George W. Bush is going to be focused on his legacy for the next two years. He doesn’t want his legacy to be 9/11 or the war in Iraq. Merely coping with a crisis does not give a president a prominent place in history. Certainly the Iraq war will leave a mixed legacy at best — toppling Hussein was good, but the handling of the insurgency was terrible. Anyway, the war’s final reckoning we won’t know for a long time, if ever. The nature of what the neocons were thinking when they decided to invade Iraq ironically cancels out the potential for historical credit.
For example: If Britain had invaded Germany when Hitler marched his armies into the Rhineland in 1936 in violation of the treaty of Locarno, the Nazis would have been defeated, Hitler likely deposed and, we know now, perhaps 50 million lives would have been saved. But no one would know about that now, because history only runs forward, not backward. Such a move by Britain might have been seen as unwarranted aggression at the time, and infamous for the rest of history. That’s why the British government didn’t do it, even though they had a right to, and the dead from WWII would wish for it.
I think the neocons around Bush were determined to jump ahead of the curve of history. We’ll never really know if what they did saved any lives from, say, a nuclear Hussein. Right now, it mostly looks like a bloody mess, and the neocons are finished. The dismissal of Rumsfeld closes that chapter, even though the war grinds on.
So where will Bush turn to build a legacy? Every president of my lifetime has left at least one positive thing for which history will remember them. In some cases the fulfillment of their legacy occurred after they left office.
Eisenhower — The Interstate Highway system.
Kennedy — The Apollo program.
Johnson — the Civil Rights bill, Voting Rights Act and similar measures to fulfill the promise of equal rights for all Americans.
Nixon — Opening up China
Ford — Pardoning Nixon, which wrapped up the Watergate episode.
Carter — Arab/Israeli peace accords
Reagan — Taming inflation for a generation; peacefully ending the Cold War.
Bush 41 — Winning the first Gulf War (which inspired the Coen Brothers classic “The Big Lebowski.”)
Clinton — Welfare reform, NAFTA.
Bush 43 has done nothing comparable. If his presidency ended today, he’d be seen as the president who was on duty on 9/11, and rallied the nation. But that’s not a legacy, and in fact one could argue that he has failed to persuade the entire country that we are really at war with Islamic fundamentalists. Bush turned it into a divisive political issue — although I can’t put all the blame for that on him. He’d also be seen as the president who topped Hussein, but at this point, that looks like an outrageously costly accomplishment — although maybe history will judge it differently.
I don’t think Bush will be satisfied to leave things that way. Oh, it’s possible. He might already be doing the Crawford Countdown. There was always an element of truth in Will Farrell’s Bush parodies in 2000, in which Bush seemed ambivalent about being president, seeing as how it was such a hard job. But I tend to think by now, he hungers for respect and validation from future historians. So what will he do?
Given the current makeup of Congress, it will have to be bipartisan. I’m going to guess that he’s going to take another run at Social Security. Saving that program from the baby-boom bulge would be something to point to. My guess is that’s what he’ll try.
I know what he’d really like. The liberal side of W has to do with immigration. He sincerely believes that the illegal aliens working in this country now should become citizens, in some way. It’s good for business, and it’s humanitarian; that’s how he sees it. Maybe he’ll go in that direction, but if he did, I think the politics would be explosive. Not only would the Republican party fall apart, but significant parts of the Democratic party might be tempted to redefine itself as a nationalist party, the party of Lou Dobbs, as Slate’s Jacob Weisberg puts it today.
Most of those (Democrats) who reclaimed Republican seats ran hard against free trade, globalization, and any sort of moderate immigration policy. That these Democrats won makes it likely that others will take up their reactionary call. Some of the newcomers may even be foolish enough to try to govern on the basis of their misguided theory.
Until we know where Bush is going to take his legacy fever — and until we know if he even has one — it’s impossible to really predict the 2008 election. The next two years will set it up, just as Clinton’s last two years set up the trainwreck of 2000.