Skip to comments.Andrew Sullivan: Like Father, Like Son- Or in the Bushes' case, not
Posted on 07/28/2002 9:27:02 PM PDT by Pokey78
Originally published in the Sunday Times of London- July 28, 2002:
For Newsweek, it was too good an angle to miss. Their cover-story last week had a picture of the two presidents Bush with the headline, "Like Father, Like Son." Suddenly, with the stock market careening downhill, and with Bush's corporate buddies rivalling Osama as public villains, it felt like a replay of the early 1990s. Republicans on Capitol Hill were in full panic mode - especially those who face re-election battles this November. And lip-smacking Democrats anticipated yet another collapse in a Bush approval rating - from the stratosphere into the dumper of a corporate shredding machine.
Is this the Bush curse? Burdened with prosecuting a difficult war and inheriting an economy with severe imbalances, both Bushes have a superficially similar record. And one met a terrible end - a failed war and a lost election. But the key word there is: superficially. Scratch a little below the surface and the Democrats' wishful thinking looks more than a little complacent. The fact that the first Bush came a cropper because of the economy after 90 percent approval ratings during a Middle Eastern war doesn't necessarily mean the second Bush will suffer the same fate.
Take the economy. Both Bushes came into office with serious debt over-hang and corporate corruption. And both Bushes have dealt with these economic inheritances similarly. 41, as the Bushes refer to the senior Bush, had to deal with the savings and loan crunch - a huge collapse in the banking and mortgage sector. He didn't make the Japanese mistake. He let them fail and took a big economic and fiscal hit. In similar fashion, 43 refused to intervene to save Enron and has kept his distance from micro-managing the economy and markets. Both Bushes have therefore done the right thing - despite enormous short-term political blowback. That blowback destroyed the first Bush's career. Will it destroy the second's?
The answer, i'd suggest, lies in timing and context. The first Bush, inheriting the huge Reagan deficits, had to raise taxes to rescue the economy but at the same time fatally alienated his own party base. The second Bush, inheriting the Clinton surpluses, was able, in contrast, to lower taxes and shore up his base. 41 saw the economy bottom on the eve of his re-election campaign. 43 managed to get the mildest pseudo-recession in recent history at the beginning of his term, and most of the basic indicators show a growing economy for the next two years. Could 43 trip up on a double-dip slump? Anything's possible if consumer confidence collapses, but so far there's no hard evidence that that is happening. 43 is also somewhat lucky to have the market crash in the middle of the summer. It's the off-season, politically. Next month, Congress will be in recess and the president will have the national megaphone to himself. If the market recovers, there's a chance Bush's political fortunes may as well by the fall. And whatever is happening on Wall Street, September's awful anniversary will remind Americans of what really matters right now. And that can only play once again to Bush's strength.
Politically, the first Bush had a tougher hand to play as well. He'd been vice-president for the previous eight years and could hardly blame someone else for his economic inheritance. 43, in contrast, can legitimately argue that the corporate meltdown of this summer is a function of abuses that occurred under his predecessor. Even though there's plenty of guilt by association going around, there is as yet no hard direct link between this president Bush and the corporate scandals. But his father was intrinsically connected to the economic woes of his own time, because hed been in government for ten years when the recession hit. In this sense, W is more inoculated from fall-out than his father. Newsweek's poll last week found, for example, that while 47 percent of Americans blamed the president for either "a lot" or "some" of the corporate scandals, 54 percent blamed Clinton. While 25 percent said Bush bore no blame for the mess, only 20 percent said the same for his predecessor. So far, the Bushies haven't gone full bore in blaming the Clinton administration for the current woes, but if needs be, they have one more political weapon than the first Bush ever had.
As for the war, the difference is just as sharp. The first Bush won a classic post-war bump in approval after the conclusion of the Gulf War. It then evaporated within a couple of months. Americans already had a strong impression of 41 and they didn't relate. He'd always seemed like a decent preppy who was lucky enough to have been picked by Ronald Reagan. The war earned him respect but didn't deeply alter the public perception of him. 43, on the other hand, was relatively inchoate in the public mind until September 11. Then the American people bonded deeply with him as a human being. They liked him. They still do. He has a personal connection with the American people his father would have killed for. That's why the polls still show approval ratings close to 70 percent.
More significant, the two wars are characterologically different. The first Gulf War was a strategic and geo-political necessity. Nevertheless, public support was by no means guaranteed - and was wobbly up to the very outbreak of hostilities. The war in Afghanistan, in contrast, was a war of self-defense. Americans had been attacked. They overwhelmingly saw the need to fight back and help remove or reduce the threat.
But, unlike the Gulf war, the Afghanistan campaign was not and could not be the entire conflict. It was the beginning of a war, not its end. With the first Bush, the main political domestic risk was in fighting the war in the first place. With the second Bush, the main domestic political risk is in not continuing to fight the war. Most Americans realize that they are extremely vulnerable to a chemical, biological or even nuclear attack from Islamist terrorists and their state-sponsors. They also know that by far the most likely source for such weapons is Iraq. Bush has at least one more major war to fight (and almost certainly more after that). So the likelihood that a war-president defending his country from weapons of mass destruction will suffer a sharp collapse in domestic support is minimal. After the Gulf War, the immediate threat to the region was removed. After Afghanistan, the threat to American and Western citizens has only been kept at arm's length. It will grow as the days and months tick by. The major risk to the current president Bush's popularity is therefore simple really. It's if the war against Iraq fails.
And that's what some Democrats are aiming for - not that the war against Iraq will fail, but that it will never be attempted. They know that under current circumstances, their political openings are minimal. They also know that when war breaks out, they will be further shunted to the sidelines. So they desperately need to change the subject or forestall the war. What they long to do is use the corporate scandals to so weaken the president that he blinks in his mission against Saddam. If they can weaken the president's resolve, use the European media and governing elites to keep up the diplomatic pressure, and undermine the president's own ratings at home, they can perhaps avert a war and gain an edge. Last week saw the beginnings of the strategy. There were carefully placed op-eds in the New York Times and Washington Post questioning the need and resources for a war against Iraq. There was a bizarre love-note disguised as a profile of Colin Powell in the Times. There was a speech by Al Gore, questioning the timing and diplomatic blowback of war with Iraq. With each day that the horror of last September recedes from memory, the chances of lulling the American public back to sleep increases. And the chances of wounding Bush grow.
The trouble with this strategy of playing the same game against this Bush as was played against the last is an obvious one. It was tried before. The fact that it worked last time is no guarantee it will work again. This Bush is different. So is this economy. And so is the threat to America. What the president needs to do now is to ride out the current economic storm, remind the country of his mission and priorities, and prepare for the biggest test of his presidency. If he gets the war right, and saves Americans from the looming threat of mass destruction, then his legacy will be far deeper than his father's. And the political rewards that much greater.
"They" have obviously never looked President Bush in the eye. He has enough resolve for the entire country!
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