That cackling you’re hearing comes from the chorus of Bush critics (an all-inclusive term that accounts for spittle-flecked bloggers and moderate liberal finger-waggers alike) giddy over Bush’s basement-level poll numbers. Several bloggers have gone to the trouble of showing side-by-side charts of Bush’s approval rating following close behind former President Richard Nixon’s. At the end of the trail is the X-marks-the-spot treasure trove “Nixon resigns.”
#ad#Now, there’s a great deal that’s wrong with the comparison. Nixon didn’t resign because his poll numbers were low. The causation worked the other way. His poll numbers were low because he was involved in an impeachment-level scandal that prompted him to resign. I know there are many Bush haters clicking their ruby slippers together about how impeachment is around the corner, but let’s keep at least one foot on terra firma.
There are other problems with the comparison. The economy was a mess toward the end of Nixon’s term. It’s going gangbusters now. As bad as the Iraq war may be going, it hardly compares to the bloodshed of Vietnam. And as loud as the antiwar movement may be today, it amounts to little more than a historical reenactment of the antiwar protests of the 1960s and 1970s.
But there is one area where we can make somewhat useful comparisons between Nixon and Bush: their status as liberal Republicans.
Nixon has a fascinating reputation as one of the most right-wing presidents of the 20th century. This impression is largely a product of the fact that few presidents have been more hated by the Left. But simply because the left despises you doesn’t mean you’re particularly right-wing. If LBJ were alive, you could ask him about this. Or just take a look at poor Joe Lieberman.
The truth is, Nixon was the last of the New Deal-era liberal presidents. He sponsored and signed the legislation creating the Environmental Protection Agency, the Water Quality Improvement Act and the Endangered Species Act. He oversaw the establishment of Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Nixon created the Philadelphia Plan, the springboard for racial quotas; pushed for Title IX (the women’s “equality” law); and hired Leon Panetta (later Bill Clinton’s chief of staff) as his director of the office of civil rights.
Nixon pushed aggressively for national health insurance that would cover 100 percent of the nation’s poor children. He increased federal spending on health and education programs by more than 50 percent and massively boosted spending on the National Endowment for Humanities. He tried to increase welfare with his Family Assistance Plan and Child Development Act.
Economically, Nixon got along swell with the chamber of commerce crowd, but he was well to the left of almost any leading Democrat today, championing wage and price controls as a legitimate tool of state, and boasting “Now I am a Keynesian in economics.”
I could argue that Nixon’s amoral foreign policy is today alive and well in many corners of the Left, but that’s a distraction from my central point.
Bush is certainly to the right of Nixon on many issues. But at the philosophical level, he shares the Nixonians’ supreme confidence in the power of the state. Bush rejects limited government and many of the philosophical assumptions that underlie that position. He favors instead strong government. He believes, as he said in 2003, that when “somebody hurts, government has got to move.” His compassionate conservatism shares with Nixon’s moderate Republicanism a core faith that not only can the government love you, but it should spend money to prove its love. Beyond that, there seems to be no core set of principles that define Bush’s approach, and therefore, much like Nixon, no clearly communicable message that explains why he does things other than political calculation and expediency.
Again, I think this comparison can be taken too far. But explanations of Bush have often gone too far in the other direction. Critics think all you need to do to prove he’s a Reaganite is point to his tax cuts. Yammerers like Kevin Phillips point to Bush’s sincere Christianity and the rise of Christian conservatives to demonstrate he’s a “theocon.”
It’s worth remembering that Bush was always loyal to his father, who came out of the Nixon wing of the party and whose only term looks more than a little similar to his son’s second term.
Perhaps this unnoticed fact explains part of Bush’s falling poll numbers more than most observers are willing to admit. The modern conservative movement, from Goldwater to Reagan, was formed as a backlash against Nixonism. Today, Reaganite conservatives make up a majority of the Republican party. If Bush held the Reaganite line on liberty at home the way he does on liberty abroad, he’d be in a lot better shape. After all, if Bush’s own base supported him at their natural level, his job-approval numbers wouldn’t be stellar, but they wouldn’t have his enemies cackling, either.
— (c) 2006 Tribune Media Services