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The Most Dangerous President Ever

by Harold Meyerson Tuesday, Apr. 22, 2003 at 7:05 AM

I miss Ronald Reagan.

I know, I know: Reagan was our first president to proclaim government the problem, to cut taxes massively on the rich, to deliberately create a deficit so immense that the government's impoverishment did indeed become a problem. He waged a war of dubious merit and clear illegality in Central America; he pandered to the most bigoted elements in American society.

The United States would be a far better place had he not been elected.

But politics deals in comparatives, not absolutes. And when I compare Reagan with his ideological heir currently occupying the White House, I'll take the Gipper, hands down. George W. Bush is much the meaner president (and man). He is far more factional than Reagan was. And he is incomparably more dangerous than Reagan or any other president in this nation's history.

Forces that first assembled and ideas that first appeared during Reagan's presidency have now had two decades to develop -- to grow more powerful and more marginal simultaneously. That is one reason why Bush is so dangerous now. Policies that were but twinkles in the Reaganites' eyes -- a war on the mixed economy and the multilateral world order -- have reappeared fully grown in Bush's presidency.

What Bush seems determined to extirpate are the basic forms of common security in America. His particular targets seem disproportionately the handiwork of years ending in "5." From 1965, there's Medicare, which he seeks to subordinate to the pay-as-you-can calculus of HMOs; from 1945, there's the United Nations and the whole structure of postwar alliances, which he seeks to subordinate to an imperial America freed from international laws and treaties; from 1935, there's Social Security, which he still seeks to privatize, and the Wagner Act, whose pro-labor tilt he seeks to obliterate in his tax policy.

Underpinning these assaults is a decided preference for a more social (and international) Darwinistic order -- though in this uniquely Old Testament White House, Darwinism is the love whose name cannot be spoken.

If this is an agenda that the Reaganites could only dream of, it's just partly because they didn't have enough support in Congress. It's also because they had too many fair-weather friends across the nation, many of whom would never have contemplated such radical reorderings. The Republican congressional leaders in Reagan's time were Bob Michel in the House and Howard Baker in the Senate -- moderates, respectively, from the Midwest (Illinois) and the Upper South (Tennessee). Reagan won election in 1980 by a 10 percent margin over Jimmy Carter in the popular vote and a 489-to-49 majority in the Electoral College. He prevailed over Carter and John Anderson in every region of the country (only New England was close), winning both California and New York.

Bush, of course, is not even a plurality president, and his victory in the Electoral College was entirely regional in nature. In the two decades since Reagan, the Republican Party has grown smaller but deeper -- becoming above all the party of the white South, as well as the Mountain States, the depopulating prairie and church-going America. But for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), the Republican legislative leaders in Bush's time -- Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas), Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) -- have been southern right-wingers. Bush's nonplurality is less diverse and more embattled than Reagan's majority. And Bush himself is less confident, more confrontational than Reagan.

Reagan, in Hendrik Hertzberg's memorable phrase, was "a closet tolerant." While he'd grown up in the small-town Midwest and inherited its provincialism, he'd spent his adult years in the fleshpots of Hollywood. Bush's provincialism, by contrast, was the result of his own existential choices. His grandfather was a pillar of the old Wall Street-dominated GOP; his father -- as special envoy to China, CIA director and UN ambassador before becoming vice president and then president -- was as cosmopolitan a figure as the old Republican establishment had produced in years. That W. traveled to Europe just once before his election as governor of Texas bespeaks a curiosity about and comfort level with the wider world that is almost a rebuke to preceding generations of Bushes.

At heart, the current Bush is a warrior for a region, a faction, a part of America. No national calamity has tempered his zeal for his factional agenda. His determination to reward the "investor class" (that is, still, the rich), to appoint socially reactionary judges, to favor his business cronies has not waned in wartime. His desire to make Americans reliant on the market, rather than social savings, has not been deterred by the worst decline in the markets since the Great Depression.

Throughout American history, presidents have downplayed the most divisive elements of their agenda at times of crisis. As the nation moved toward World War II, Franklin Roosevelt announced a cessation to New Deal experimentation and brought in Republicans to run the War and Navy departments. Lincoln came to power in a disintegrating nation and appointed all his major Republican rivals -- such national leaders as William Seward and Salmon Chase -- to his cabinet. (Imagine George W. Bush giving the Department of Defense to John McCain!) Bush, by contrast, has in his policies and appointments remained resolutely a president of faction. Colin Powell is the one exception here, but consider whom exactly Powell represents in the Bush coalition: Bush's father.

