"I was a lightweight trading on a famous name, they said." That was George W. Bush, then still governor of Texas, writing in his 1999 book, A Charge to Keep. He might have been pleased to know that "they," the purveyors of conventional wisdom, had said the same of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. "A pleasant man," the pundit Walter Lippmann famously called Roosevelt, "who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be president." H.L. Mencken dismissed him as "Roosevelt Minor."
When he sought the presidency, FDR had been governor of New York for all of four years. In that brief time, he had used his natural amiability to good effect, working the state's political machinery to pass some modest but significant reforms, but he had also taken care not to be seen as radical. In the presidential race, his views appeared to be eclectic bordering on confused. "He seemed to have no clear philosophy," wrote Michael Barone in 1990, in Our Country: The Shaping of America from Roosevelt to Reagan. In early 1933, no one in America, including Franklin Roosevelt, imagined how Roosevelt would govern as president.
Quite early in his presidency, as it became clear that Roosevelt would press the powers of his office to the limit and beyond, Mencken's condescension would turn to hatred, an enmity that many Americans shared. In today's era of Saint FDR, people forget that Roosevelt was, in his own day, a bitterly polarizing figure. To his adversaries, he seemed no ordinary opponent but a larger kind of menace, a radical whose determination to aggrandize Washington and himself portended an American dictatorship. Behind the mask of geniality, they saw a ruthless partisan who intended not to govern alongside the Republicans but to obliterate them.
The alarmists misunderstood FDR, as many misunderstand President Bush today, but they did not underrate his significance. By the time he was finished, FDR had greatly enlarged the federal government (from 3 percent of gross domestic product in 1930 to 10 percent in 1940), launched the welfare state, invented the modern regulatory state, and turned a provincial nation into a superpower. He had seized the Progressives' centralizing agenda, thrust it upon what had been a dourly Jeffersonian party, and used it to weld together the coalition—unionists, farmers, Northern blacks, Southern populists, and urban liberals—that brought the Democrats to dominance for a generation.
George W. Bush has been compared to a number of other presidents, such as Ronald Reagan, Harry Truman, and even William McKinley. It may say something, however, that at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner earlier this year, when National Journal's Carl Cannon brought up the topic of former presidents, Bush expressed singular admiration for FDR. "He was a strong wartime leader, and a very strong commander-in-chief," Bush remarked.
Had he pursued the subject, Bush might have found further parallels. Not the least is that Bush, like Roosevelt, is an accidental radical. He is an amiable establishmentarian who finds himself with the opportunity to effect transformational change, and who is seizing that opportunity and pushing the system to its limits. Or beyond.
Suppose, as seems quite possible, that Bush will sign a Medicare prescription drug benefit into law before the year is out. Then suppose, as a thought experiment, that Bush's presidency were to end next January, on the third anniversary of his inaugural. Bush would have done enough in three years to make an ambitious two-term president happy. On the domestic side:
Taxes. He cut them, not once but annually. He did this despite the fact that, after the first tax cut, it became clear that he was, with the slow economy's help, creating fiscal deficits as far as the eye could see. Bush's tax cuts, as they emerged seriatim, proved to be aimed not just at reducing the government's revenue but also at changing the structure of the tax code to reduce personal rates and, especially, to reduce taxes on capital accumulation.
Grover Norquist, a prominent Republican activist, claims that Bush will come back for a tax cut every year. White House officials I talked to would neither confirm nor deny this—probably because they don't yet know whether it's true—but they make no secret of Bush's commitment to both cutting and reforming taxes. "I think the president thinks the tax code has a lot of problems when it comes to the way it treats individuals and small businesses," says one White House aide.
Spending. At the same time he cut taxes, Bush increased spending, and not just a little. "He's the biggest-spending president we've had in a generation," says Stephen Moore, the president of the Club for Growth, a conservative anti-tax group. Moore noted that Bush has increased federal spending more in his first three years than President Clinton did in eight. "We passed the biggest farm bill, the biggest education bill, and we're about to pass the biggest expansion in an entitlement since the Great Society," says Moore. And an upcoming energy bill might be more of the same. "His fiscal record is appalling," Edward H. Crane, the president of the libertarian Cato Institute, recently told The New York Times.
