Sunday, August 14, 2005

Bush: the LBJ of the Right

Frank Rich comments today in the New York Times on the similarities between the difficulties Bush is facing in trying to keep the homefront behind the war in Iraq, and those that the last Texan in the White House, Lyndon Johnson, faced when trying to keep the American public behind his handling of the Vietnam War. Indeed, the political homologies between our two Texan Presidents go much deeper than just the dismal similarity between their polling numbers regarding their foreign wars.

To understand why both Presidents got into trouble in these foreign lands, one must consider their radical, ambitious domestic agendas -- for in large measure, both Presidents regarded these wars as mechanisms for drafting (or shoring up) political support for a domestic legislative agenda which otherwise would likely have been extremely difficult to push through.

Both LBJ and George Bush had grandiose visions for remaking the role of the federal government in public life. For LBJ, this vision revolved around abolishing racial discrimination and massively increasing the scope of state-sponsored social infrastructure: public housing, higher and longer unemployment benefits, food stamps, support for single mothers, and so on -- all the programs eventually grouped under the rubric of "The Great Society." Analogously, though of course with utterly different political valence, Bush sought to radically change the role of the federal state. He advocated abolishing Social Security, amputating the state's regulatory scope, shifting of the federal tax burden from the rich to the middle class, and reinserting religion into the center of political action.

(It's also worth noting that another thing both these Texans had in common was a willingness to completely ignore the fiscal implications of their agendas, running huge deficits to promote their programmatic shifts. In this respect as well, LBJ's case should serve as a dark warning to the Bush regime. Although the Great Society was in many respects ideologically discredited by the late 1960s, what really did in liberalism was the stagflation of the late 1970s. The economic malaise of these years, itself the result of deficits run up in the late 1960s, caused the Great Society to seem not just like a utopian scheme of social engineering, but also like utter fiscal irresponsibility. Indeed, two generations later, the Democratic Party has yet to completely live down this reputation. Whether the same fate awaits the so-called conservatism of the Bush regime remains to be seen.)

But the most profound similarity between the regimes of the two Texans is the way they both got involved in fighting the foreign wars that would eventually destroy their reputations. To some extent both men felt their hands were forced: both LBJ and Bush believed that if they didn't fight these wars, then they would be unable to achieve their domestic agenda. LBJ believed that to promote his efforts to make the United States a more socially inclusive and democratic place, he had to retain his credibility for toughness against Communism. Had LBJ failed to look tough in Vietnam, he would have risked being red-baited by crypto-McCarthyites, or, worse, seen his political efficacity weakened, possibly to the point of losing office. In the wake of 9-11, Bush experienced a similar political challenge, but his forceful seizure of control over the political dynamic was executed with a degree of cynicism (and too-clever-by-half-ness) that would have shamed even wily old LBJ.

During the first months of the Bush Presidency, recall, the major national sensibility was a one of lazy drift; the knock on the Bush regime was that it was rudderless, burdened by the legacy of a disputed election and without widespread support for its domestic agenda. This total absence of urgency challenged Bush's effort to promote his radical agenda. (As Bush himself observed in his 1999 autobiography, A Charge to Keep, "it's hard to win votes for massive reform unless there is a crisis.") In this respect, the events of 9-11 were a political godsend for the Bush regime. What had appeared to be a drifting Presidency, suddenly became a "War Presidency."

The reason Bush wanted or needed to be a "War President" was that only a Presidency presiding over a national crisis would be able to push through a radical agenda. Like FDR before him (in fact, Karl Rove specifically credited FDR with having invented the strategy), Bush ruthlessly exploited the national solidarity brought on by the trauma of a surprise attack to wage war not just on enemies abroad, but also (perhaps above all) on the political enemies of his domestic agenda. Insofar as remotely plausible, all of Bush's policies -- including all his domestic policies -- were now rearticulated in terms of the demand of "The Global War on Terror." Although Bush is sometimes castigated for failing to ask Americans to make sacrifices in their personal lives on behalf of the war, this is strictly speaking not true: what he demanded of the American middle class was that they endorse a massive transfer of wealth from them to the wealthy in the form of even more massive tax cuts for economic elites.

In general, as has been amply documented, the Bushies ruthlessly exploited the war atmosphere in the 2002 midterm congressional campaign, tarring Democrats opposed to Bush's domestic agenda as being weak in the war on terror. The Democrats selected for this treatment included even a triple-amputee war veteran like Georgia Senator Max Cleland. The cynicism of this political strategy -- exploiting wartime national solidarity to destroy domestic political enemies -- was so brazen that most Democrats couldn't bring themselves to call the spade for what it was. For the most part, the Democrats as a group just quailed and quivered, and did nothing to stop this political dynamic, which would culminate in John Kerry's catastrophic defeat in the November 2004 election.

When the GOP's unprecedented success in the 2002 midterm elections proved the effectiveness of this political strategy, the question for the Bush regime became how to keep this momentum and strategy going in the wake of the Afghan War. (That war was described to the American public as a great success, despite the embarrassing failure to net Osama bin Laden, who escaped the initial assault and who has continued to elude capture for years.) Indeed, as is now clear, by the summer of 2002, with the Afghan campaign receding into the background, the Bush regime had become a War Presidency in search of a war. And the place they chose to begin that search was, of course, Iraq.

