Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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June 8, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

GEORGE BUSH: THE NEXT REAGAN OR THE NEXT LBJ?....The best liberal defense of Ronald Reagan's presidency is probably a simple acknowledgment that after the Great Society excesses of the 60s and 70s a conservative backlash was inevitable sooner or later. In the event, Reagan turned out to be the leader of the backlash, but if it hadn't been him it would have been someone else. Reagan at least carried it off with more style than most.

Of course, backlashes work in both directions, something that occurred to me as I read a story in the LA Times this morning about George Bush's efforts to assume Reagan's mantle:

Officially, GOP leaders said it would be unseemly to talk about the political impact of Reagan's death. "We just want to make sure that Ronald Reagan's legacy is honored," Republican Party national chairman Ed Gillespie said.

But unofficially, several Republican strategists said the nation's outpouring of nostalgia and respect for Reagan may have offered Bush an opportunity to improve his flagging popularity....

The problem with comparing Bush to Reagan is that Bush comes off as a mediocre painter trying to emulate Picasso. He sees the brushstrokes on the surface and knows how to copy them, but because he doesn't understand their underlying purpose he ends up being only a clumsy and ultimately damaging imitation when he tries to craft a painting of his own.

No analogy is perfect, but in a lot of ways Bush strikes me as being to Reagan what LBJ was to Roosevelt. It's true that LBJ made some powerful and original contributions to the country, particularly in the area of civil rights, but in the end his legacy has been overshadowed by a pair of signature failures. The Great Society and the Vietnam War, consciously modeled on FDR's New Deal and his leadership during World War II, adopted the surface characteristics of FDR's great achievements but ended up as failures because LBJ didn't have Roosevelt's instinctive feel for public opinion or his grasp of why some things worked and some didn't.

Much the same can be said of George Bush. He learned Reagan's lesson that tax cuts could be powerful political symbols, but then turned that lesson into a blind rule that tax cuts are the answer to every economic problem. Likewise, on foreign policy he saw that Reagan was admired for his steadfast anticommunism, but failed to learn when and where to turn down the volume. As a result, he's a man with only one gear, overreliant on military solutions whether they're appropriate or not.

Like LBJ, Bush is a man who knows the notes but not the song. He learned the surface lessons of Reagan's presidency tax cuts, hawkishness, unyielding rhetoric but because he doesn't have the political sensitivity to understand what to do with them he has no choice except to simply offer more tax cuts and more hawkishness, whatever the problem. As a result, he overreaches in a way Reagan never did and will likely be the prime cause of the one thing he most fears: a liberal backlash. Welcome to the club.

UPDATE: I see that not everyone is buying this. That's OK. Let it sink in for a little while and see how it sounds tomorrow.

Remember, the analogy here isn't between everything LBJ and Bush have ever done, it's only an analogy about overreach caused by a superficial understanding of a predecessor's accomplishments. Starting in the mid-60s, liberals pushed their agenda farther and faster than the country could tolerate and the result was Ronald Reagan. Starting in the mid-90s and culminating with Bush, conservatives are doing the same. We have yet to see the result, of course.

Kevin Drum 7:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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