Federal activism. Barry Goldwater, the father of modern small-government conservatism, argued that the federal government should have no education policies at all. Bush jettisoned that tenet and made Washington a force in education as never before. Bush boasts of "record levels of expenditure for elementary and secondary education programs." His No Child Left Behind Act has increased the federal government's share of education spending and used those dollars to establish annual testing and achievement standards in all 50 states, with the states driving but Washington supervising. Meanwhile, with the establishment of a muscular new Homeland Security Department, Bush has embarked on the most sweeping and centralizing reform of the federal government since at least President Truman's day. Goodbye, Barry Goldwater.
"Competitive sourcing." Commonly and undeservedly overlooked is the Bush administration's drive to open hundreds of thousands of federal jobs to private-sector competition. The Clinton White House began this process within the Pentagon, "but outside the Defense Department, job competitions were virtually unknown," reports the June 2003 issue of Government Executive magazine. Bush has expanded so-called "competitive sourcing" by orders of magnitude. A 1998 inventory conducted by the Clinton administration found 850,000 federal employees doing jobs deemed commercial in nature. The Bush administration intends to "compete" fully half of those jobs. This can be done administratively, without Congress's approval, and it's now well under way.
Health. "If a prescription drug bill passes this year, the administration will have promoted and passed a significant expansion of the welfare state in each of its first three years," writes Kevin A. Hassett, an economist with the American Enterprise Institute, in the July 14 issue of National Review magazine. The education and farm bills increased the federal government's power, but the effects of the new prescription drug benefit would overshadow them both. "The biggest expansion of government health benefits since the Great Society," Nancy-Ann DeParle, President Clinton's Medicare administrator, called it in The Washington Post. "Disaster" was the conservative Heritage Foundation's more succinct characterization.
Bush would cut an imposing figure had he accomplished only two or three of those things. And the White House has yet to roll out potential changes in Social Security. "We're not finished yet," one administration official says. "Before he's done, I think Social Security will be there." Bush will likely make private Social Security accounts an issue in the 2004 presidential race and then use his (as he hopes) strong electoral showing as a mandate for reform in 2005. Resetting FDR's crown jewel would, of course, be a momentous change, and note that any politically viable change would entail spending money, probably a lot of money, further widening the fiscal breach.
"If you can get fundamental reform," the administration official says, "he's willing to put up the dollars to get it." That about sums up the Bush approach to domestic policy. It also describes the president's approach to foreign affairs, where the policy shift is even greater, but where Bush is spending not primarily cash but diplomatic capital and international goodwill. Consider:
Treaties. On coming to office, Bush promptly rejected a series of international agreements. The best-known was the Kyoto global-warming treaty, but out the window with it went a small-arms agreement, a biological weapons agreement, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and the International Criminal Court. He then withdrew the United States from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, a cornerstone of the Cold War order. Most of that was before September 11.
Pre-emption. After 9/11, Bush dynamited the very foundation of Cold War diplomacy when he repudiated the doctrine of containment. "After September 11, the doctrine of containment just doesn't hold any water, as far as I'm concerned," he said earlier this year, with typical bluntness. "We must deal with threats before they hurt the American people again." Not content to act pre-emptively in Iraq, he went so far as to announce a doctrine of pre-emption, thus speaking loudly while carrying a big stick. Bush was well aware that he was knocking over furniture and shocking the world. He didn't mind. He seemed to feel that the world needed a paradigm change and that quiet incrementalism was not going to produce one.
