Bush, Nixon, & LBJ
December 8 2003
Re-election year is shaping up as positively for George W. Bush as it
did for LBJ in 1964 and Richard Nixon in 1972.© 2003 Creators
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
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
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.
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