Friday, January 25, 2008

Bush v. Clinton

From Taranto's Best of the Web Today:

Duck Season

George W. Bush is a lame duck; he leaves office 361 days from today. Neither his vice president nor anyone who has served in his administration is seeking the presidency, so that a clean break is inevitable even if a Republican is elected in November. So how to explain this, reported by the Associated Press:

A liberal advocacy group plans to spend $8.5 million in a drive to ensure
that President Bush's public approval doesn't improve as his days in the
White House come to an end.

Americans United for Change plans to undertake a yearlong campaign, spending the bulk of the money on advertising, to keep public attention on what the group says are the Bush administration's failures, including the war in Iraq, the response to Hurricane Katrina and the current mortgage crisis.

In selling the plan to fundraisers, the group has argued that support for President Reagan was at a low of 42 percent in 1987 but climbed to 63 percent before he left office.

"All of a sudden he became a rallying cry for conservatives and their ideology," said Brad Woodhouse, the group's president. "Progressives are still living with that."

Woodhouse is worried that President Bush's approval ratings will rise, à la Reagan, causing him to "become a rallying cry for conservatives"? That seems an unbelievably far-fetched scenario. The public seems to have soured on Bush around the fall of 2005, and his approval ratings have been so low since then that he would be lucky (if he cared about such things) to match Reagan's 42% nadir.

That 42%, according to the New York Times, came in March 1987, a few months after the revelation that the president had sold weapons to Iran's mullahs and several months before Oliver North's dramatic congressional testimony helped turn public opinion back in the administration's favor.

Bush's low ratings, by contrast, have resulted from an accretion of what Americans United for Change calls his administration's "failures," and there has so far been scant evidence that even overcoming failure (as in Iraq since the surge) has a substantial effect on public opinion. Maybe Hurricane Katrina was the tipping point, or maybe it was just that Bush's flaws were more evident once he had won re-election and he was
being evaluated on his own terms rather than by comparison with John Kerry.
Whatever the case, the public seems to have made up its mind about President

This does not necessarily mean that ex-President Bush will always be viewed harshly. A president's popularity when leaving office does not necessarily predict his historical legacy; just ask Harding and Truman. The big question will be whether Bush's bold approach to foreign policy--and especially to Iraq--will turn out to have been the right one. Public opinion says no. History requires a lot more information, including information about things that have yet to happen, before yielding its verdict. And neither public opinion nor history will be much affected by partisan arguments made on one side or the other over the next year.

So why is Americans United for Change whistling past the graveyard like this?
Robert Hahn of has an intriguing explanation:

Maybe it's a McCain-Feingold idea. George Bush is not a candidate for any federal office. This means that "Americans United for Change" can spend infinite money trashing him, and they don't even have to report their donors to the [Federal Election Commission]. What's more, there is
inevitably going to be a certain, erm, latitude concerning what constitutes criticism of Bush and what constitutes criticism of Republican policies in general.

It's an intriguing theory: McCain-Feingold, by strictly policing political speech about the future, creates an incentive to dwell on the past.

It must be said, however, that there is a tendency toward such dwelling even apart from FEC-enforced strictures, as evidenced by the conduct of the one political player that is exempt from McCain-Feingold: the news media. Today the New York Times endorses John McCain in the Republican presidential primaries (an act of futility if ever there was one):

We have strong disagreements with all the Republicans running for president. . . . They are too wedded to discredited economic theories and unwilling even now to break with the legacy of President Bush. . . .

Still, there is a choice to be made, and it is an easy one. Senator John
McCain of Arizona is the only Republican who promises to end the George Bush style of governing from and on behalf of a small, angry fringe.

The paper's Hillary Clinton endorsement also goes on at length about

Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton would both help restore America's global
image, to which President Bush has done so much grievous harm. . . . They promise . . . a restoration of civil liberties and an end to the politics of division of George W. Bush and Karl Rove. . . .

It is unfair, especially after seven years of Mr. Bush's inept leadership,
but any Democrat will face tougher questioning about his or her fitness to be commander in chief. . . . [Obama] shows voters that he understands how much they hunger for a break with the Bush years, for leadership and vision and true bipartisanship. We hunger for that, too. . . .

We opposed President Bush's decision to invade Iraq and we disagree with Mrs. Clinton's vote for the resolution on the use of force. That's not the issue now. . . . Mr. Obama talks more about the damage Mr. Bush has done to civil liberties, the rule of law and the balance of powers.

Ronald Reagan won the presidency in part by not being Jimmy Carter, but his leadership and vision consisted in much more than just not being the other guy. There's something awfully dispiriting about the thought that not being Bush may prove sufficient to get another Clinton into the White House.

What Taranto excludes from his quote from is this:
Which reminds me. (And frankly, it ought to remind T. Boone Pickens as well). In
spite of the way former President Clinton is comporting himself, Bill Clinton is not a candidate for any federal office.

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