The Middle East. Beginning with a speech on June 24 of last year, Bush likewise upended five decades of Middle East policy. Since the 1940s, the United States had refrained from calling for a Palestinian state and had accepted Arab authoritarianism as a given. Bush not only reversed both policies but yoked the two reversals together by conditioning Palestinian independence on Palestinian democratization. "Throwing out the rule book," is how Daniel Pipes, a prominent Middle East scholar, described Bush's actions, in a recent New York Post article. "It could well be the most surprising and daring step of his presidency," wrote Pipes—a step, he added, that did not emerge from the usual process of consensus-building in Washington but that instead "reflects the president's personal vision."
Underlying all of Bush's foreign-policy departures is a little-noted shift that may be the most fundamental of the bunch. Unlike foreign-policy realists (including his father), Bush does not believe that states should be regarded as legitimate just because they are stable and can be dealt with. And unlike internationalists (including his predecessor), he does not believe that states should be regarded as legitimate just because they are internationally recognized. He believes that legitimacy comes only from popular sovereignty and civilized behavior.
President Reagan horrified realists and internationalists alike by declaring that the Soviet Union was not a legitimate state. He would deal with the Soviet regime but never accept it. He aimed at regime change. Realists argued that Reagan's naivete would destabilize the world order, and internationalists feared that it would threaten hard-won human-rights agreements, but Reagan insisted—perhaps not so naively—that only freedom could produce stability and protect human rights.
Bush embraces Reagan's notion and extends it worldwide. He will deal with Saddam Hussein's Iraq, or Kim Jong Il's North Korea, or Yasir Arafat's Palestinian Authority, or Charles Taylor's Liberia, if he must, but he will not accept such a regime as entitled to exist and, one way or another, he will try to change it. Against such regimes, the use of force may be impractical or unwise, but it is certainly not illegitimate. Indeed, for Bush, the real puzzle is why anyone would object, in principle, to the toppling of a regime such as Saddam Hussein's, or why anyone would regard the United Nations, which no one ever voted for, as morally relevant.
And so Bush, like Reagan but more so, does not accept the world as he finds it. He regards the existing world order as unacceptably dangerous. The existing world order, returning the compliment, regards him the same way.
Onlookers find it hard to get a bead on this man. That he is audacious is obvious, but to what end? As was true of Roosevelt, Bush acts with a unifying style—energetic, daring, even radical in the sense of starting from scratch—but not with an evident philosophical unity. As was also true of Roosevelt, the lack of an evident governing principle gives rise to suspicions. Perhaps the only principle is to win.
Perhaps, but it seems probable that Bush is aiming at something more, both politically and substantively. Politically, he aims, as FDR did, to realign partisan loyalties. Substantively, he aims to redefine conservatism.
"The Republican Party in 1994 tested a proposition," says a White House aide: "that people wanted government to be radically reduced. And they found out that people didn't want government to be radically reduced." Bush saw this, and he saw that the anti-government conservatism of Goldwater and Reagan had reached a dead end; and if there is a single characteristic that distinguishes Bush, it is his willingness to meet a dead end with a bulldozer. In 2002, "he really did set out to have the Republican Party stand for something different," says Michael Gerson, who signed on with Bush in 1999 and is now his chief speechwriter.
Bush's view, expressed in his book and in the 2000 campaign, is that government curtails freedom not by being large or active but by making choices that should be left to the people. Without freedom of choice, people feel no responsibility, and Bush insists again and again, as he put it in the book: "I want to usher in a responsibility era."
If one way to give people more choices is to shrink government, fine. But if another way is to reform government—also fine. And if he needs to expand government to deliver more choices—well, he can live with that. For Bush, individual responsibility and Big Government are not necessarily opposed to each other, any more than global stability and regime change are necessarily opposites. Moreover, small-government conservatism was root-canal politics, but the new approach is a political winner. If you spend more money, people like you. If you give them more choices, they like you. But if you spend more money giving them more choices, they really like you.
And so, in the Bush paradigm, education reform buys tests and standards and public-school choice, and all of that helps parents judge and choose schools. The prescription drug benefit buys alternatives to one-size-fits-all, single-payer Medicare. Competitive sourcing buys alternatives to government bureaucrats. Social Security reform buys individual accounts. And so forth.
