The Corner

Levin vs. Wehner on Bush vs. Reagan

Mark Levin and Pete Wehner are having a spirited and civil but serious argument about how George W. Bush measures up to the Gipper Gold Standard. I’m not going to try to score this like Ali-Frazier; I like both men, and besides, I’ve already delivered my Cranky Flakes breakfast-inspired beatdown for the day. But three of Pete’s weaker points deserve comment, I think.

First, immigration. On the surface, Reagan and Bush look alike on immigration policy (though there are a few important differences that can be noted about scope and scale of Reagan’s amnesty). But Reagan had a superior political and rhetorical grasp of the issue that Bush lacked. Reagan emphasized assimilation — that immigrants could and should become citizens, in the meaningful sense of that term. Regardless of whether you side with Brother Krikorian or the open-borders Wall Street Journal editorial page, this is the one space in the immigration debate where multicultural liberals cannot go. So Bush should have made their life uncomfortable by arguing about it the way Reagan did. Gipper excerpt #1 (some plainly extemporaneous remarks): 

I have, a number of times, said that you may call it mysticism, but I have always believed that this land was put here to be found by a special kind of people. And may I simply say also, a man wrote me a letter, and I would call to your attention what he did to mine. You could go from here to live in another country, France, but you wouldn’t become a Frenchman. You could go to Japan and live there, but you wouldn’t become a Japanese. But people from every corner of the world can come to this country and become an American.

Bush should have talked more like that. Neither he nor McCain ever did that I can recall.

Second, Supreme Court appointments. Pete rightly notes the botched appointments of Sandra Day O’Connor (though, in fairness, it took her ten years to go bad; her first ruling on an abortion case in 1983 got it exactly right — in dissent she said the logic of Roe was untenable); Kennedy, remember, was Reagan’s third choice in 1987 after Bork and Ginsberg went down (and they knew Kennedy was a weak nominee, but had no one else vetted, amazingly enough). Roberts and Alito are stellar, but please let’s recall that we only got Alito because the conservative movement rebelled against Bush’s original reckless choice of Harriet Myers. Pete ought to be careful counting that as a triumph of foresight; Reagan never considered putting Meese or French Smith or other buddies on the Court just because he liked them. He knew the stakes were too high. About Bush we know no such thing based on the Myers pick.

Third: TARP. I’ll leave it to others to argue whether TARP was necessary. But of one thing I am certain: The Bush administration’s panicky reaction to the crisis (esp. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson) made a bad situation immensely worse. And it contrasts starkly with Reagan’s reaction to the stock market crash of 1987. Reagan, Treasury Secretary James Baker, and rookie Fed chief Greenspan all reacted very calmly. Markets calmed down in a matter of days. Within weeks it was clear that the economy and banking system were fine. But it was a close-run thing, especially the day after the original crash, when the NYSE came within minutes of total collapse, which would have touched off a real 1907-style panic. If Reagan and his team had carried on like the White House and Paulson did in September 2008, they could have turned that panicky moment into a significant economic crisis. This is not a matter of ideology, but does get to the area of judgment and temperament, where Reagan was superior in my opinion.


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