Reaching for a Place in History

By Lou Cannon and Carl M. Cannon
Sunday, January 27, 2008

As President Bush prepares to deliver his last State of the Union address tomorrow night, a legion of pundits, politicians and, yes, historians is already assigning the 43rd president his final place in history. These commentators, and especially those who confidently assert that Bush is the "worst president in history," would do well to remember the British historian C.V. Wedgwood's observation: "History is written backward but lived forward. Those who know the end of the story can never know what it was like at the time." We all know -- or think we do -- what things are like in our union now, with an economy hitting a rough patch and a foreign war grinding on with no end in sight. But we don't know how the story will turn out.

Bush is admittedly so unpopular that even Republican presidential candidates rarely mention him, preferring instead to compare themselves to the GOP's great icon, Ronald Reagan. We both actually think that Bush bears some comparison to Reagan, at least on the home front. Even so, it's a safe bet that the Republican nominee who emerges from the present melee will not be eager to have Bush at his side during the fall campaign.

Such downturns are hardly new in U.S. history. For decades after the Great Depression, no Republican candidate wanted Herbert Hoover within hailing distance. Fifty-six years ago, few Democrats cared to share a platform with the discredited Harry S. Truman, widely seen as an ill-spoken, partisan rube who had led the nation into a needless foreign war. (Sound familiar?) Truman hit the lowest job-approval ratings in the history of the Gallup poll, including Richard M. Nixon's on the eve of his resignation.

Today, the pendulum has swung. Many historians blame Hoover's predecessors, not Hoover, for the high tariff rates and other excesses that led to the Depression. Meanwhile, historians place Truman close to the top rank of modern presidents. These reversals of historical fortune raise the question: Why is it so difficult to judge presidents, especially while they still occupy the Oval Office?

Three reasons help explain why it's folly to rate a sitting president. First, history isn't written by a single person or school of academic thought. So George W. Bush has a point when he notes, in an admittedly self-serving way, that scholars are still arguing about the first president named George. Second, we have no idea what the future holds. Voters judge their presidents -- and their presidential candidates, for that matter -- based on who (and what) has come before. A president's historical legacy, by contrast, is also dependent on who and what comes after. When Dwight D. Eisenhower left office in 1961, for example, one of his presumed foreign policy accomplishments was the CIA-led overthrow of Iran's popular, supposedly pro-Soviet ruler and the installation of the pro-Western shah. The United States is still paying for that strategy.

Then there's the third factor: The excesses of a current president often make previously neglected characteristics in another president seem desirable. Truman's reassessment gathered steam 20 years after he left office -- just as Nixon's true character was revealed on the Watergate tapes. Nixon's scheming and manipulations made Truman's blunt style seem benign.

Today, Americans are judging Bush as part of the process of sorting out their feelings about the crop of candidates to replace him. For Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in particular and the other Democrats in general, the answer to nearly every policy question is that they'd do it differently from Bush, as you'd expect. What's unusual is that this year's Republican candidates are pretending that they've never heard of Bush -- and saying that they'd do whatever Reagan would.

After all, Reagan's message was a major political winner. He unseated the incumbent Jimmy Carter in 1980, then won one of the great landslides in U.S. history four years later. In 1989, as Reagan headed to retirement in California, he posted the highest job-approval rating of any outgoing president. He was succeeded in office by his vice president, a result often attributed to Americans' desire for "a third Reagan term."

In 2008, the Republicans seeking to succeed George H.W. Bush's son in office are not gunning for a "third George W. Bush term" -- more like a fourth Reagan term. And although it may be a fool's errand to already assign the current president his ultimate place in the pantheon of presidents, we believe that George W. Bush can be meaningfully compared to Ronald Reagan.

By the time Reagan left office, he had remade the GOP in his own image. Movement conservatives tended to view his successor, George H.W. Bush, as an insufficiently pure torchbearer of the Reagan legacy. But in 2000, something curious happened: The party establishment, including numerous Reaganauts, coalesced around the first Bush's son as the Great Conservative Hope. No less an eminence than Reagan secretary of state George Shultz, retired to think-tank life at the Hoover Institution, went around assuring skeptical conservatives that "this young man" from Texas was a worthy inheritor of the Reagan mantle.