Many of these initiatives will make the federal government bigger or stronger, but, for Bush, that is beside the point, which is to change government's structure, not its size. The question is not how much government spends; it's how government spends. Conservatives have been obsessed with reducing the supply of government when instead they should reduce the demand for it; and the way to do that is by repudiating the Washington-knows-best legacy of the New Deal. Republicans will empower the people, and the people will empower Republicans.
"Twenty years from now," Norquist says, "who's demanding extra government if I have a 401(k) medical savings account, I've pre-saved for my old age, I have control over where I send my kids to school? Investing in smaller demand for state power down the road is a rational position."
So that is the sense in which the Bush paradigm is conservative, or at least imagines itself to be conservative. Besides, tax cuts dry up future Democratic spending initiatives; competitive sourcing weakens public employees unions; education reform weakens teachers unions; litigation reform weakens the trial lawyers; trade liberalization, another Bush priority, weakens private-sector unions. "The Democratic Party—trial lawyers, labor union leaders, the two wings of the dependency movement (people on welfare, people who manage welfare), the coercive utopians (people who tell us our cars should be teeny), government employees—all the parts of that coalition shrink," Norquist says, "and our coalition grows, every time you make one of these reforms."
The plan, therefore, has both tactical and strategic elements. In the short run, give people things they want; in the longer run, weaken the Democrats' base while creating, program by program, a new constituency of Republican loyalists who want the government to help them without bossing them around. Most important of all, however, is what might be thought of as the meta-strategy.
Essential to FDR's success in capturing the loyalty of two generations—first the New Deal generation, then the Great Society one—was his success in capturing the mantle of progressive reform for the Democrats. Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, had been a reformer, but so was Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican. FDR's hyperactive reformism decisively resolved the ambiguity. Regardless of what one thought of particular New Deal programs, as a group they established the Democrats as the party of progress. From that day to this, Republicans have been stereotyped as backward-looking and nay-saying—the stick-in-the mud party, the perennial advocate of "turning back the clock."
The identification of liberals and Democrats with progressivism is essential to the Democrats' political appeal and, especially, their self-confidence. When all else fails, they remain the party of enlightenment, not least in their own minds. Thus, in his new book, The Clinton Wars, Sidney Blumenthal, a former Clinton aide, characterizes Bush as attempting "to repeal the progressive policies of the 20th century." Progressive presidents (meaning Clinton) "are elected because they stand for the idea that the old ways will not work—and should not work," he writes, whereas conservative presidents (meaning Bush) "preserve their power through inertia.... The allies of conservative presidents are indifference, passivity, and complacency. Nostalgia is the emotion that underlies many conservative sentiments—a magical belief that if little is done, a simpler, happier time can be restored and a world of change kept at bay."
Conservatives, for their part, believe that today they are the ones who stand for progressive change, in the face of "reactionary liberalism," but they have never been able to convince the public. That is what Bush seeks to do, both by rejecting the mantra of minimal government and by passing reform after reform. Never mind how you feel about any one of his initiatives; as a group, they seek to establish that it is Republicans who now "stand for the idea that the old ways will not work." If the Democrats dig in their heels and fall back on stale rants against greed, inequality, and privatization, so much the better. The voters will know whom to thank for the empowering choices that Republicans intend to give them. As for which is the "party of nostalgia," the voters will also remember who defended, until the last dog died, single-payer Medicare, one-size-fits-all Social Security, schools without accountability, bureaucratic government monopolies, static economics, and Mutually Assured Destruction.
Reagan, the other conservative reformer among recent presidents, made important changes, but his agenda was more about undoing (Big Government, inflation, detente) than doing. He also had to deal with a Democratic Congress and a predominantly Democratic country. Bush, by contrast, can reasonably expect to enjoy eight years in office with Republican majorities in Congress and, effectively, on the Supreme Court. Republican and Democratic voter-registration numbers are now about even.
