Re-election year is shaping up as positively for George W. Bush as it did for LBJ in 1964 and Richard Nixon in 1972.
Recall: Both LBJ and Nixon had engineered surging economies for the election year. Both held the face cards in foreign policy in wartime, with electorates wary of the perceived radicalism of their rivals. Both were facing opponents, Barry Goldwater and George McGovern, who had been luridly painted as outside the mainstream. And both benefited from an opposition party polarized over its nominee.
So, if one had to bet the 401K, bet on “W.” But the LBJ and Nixon analogies, unfortunately, go deeper than that.
By 1964, LBJ had bet the farm on escalation in Vietnam. With his “Bring-home-the-coonskin-on-the wall!” bellicosity – like Bush’s “Bring ’em on!” – and his bombing of North Vietnam after the alleged attacks on the destroyers Maddox and C. Turner Joy in Tonkin Gulf, Lyndon Johnson was considered a hawk who was winning America’s war in Indochina.
By the time of Tet, 1968, however, soaring casualty rates and LBJ’s inability to win or end the war would make him a failed president and forever tarnish his place in American history.
By 1972, Nixon was adjudged a genius at foreign policy. Peace with honor was “at hand,” after he had bombed Hanoi and blockaded Haiphong in the spring. Nixon’s historic journey to China and SALT agreement with Leonid Brezhnev’s Moscow were considered coups unlike any achieved by a Cold War president. But by 1976, detente was a dirty word in GOP circles and Ronald Reagan was burning up the primaries with a campaign to dump Gerald Ford for not dumping detente and Henry Kissinger along with it.
What has George W. Bush wagered his presidency on? Bringing democracy to Iraq and denying rogue regimes nuclear weapons. That is the Bush Doctrine.
But if, in a second Bush term, America finds, after years of bloody endless guerrilla war, we must leave Iraq and let Baghdad fall to chaos and civil war, or into the hands of anti-American radicals, America will suffer a defeat greater than Vietnam. Should that happen, George W. Bush will be seen as a failed president, convicted of a hubristic march of folly for sending an army into Mesopotamia, ignorant of history and the almost-certain consequences.
If Pakistan, with its nuclear weapons, falls to an Islamic coup, the president’s Afghan project will collapse. If Iran or North Korea acquires nuclear weapons – and President Bush appears to have taken the military option off the table – the Bush Doctrine will be the Maginot Line of the 21st Century.
In short, entering his re-election year, George W. Bush seems, like LBJ and Nixon, to have embarked on ambitious policies that to prudent men seem not simply bold, but rash and fraught with long-term peril.
On the domestic front, there are also troubling parallels between LBJ in 1964, Nixon in 1972 and Bush in 2004.
LBJ cut taxes and embraced a guns-and-butter budget, and a bold civil-rights agenda. After his 1964 landslide, he launched his Great Society, a vast expansion of federal power and an unprecedented exercise in social engineering. But by 1968, the “New Economics” had failed, the nation was torn apart by riots and racial disorders, and the economy was on the skids.
Richard Nixon in 1972 – recalling the economic doldrums that defeated him in 1960 – fully funded LBJ’s Great Society, ran up huge deficits, and egged on Federal Reserve Chairman Arthur Burns to gun the money supply. Nixon then cut the dollar loose from gold, and imposed wage and price controls, to prevent any appearance of unsightly inflation prior to the election.
Politically, for LBJ and Nixon, the policies worked. LBJ won a 61 percent, 44-state landslide. Nixon won a 61 percent, 49-state landslide. By 1968, however, LBJ was a broken president. By November 1976, Nixon had spent two years in his San Clemente exile.
Bush is traveling the same road, having adopted what CNBC’s Ron Insana calls a “Kitchen Sink Stimulus Package.” He has cut taxes by nearly $2 trillion, is running a $500 billion federal deficit and a $500 billion trade deficit, and has let the dollar fall to help exports, cut imports and make manufacturers happy. He has refused to veto a single spending bill. And Alan Greenspan has held interest rates at 1 percent and let the money supply explode.
Mark my words: These chickens are coming home to roost for Bush, and they will raise a racket unlike any we have seen in years, as they did for LBJ, and for Nixon. Unfortunately for Howard Dean, as for Sens. Goldwater and McGovern, the chickens will probably not start home until well after November 2004.