History judges good presidents by what they do, bad ones by how long they take to undo. Although history hasn’t yet caught up with President George W. Bush, midterm elections are about to—and those are often a referendum on presidential performance. Now is therefore as good a time as any to jump to a conclusion: the question history will ask is whether Bush’s presidency was as bad as Richard Nixon’s or only as bad as Jimmy Carter’s.
Five years ago, with the ruins of the Twin Towers still smoking, many Americans—I should own that I was one of them—looked at Bush and thought they saw a Churchill, or at least a Truman: a leader fortuitously equipped for a difficult job at a critical moment. Bush’s partisans are still holding out for misunderestimated greatness, to be vindicated in the end. They think Bush will be to the war on jihadism what Truman was to the Cold War: the guy who established the course that will see the country through decades of peril.
To those disinclined to suspend judgment for fifty years, however, Bush’s course is looking less like a long road than a dead end. Even many conservatives have lost faith; in a recent interview with CBS News, no less a conservative luminary than William F. Buckley declared, “There will be no legacy for Mr. Bush.” For the disenchanted—again, including me—the relevant points of reference now are not Churchill or Truman but Nixon and Carter.
One of the best ways to judge a president is to ask, Did he solve more problems than he created? This test is more severe than it may seem, because presidents are prone to mischief and grandiosity. With Presidents Reagan, Bush Senior, and Clinton, the country had a good run. Reagan curtailed inflation and rebuilt U.S. strength; Bush broke the back of the deficit and closed out the Cold War peacefully; Clinton finished the fiscal cleanup and managed to assert U.S. supremacy while enhancing U.S. popularity. All made mistakes, but they got more right than wrong. Nixon and Carter, on the other hand, both did some good things (Nixon went to China, Carter deregulated transportation); but both, in the end, turned in negative balance sheets.
Carter’s weak leadership drained American confidence and prestige, and his clumsy regulation of energy markets and dithering on inflation damaged the economy. Reagan, however, moved briskly to restore confidence, decontrol energy, and support the monetary tightening that subdued inflation. By the end of Reagan’s first term, Carter’s mistakes were memories. Carter took only a few years to undo, which made him more a downer than a disaster.
Nixon was a disaster. Unwinding him took decades, not years. It was Nixon whose cynical pump priming and absurd wage and price controls ignited double-digit inflation and bequeathed it to three succeeding presidents, with aftershocks (for instance, the savings and loan crisis) that lasted into the George H. W. Bush years. It was Nixon whose fiscal policies—cutting defense unsustainably while expanding entitlement programs—caused the deficit crisis that would torment every president through Clinton. Watergate and the administration’s mendacious handling of Vietnam undermined confidence in government for a generation. Nixon’s mistakes—and there were others—were gifts that kept on giving.