"In a certain way, a president who's willing to take on the way things are has to be presented with a historic opportunity," Gerson says. "The president has been presented with very significant economic challenges, the elements of a war, and the elements of a cold war, all at once. And that's given him both the opportunity and, in foreign policy, the requirement to do some new thinking." No president has been in that kind of position since Roosevelt.
So, will it work? It might. It might not.
In January 2019, 10 years after George W. Bush left the White House and retired from politics, a noted historian looked back on the Bush presidency.
"That it was a seminal administration is not in doubt. Bush set out to be a president who mattered, and this he achieved. He proved to be a risk taker like few the office has ever seen, and through his first term, difficult though this is to credit now, he seemed invincible.
"Again and again, he gambled and won. His critics said that withdrawal from the ABM Treaty would cause a dangerous rift with the Russians, that his war in Iraq would cause a permanent rift with Europe, and that his refusal to deal with Yasir Arafat would merely enhance Arafat's standing. Yet Russia accepted the ABM decision mildly, Europe moved toward Bush's position on intervention against rogue states, and a new Palestinian prime minister came to power.
"But the bets he had placed were large, and the positions he had taken were exposed, and in time what had looked like victories began to sour.
"The war in Iraq went well, but the occupation afterward deteriorated into a slow bloodletting. Military personnel disliked and resented serving in Iraq; their families protested; the steady toll of casualties discouraged the public. Re-enlistment rates sagged and the military was pinned down—all at a time when Bush was multiplying U.S. commitments. By the middle of his second term, American forces were spread thinner and scattered more widely than ever before, but readiness and morale were declining. In 2006, Bush was forced to float the idea of a military draft. His prestige never fully recovered from the ensuing backlash.
"America was weaker, yet the threat had grown. Bush's pre-emption policy was read, first by North Korea and Iran, and then by other troublesome states, as an invitation to arm up with nuclear weapons before Bush could stop them. One member of the 'axis of evil' (Saddam Hussein's Iraq) had been defeated, but by 2006 the other two had become nuclear powers, and other nations were rushing to follow. With so much nuclear proliferation on so many fronts, the administration found itself with few options but to downplay the very threats that it had once painted so starkly.
"The European Union, though fitfully cooperative, had grown alarmed by America's power and its own helplessness. Its new defense force, a pipe dream when Bush came to power, was deployed and active by the time he left. Alas, it was too weak to do much good against any determined adversary but strong enough to trip up the United States. That became clear when, to the Bush administration's chagrin, the Europeans dispatched military forces to independent Palestine.
"Palestine had been intended as a democratic seed in the authoritarian Middle East, but it was a failed state from the beginning. Born prematurely and unable to control its militants, it had degenerated into a haven for terrorists, who turned their suicide-bombing skills not just against Israel but also against U.S. interests. When Israel threatened war, Europe stepped in as 'trustee.' Predictably, Europe's forces were neither able nor willing to confront and disarm the Palestinian militants, but by blocking Israeli and American action, they became shields for a new rogue state—one that Bush himself had helped to create.
"Bush's opponents charged that the world was now more dangerous than before, and America's strategic position weaker. The charge, not unfounded, resonated with voters, whose confidence both in Bush and in American power was rapidly waning. First in the 2006 congressional campaign and then in the 2008 presidential election, the new call for 'strategic disengagement' caught hold. Left-wing pacifism and right-wing isolationism, both fringe movements when Bush took office, found new strength with mainstream voters. America, assertive and confident when Bush took over, had become gun-shy and inward-looking.
"Bush's domestic policies brought their own share of unintended consequences. Bush had argued that his dramatic expansion of Medicare contained new elements of competition that, over time, could be built upon to modernize the program; but interest-group politics ensured that nothing of the sort happened. Competition remained the small tail of a very large dog, a dog that developed a voracious appetite for tax dollars.