This factional tilt is partly a matter of strategy. Bush and his political consigliere, Karl Rove, place great stress on rewarding the Republican right-wing base. As they see it, George Bush Senior was defeated in 1992 because he broke his pledge never to raise taxes, thereby alienating the conservative activists without whom a Republican cannot win. In fact, the senior Bush's failure to alleviate, or even address, a serious recession is what cost him the election, but Rove is convinced that by governing on the right, providing military security for all and voicing a threadbare rhetoric of compassion, his boy George can win re-election.

And so, by strategy, inclination and conviction, George W. Bush has been pursuing a reckless, even ridiculous, but always right-wing agenda -- shredding a global-security structure at a time requiring unprecedented international integration, shredding a domestic safety net at a time when the private sector provides radically less security than it did a generation ago. No American president has ever played quite so fast and loose with the well-being of the American people.

In foreign policy, the Bush administration seems above all a coalition of religious and secular millenarians. For many fundamentalists involved in Republican politics, the United Nations and other instruments of "world government" are literally satanic. For the almost entirely secular neoconservatives who provide most of the intellectual direction for this administration, the United Nations, the European Union, the International Criminal Court and kindred institutions are all obstacles to the emergence of unchallenged American hegemony. The neos don't view the coming American empire as God's kingdom, of course; they see it -- better yet -- as their own.

But the neos', and the administration's, ability to see anything other than their own desires is in question. The fact that U.S. power has long been enhanced by America's alliances and its reputation for liberal egalitarianism is nowhere on their radar screen. And a couple of weeks into the war, it's now apparent just how ideologically blinkered the administration's view of Iraq actually was, and how that view has already imperiled our troops, the Iraqi people and any larger strategic objectives the war was supposed to serve.

In its overreliance on a small number of neo-friendly Iraqi expatriates to gauge the mood of the Iraqi people, in its belief that our forces would be greeted as liberators, the administration has made almost the identical error that the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations made at the Bay of Pigs. In each instance, ideology and hope were substituted for factual assessment; in each instance, the people have not risen to join U.S.-backed forces (in Cuba) or U.S. forces (in Iraq) to overthrow their tyrant. In Iraq the administration has underestimated the size and intensity of the forces committed to fighting for Saddam Hussein -- forgetting everything we have learned about the infrastructure of a modern totalitarian state. It has forgotten, too, the power of nationalism in human affairs, especially in postcolonial nations. And in proposing to subordinate postwar Iraq to direct Pentagon control, it has all but ensured that our liberation (in the administration's assessment) of Iraq will be viewed as a neocolonial occupation, by Iraqis and just about everybody else. In so doing, it has inflamed anti-American sentiment throughout the world, and in the Arab world particularly, for years if not decades to come. Finally, because this is explicitly a war of choice rather than necessity, and because we have chosen to fight over the popular opposition of virtually every other nation, we are naked before our enemies. As an already apprehensive Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has noted, we have likely created a hundred new Osama bin Ladens with this war.

Some experienced Washington journalists -- Robert Dreyfuss in this magazine [see "Just the Beginning," TAP, April 2003], Joshua Marshall in The Washington Monthly -- have spent time with the neocons and come back to report that growing Islamic militance in the Arab world is precisely what the neos want; it justifies the United States in extending the conflict to other nations until the entire region is transformed. In a sense, this parallels the beliefs of the growing number of religious Armageddonists who see chaos in the Middle East as a prelude to the coming rapture. It's hard to say which idea is loonier, or more dangerous.

For Bush himself, overthrowing Saddam Hussein serves political, ideological and personal agendas. Politically, Hussein is the best available substitute for the unlocatable bin Laden -- and even if we can't find Hussein, we can at least, as is not the case with bin Laden, depose him. Ideologically, the war and the doctrine of preemption express the militarism, unilateralism and fear of international institutions that characterize much of the Republican base in the South and the Mountain States. Personally, by overthrowing Hussein in this manner, Bush completes the unfinished work of his father while consigning to history Bush Senior's world of alliances and multilateralism.

No wonder Bush seems at ease with this war -- at least more at ease than with the diplomacy that preceded it.

As with his foreign policy, no level of factual refutation seems to make a dent in Bush's economic policies. His programs not only shift the burden of Americans' economic security to an increasingly deregulated private economy, they do so at a time when the deregulated private economy is singularly unable to provide economic security. Given how the market has performed over the past two years, you might think that that would slow the course of the administration's economic agenda. But, as with foreign policy, that would understate the role of blind faith within George W. Bush's White House.

Behind Bush's economic policies lurk a novel political strategy and a malignant ideological viewpoint. Politically, the administration is counting on its proposed elimination of the dividend tax to win the support of what it says is the fast-growing and newly decisive shareholder electorate. Here again wish outruns reality: As Jeff Faux has noted in these pages [see "Who Gets to Retire?", TAP, June 17, 2002], fewer than half of the private-sector employees in the United States have any kind of pension or savings plan on the job. Only the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans have major investments in their 401(k)s, and it was only they who truly flourished in the boom of the 1990s. That leaves roughly 40 percent of Americans for whom stock values matter, but probably not nearly so much as wages, and 50 percent for whom stock values have no direct effect whatsoever.