On some issues he has been. On taxes and judicial appointments in particular, Bush's conservatism has been constant and effective. He undid the Clinton-era tax increases (that in turn had undone some of Reagan's cuts) across the board, so that nearly every taxpayer in the country received a break.

By conservative lights, federal court appointments are even more important; tax cuts can be repealed, but federal judgeships are for life. Here too, Bush has justified the faith conservatives placed in him -- and then some. His two Supreme Court appointees, John G. Roberts Jr. and Samuel A. Alito Jr., made many of the party faithful even happier than Reagan's less predictable troika of Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony Kennedy and Antonin Scalia. When he leaves office, Bush will have appointed approximately one third of the judges on the federal bench, tilting it indisputably to the right. Terry Eastland, a Justice Department official in the Reagan administration and now publisher of the Weekly Standard, calls Bush's judicial appointments his "strongest achievement."

Bush can also legitimately claim the Reagan mantle on immigration, at least in spirit. Bush's failed reforms echoed the humane, reasonable 1986 law signed by Reagan. It is a sign -- and not a good one -- of how much American politics has changed since then that congressional Republicans wouldn't back their own president's compassionate approach, and that Democrats barely lifted a finger to support reforms they favored lest they help Bush politically.

If we considered just the domestic front, the Bush-Reagan comparisons would be more flattering to the younger man. But in the wake of U.S. anger and activism after 9/11, Bush led the nation into a preventive war against Iraq. Notwithstanding the complicity of a malleable Congress (including virtually all the Democrats with presidential aspirations, save Sen. Barack Obama), this was Bush's war. We doubt it would have been Reagan's. Despite the widespread support for the 2003 invasion among Reaganites in Congress, our research has convinced us that Reagan -- prone to lower-key measures such as arming the Nicaraguan contras, burned from sending the Marines to Lebanon in 1983 and generally inclined to see the United States as a shining exemplar rather than a mailed conqueror -- would not have undertaken Bush's nation-building war. We can't know how Iraq will turn out either, but it is decisively shaping near-term perceptions of Bush's presidency.

In 1980 and 1984, Reagan's coattails carried hundreds of Republicans into seats in state legislatures. In eight years of Reagan's rule, the percentage of Americans who identified themselves as Republicans grew from 33 percent to 42, while the proportion of self-identified Democrats fell below 50 percent for the first time since the era of Franklin D. Roosevelt. These trends let the Republicans capture both houses of Congress in 1994 and hold them until 2006. Much of Newt Gingrich's famed "Contract With America" was drawn from Reagan's ideas, recycled from his second-term State of the Union addresses.

That is all in peril now. "It took 30 years to build the Reagan coalition," Catholic University political scientist John Kenneth White wrote on the eve of the 2006 midterm elections. "It has taken George W. Bush just two years to destroy it."

This harsh judgment attributes too much to one man. For one thing, Reagan's role in helping end the Cold War removed one of the pillars that united conservatives and made their philosophy palatable to a majority of Americans. For another, Bush is hardly responsible for every legislative miscalculation, grotesque budget "earmark" or outright bribe accepted by congressional Republicans during his tenure -- all key factors in helping drive Americans away from the GOP.

Nonetheless, politics is ultimately about keeping score. Bush's approval rating is now in Carter territory, less than 30 percent of Americans hold a positive view of the Republican Party, and Democratic presidential candidates have overtaken the Republicans in campaign money, votes and crowds. The Republicans' chances of taking Congress back from the Democrats are slim. So we can indeed reach a short-term political judgment of George W. Bush: He is a disaster -- if not the worst president of all time, then at least the worst since Carter, Hoover or any other recent failure. But who knows how the story will end?

Lou and Carl M. Cannon are the authors of "Reagan's Disciple: George W. Bush's Troubled Quest for a Presidential Legacy."

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