Bush’s Murphy’s Law (and Other Presidential Evolutions)

Bush’s Murphy’s Law (and Other Presidential Evolutions)

BOTCHED PRESIDENCIES open the way to change, sometimes for better (let’s hope now), sometimes for worse. Think of Jimmy Carter’s tenure, which left us in “malaise,” Ronald Reagan in Washington, and Ayatollah Khomeini in Tehran. Carter’s agenda for federalism and the economy tilted the country away from social liberalism. Religious sanctimony gained new purchase in public life, much to Jerry Falwell’s political advantage. Meanwhile, National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski trumpeted jihadism in the Mideast for the sake of anticommunism, oblivious to long-term implications. Conservatives grasped the opportunity provided by Carter’s tailspin presidency, branded it “liberal” (it was “conservative Democratic”), and put Republicans in the Oval Office for a dozen years.

It was hard to imagine anyone making more of a hash of things—until recently. Here’s Murphy’s new law: everything the Bush administration can do wrong, it will do wrong, from “Iraqi Freedom” to Gonzales “Justice.” The real problem, however, is not (copious) incompetence, but a worldview—swaggering, parochial, socially cruel—promoted for decades by militant conservatives. Some of them now hope to save the image of the “Reagan Revolution”—that golden age when ketchup was a school lunch vegetable and Iran-contra was globalization—from tailspinning Bush. But the folks who brought us Reagan also brought Bush. They should not get away with innocence by dissociation.

Reagan, like his intellectual and political forebears—William F. Buckley, Jr., and Barry Goldwater—struggled against fetters that ranged from New Deal legacies to Democratic Congresses. The paleo-conservatives rid themselves of constraints within the GOP by making “liberal” Republicanism extinct. (Once there was the Brontosaurus and also a Nelson Rockefeller.) The neoconservatives embraced Reagan for foreign policy reasons. By the 1990s, they declared that they were “neo” no more, just conservatives.

Bush’s victory (sic) in 2000 was no turn from this “evolution,” but its crest. More: the “conservative movement” was now in power without checks, because it dominated all branches of government. Six years later, survival of the paleo-fittest brought neo-malaise and, finally, fortunately, Democratic victories that open opportunities. But those victories come of a center-liberal configuration due largely to the war. It must hold. The left can best enhance it by speaking in a persuasive—not a purging—voice about how Americans should think straight politically and why conservatives haven’t shot straight. In this issue Robin Blackburn examines the nexus among taxes, power, and privilege. Theodore Marmor addresses the health insurance debate. Dan T. Carter considers the politics of the Sou...