on domestic policy. Thus were Congressional Republicans left out of the equation.

Today, Bush is similarly transmogrifying. In arguably the most astonishing--and least noted--policy demarche of the 14 months since 9-11, he has signed on to a quasi-Kyoto global warming treaty. As the White House wrote in its September 20 document, National Security Strategy for the United States, "Our overall objective is to reduce America's greenhouse gas emissions relative to the size of our economy, cutting such emissions per unit of economic activity by 18 percent over the next 10 years." Of course, the big news about that white paper was the elaboration of the Bush Doctrine of pre-emption against terrorists and terror-states, as well as the commitment to ambitious democratization worldwide. And so Bush's extraordinary concession to the Greens received little attention.

And that's the point: during wartime, immediate military issues grab the most mindshare. But of course, reality is a stubborn thing. If, over the next few years, "Kyoto lite"--or maybe Kyoto-not-so-lite--starts to bite, then the economy could be chewed up. And then the voters will be looking for someone to punish. But by then, Bush could be on to new titles: Conqueror of Baghdad, perhaps even Supervisor of the Middle East. From that lofty world-historical perspective, he might not be too worried about the fate of an auto plant in Michigan or a coal mine in West Virginia. Of course, if the economy really gets ragged--more ragged than the 3000-point drop in the Dow since he was inaugurated--he could also be regarded as an ex-president, maybe after just a single term.

It's too soon to predict Bush's political future, but it's the right time to prognosticate about the future of the political economy. Bush never planned to be Nixonian in his shift to international relations, but Nixonian he has become--in effect, if not intent. The result of his activism around the world may be a gain for political freedom for other countries. But the result of his passivism here at home may well be a loss of economic freedom in this country.



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