"There were no tax dollars to feed it. The demands of an overstretched military and an aging population, combined with Bush's tax cuts, had created a permanent fiscal crisis. Nor had the economy grown as hoped. Bush had let federal spending soar, both for the military and for entitlement programs, and the initial stimulative effects were more than offset by the economic drag of a burgeoning public sector. America was not Argentina, but by late in Bush's tenure it was clear that the alternative to becoming Argentina was to raise taxes painfully or cut benefits painfully or, more likely, do both. Voters felt angry and betrayed.
"As Medicare costs soared, it was only a matter of time until Washington imposed price controls on prescription drugs. That was what some liberals had wanted from the start; conservatives had counted on Bush to stand in the way, but the fiscal crisis and predictable demagoguery against 'Big Pharma' made resistance impossible. By the turn of the decade, America had established one of the world's most elaborate systems of drug price controls, and the leadership in pharmaceutical innovation had passed to Asia.
"Bush's most fervent wish had been to raise educational quality, but schools had not improved. States had quickly learned to design tests and standards that imposed no pain. From Washington's requiring standards to its actually setting them was but a small step, one that Congress took in 2007. That year the Education Department announced America's first national curriculum.
"The Republican coalition, united behind Bush in his days of early success, splintered and then fractured as his fortunes waned. The Reagan-Goldwater wing abhorred the centralization and carefree spending; business deplored the fiscal crisis and price controls; hawks were dispirited by the country's inward turn. Weary voters grew nostalgic for the Clinton era, with its prosperity and moderation. They wanted a change. In the Democratic landslide of 2008, they got it. The window for a Republican political alignment, open when Bush took office, had closed, probably for a generation.
"In 2009, George W. Bush retired to his ranch in Texas. His nation and his party were not reluctant to let him go. Today he lives in relative isolation, a figure in equal parts imposing and tragic. Bush, like Woodrow Wilson and Lyndon Johnson, had aimed high and achieved much. But, like them, he had let his impatience and impetuousness get the better of him. He was energetic and assertive, admirably so, but, like more than a few politicians before him, he mistook boldness for sustainability. He pushed the system and the public too hard. He had campaigned originally as a 'humble' man, and in the end humility was forced upon him."
When Antonio de Mendoza, Spain's great first viceroy of Mexico, left office in 1550, he left behind advice for his successor. The secret of good government, he said, was "to do little and do it slowly."
Even before the 2000 election, Bush made it clear to anyone who bothered to read his book that he would not be Mendoza's sort of leader—or, for that matter, the sort his father was. "I learned a great deal from my dad's presidency and campaigns," the younger Bush wrote in A Charge to Keep. "I learned you must spend political capital when you earn it, or it withers and dies." His father, he noted ruefully, "never spent the capital he earned from the success of Desert Storm."
In the book, Bush returns again and again to his theory of political capital. Page 123: "I believe you have to spend political capital or it withers and dies. And I wanted to spend my capital on something profound." Page 218: "I had earned political capital.... Now was the time to spend that capital on a bold agenda." His aversion to hoarding approval seems to flow as much from his personality as from his political experience. On page 2 he recounts hearing a sermon that "changed my life." It was, he writes, "a rousing call to make the most of every moment, discard reservations, throw caution to the wind, rise to the challenge." A few pages later: "I live in the moment, seize opportunities, and try to make the most of them."
Bush's mentality seems more like that of an entrepreneurial CEO than of a conventional politician: He tends to look for strategies that cut to the heart of the problem at hand, rather than strategies that minimize conflict. "He doesn't like 'small ball'—that's his term," one of his aides says.
"My faith frees me," Bush writes, early in his book. "Frees me to make the decisions that others might not like. Frees me to try to do the right thing, even though it may not poll well. Frees me to enjoy life and not worry about what comes next." He clearly is not a man who fears failure. Neither was Franklin Roosevelt, though FDR was freed not by faith but by a national crisis in which all the risks were on the side of doing too little.
The point of this article is not to predict failure for George W. Bush, much less to wish it. The point is to dramatize the stakes he is playing for. He is risking his presidency, his nation's fiscal and geopolitical strength, and the conservative movement. If he wins, he is FDR. If he loses, he is LBJ.