Still, even if the vision of a shareholder majority is a chimera, rewarding the rich remains the linchpin policy of playing to the Republican base -- in this case, its funder base. So, too, is lifting regulations on those sectors of American business that find regulations most onerous: low-wage employers, extractive industries -- the industries of the historically low-wage South. Indeed, an animus against wage labor is at the center of Bush economics. In proposing to eliminate the dividend tax and the estate tax, and to enable families to shelter up to ,000 in investment income every year, Bush is essentially proposing to eliminate taxation on all income except wages. Bush also opposes any federal increase in the minimum wage, unless a state can opt out of it.

But then, as Michael Lind reminds us in his new book, Made in Texas, Bush's Texas, like the South generally, is historically and currently a low-wage, nonunion region with an abysmal level of social protections; only federal military and aerospace projects have paid blue-collar workers a decent wage there. When Bush commends the privatization of Social Security or the HMO-ization of Medicare, it's worth noting that the percentage of Texans under 65 without medical insurance for all or part of 2001-2002 -- 39.9 percent -- was the highest in the land.

That government which governs in secret is inherently dangerous. Contracts go to cronies, regulations get lifted, troops get deployed, all with no public scrutiny. Halliburton is currently putting out fires in Iraqi oil wells, on a contract that didn't go out for bid.

Which brings us to Dick Cheney, the most influential figure in the administration after Bush and the most influential vice president in U.S. history. By a number of accounts, it was Cheney who convinced Bush, early last July, that we had to go to war with Iraq. But Cheney's most distinctive contribution to this administration is his penchant for near-absolute executive power. Serving in the House during the Reagan administration -- and as the first leader of the more militant conservative forces that later came to power with House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) -- Cheney argued that the president should be able to back the Contras' war in Nicaragua free from congressional oversight. As Bush Senior's defense secretary, he contended that the president needed no congressional approval to wage the Gulf War. As vice president, Cheney has insisted that the composition of his energy-policy task force be kept secret, and opposed going to the United Nations for a second resolution. In an administration determined to free American power from all constraint and business power from most regulation, Cheney's particular contribution has been to keep power as unchecked -- and often as unseen -- as possible.

So where, in the panoply of American presidents, do we situate Bush? He's not the first president to try to reconstruct the economic order. But the president who really attempted a general fix -- Franklin Roosevelt -- did so because the old order was plainly collapsing. No such situation exists today. Worse yet, what Bush is proposing is to erect a new economy by giving more power to the shakiest element -- the private-sector safety net -- of the old.

Just over a century ago, William McKinley set America on the course of acquiring a colonial empire, setting off a debate over America's proper role in the world every bit as impassioned as the one raging today. McKinley's path was a radical departure from past practice, but the United States was still a second-tier power. The shift did not destabilize the world. A half-century before that, James Polk plunged us into war with Mexico over considerable northern-state opposition (including, in the later phases of the war, that of Congressman Abraham Lincoln), but at that point, America was a third-tier power.

The three presidents who sought to build a multilateral framework for international affairs were Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. Wilson's plan was killed in its crib when Congress refused to ratify our entry into the League of Nations. Roosevelt's and Truman's contributions -- setting up a structure of international law, bringing prosperity and freedom to Western Europe, cementing alliances with other democracies, containing and eventually defeating Soviet communism -- are the enduring triumphs of U.S. foreign policy. Bush seems bent on destroying Roosevelt's and Truman's handiwork, however, and substituting a far more grandiose version of Polk's and McKinley's, in what is distinctly a postcolonial world. As with his assault on Roosevelt's New Deal order, he professes to replace an architecture that may be flawed but certainly isn't broken -- in this case, with an empire not likely to be backed up by the consent of the governed.

None of these presidents, great or awful, seems quite comparable to Bush the Younger. There is another, however, who comes to mind. He, too, had a relentlessly regional perspective, and a clear sense of estrangement from that part of America that did not support him. He was not much impressed with the claims of wage labor. His values were militaristic. He had dreams of building an empire at gunpoint. And he was willing to tear up the larger political order, which had worked reasonably well for about 60 years, to advance his factional cause. The American president -- though not of the United States -- whom George W. Bush most nearly resembles is the Confederacy's Jefferson Davis.

Yes, I know: Bush is no racist, and certainly no proponent of slavery. He is not grotesque; he is merely disgraceful. But, as with Davis, obtaining Bush's defeat is an urgent matter of national security -- and national honor.

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