It was in this context, in a series of speeches made in the summer of 2002, that Bush declared that a war had begun that was without any clear end-point, and even without a clear enemy. The very lack of clarity of the scope of the war of course was quite intentional, since it meant that the idea of the GWOT could be invoked at any time to help generate political capital for promoting Bush's domestic agenda. The idea proposed by the conservative establishment was very clearly a long series of quick wars, each of which would add prestige to the stalwart Republican Party, thus providing the ammunition the GOP needed to further its domestic agenda.

And so it was, in the Spring of 2003 that the American people and its feckless Senate leadership answered Bush's call for war. In due course, the marines arrived in Baghdad, and "Mission Accomplished" was declared. The only remaining question, as far as the Bushies were concerned, was what items on the domestic shopping list they were going to spend all this great political capital on first.

But of course, a funny thing happened on the way to that splendid little denouement, and that funny thing was the disastrous experience of the actual war in Iraq -- a reality only being acknowledged now. Like LBJ before him, Bush began to discover to his undoubtedly growing horror that a war started in order to gain political capital to spend on the domestic program, was instead turning into a massive black hole of political capital, whose inexorable force was sucking away all energy from the domestic agenda. If the situation weren't so grotesque, one might be tempted to comment on the poetic justice of it all.

Before I hit the publish button, I'll make one final observation. What I have been setting forth is, I believe, the most accurate and plausible way to understand the political machinations of this White House over the past 47 months. But this is not to say that everyone who favored the Iraq War was also in favor of Bush's domestic agenda, or even that everyone who supported the war had a skuldugging ulterior motive for promoting the war. Indeed, part of the political genius of the Bush (Rove) political strategy is that it managed to exploit the political goodwill of many reasonable people. The problem, in short, was not that the liberal hawks were cynics like the Bushies. Rather, the problem is that they were dupes.

In fact, the liberal hawks were dupes not just once, but twice. They were dupes, first, for believing that the war was likely to be anything but a disaster. But this is not even the worst of their mistakes. The worst of their mistakes was to not realize that the Bush regime's motive for the war in Iraq was mainly to generate political capital to spend on its disgusting domestic agenda. The liberals who chose to support Bush's war effort were in effect signing up to raise political capital for George Bush's domestic political agenda. If the war had been a success, then Bush would have used the political capital from that success to push through an absolutely atrocious set of domestic policies. In sum, liberals who chose to support Bush in this cynical and ruthless attempt to use a war to generate support for his domestic agenda were committing, to paraphrase Talleyrand, not just a crime, but a mistake. Thus does the mix of foolishness and knavery unfold on the pro-war left.


Anonymous said...


Wonderfully provocative. Please revise and resubmit - like to The Nation or Salon. As it stands, it's too pat, makes the Bush administration too thoroughly single-minded, coherent, focused in its Machiavellianism. Applies more to somebody lik Grover Norquist, maybe Chaney. The Neo-Cons are long-time true believers in the foreign policy and don't entirely agree with, or care so much about the domestic agenda -- and it appears that at least for a moment, they converted Bush to their foreign policy vision. As to conservative Republicans in general, the single most important consideration may have been mobilizing national chauvinism and identifying it with the Republican Party as a goal in itself - chance to further brand Democrats, liberals, the left as "anti-American," traitors, weaklings, etc. As to Liberal Hawks, let me call to mind what I've written about Paul Berman:

Some readers, not knowing Paul Berman, have interpreted his Terror and Liberalism as advocating a version of the Reagan Doctrine war of ideas (against the "Vietnam syndrome") and its contemporary offspring, the Neoconservative campaign for empire. A fairer extrapolation would be that Paul aspires to something like what the National Democratic Institute (the Democratic Party affiliated component of the National Endowment for Democracy) achieved in Chile in 1987-88 and in Nicaragua in 1989-90 — injecting itself into, taking over, and reformulating the Reagan Doctrine war of ideas so as to really make it an effective force for centrist democratization — "nailing the mask of democracy to the faces" not only of Pinochet and the Sandinista National Directorate, but also of the hardcore Reaganauts in the National Security Council, the CIA, and Jesse Helms' staff (a number of whom hold positions on Bush's current National Security Council). But if such is Paul's ambition, then he must recognize that given the current power and influence of the likes of Chaney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Perle, he has a harder row to hoe than NDI did in the last years of the Reagan administration (given the impact of Iran-Contra) and under the first Bush administration. Who will end up whose useful idiot is a nice question.

Anonymous said...

I agree with many of of your conclusions, but to mirror Bill's comments it does make Bush seem singleminded in his approach to the whole war endeavor. I do not see that degree of intentionality in his actions and mindset.

If you consider the cast of characters, clearly we have a president that believes in a type of religious manifest destiny, or 'intelligent design' principal applied to his own life (9-11 was a test of a higher power). I've the feeling that Georgie must have subconsciously WANTED to hear that the man who tried to assassinate his father was the one responsible for all the evils 9-11. Killing Saddam became the reason to engage in the war- thus mission accomplished; Saddam is removed as a personal threat.

Of course, that whole framework is supported by a larger context and rational from the neo-cons (US hegeomony).

As for the far left, maybe next time they could push to be pro action where it matters. This country does need it's red meat, especially when bitten; why not focus on Afghanistan more at the outset?