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As Person of the Year, 2003, Time has chosen the American Soldier, a decision with which no patriot will quarrel. Whatever one believed about the necessity, wisdom or justice of the Iraq war, the American soldier did his duty and did it admirably well.

But if the old standards had prevailed at Time – What man had the greatest impact on world affairs, for good or ill, in 2003? – the Man of the Year would have to have been George W. Bush. He dominated both national and world events.

Ignoring the U.N., “Old Europe,” and the Arab and Islamic world, Bush invaded Iraq and occupied Baghdad in three weeks. In December, Saddam Hussein was pulled out of a rat hole and Col. Gadhafi said he had seen quite enough and was swearing off weapons of mass destruction.

By the third quarter, Bush’s widely criticized tax cuts had suddenly generated growth of 8.2 percent, and he enacted the largest entitlement program since the salad days of the Great Society, $400 billion for prescription drugs for seniors.

By year’s end, Bush was on course for the re-election his father was denied. His approval numbers were in the 60s, he faced no primary opponent, and he could anticipate a fall election against an angry liberal who was being daily carved up by his Democratic rivals.

Yet, like Richard Nixon, George Bush appears to have positioned himself for re-election – by shucking off conservative principle.

Consider: Just as Nixon ran huge back-to-back deficits in 1971 and 1972 and had his friend Arthur Burns gun the money supply at the Fed, Bush’s deficits in 2003 and 2004 will be the largest in peacetime history, and he has Greenspan holding interest rates at 1 percent.

Nixon cut the dollar loose from gold and saw it sink. Under Bush, the dollar has lost half its value against gold and the euro.

Nixon completed the Great Society, whose foundation had been laid by LBJ. And the immigration, education, entitlement and social-spending programs either created or enlarged by GWB call to mind the guns-and-butter days of LBJ.

Only the Bush tax cuts remind one of Ronald Reagan.

By 1972, Nixon policies may fairly have been described as Big Government, deficit-spending and detentist, the very antithesis of the conservatism that Barry Goldwater had preached in 1964. And for Barry’s “Why Not Victory?” Nixon had substituted “peace with honor.”

Indeed, by February 1972, Nixon, the old anti-communist warrior, was walking up the Great Wall of China. In June, he was in Moscow for the signing of SALT I and the baptism of detente. Before Election Day, Henry Kissinger had declared “peace is at hand” in South Vietnam.

By Jan. 1, 1973, Nixon had redefined what it meant to be a Republican. Though he and Spiro T. Agnew had run a conservative campaign against George McGovern on the social issues of amnesty for draft-dodgers, abortion and busing for racial balance, Nixon had not conducted anything resembling a conservative administration. Sen. Hugh Scott counseled GOP liberal colleagues to ignore the fire-and-brimstone speeches of Nixon and Agnew.

Said Scott, “They get the rhetoric, and we get the action.”

And so it has gone under George W. Bush. His enlargement of the Department of Education, an agency Republicans once pledged in their platforms to abolish, was carried out in collusion with Teddy Kennedy. His embrace of “diversity” at the University of Michigan calls to mind Nixon’s support of quotas in the Philadelphia Plan put together by Labor Secretary George Shultz.

Where Nixon did fitfully fight Democratic excesses in spending, by impounding funds, Bush has tanked totally. He has not vetoed a single bill. He is presiding over a budget deficit of $500 billion and a merchandise trade deficit of $500 billion. We are borrowing 10 percent of GDP to finance consumption. This is unsustainable. The only question is when our foreign creditors will decide to close the lending window and call in the loans.

Moreover, Bush is presiding over a structural crisis in the economy Nixon never knew – 40 straight months of lost manufacturing jobs and the monthly attrition of white-collar and information-technology jobs to Asia.

It was early in Nixon’s second term that the roof fell in, and his great initiatives – peace with honor in Vietnam and detente – turned rancid.

Hanoi, seeing Congress cut support to Saigon, prepared a final onslaught. Leonid Brezhnev, seeing Nixon weakened by Watergate, began cheating on arms control and preparing to intervene on the side of Egypt in the Yom Kippur War. Nixon had to call a nuclear alert to deter his partner in detente.

For Bush’s foreign policy, too, a testing time is coming. Even before his re-election, his Bush Doctrine is being defied by a Kim Jong Il, who appears hell-bent on forcing Bush to eat his words about “axis-of-evil” nations never being permitted to possess nuclear weapons. And six months after “Mission Accomplished,” the bloodletting in the Sunni Triangle continues.

Prediction: Bush is headed for a banquet year in 2004, but the bill will be coming in – big-time, as Dick Cheney would say – in 2005.

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