Can President George W. Bush somehow manage to resuscitate his administration in his final two years in office, in the fashion that Ronald Reagan did in 1987-88? That seems to be the dream at the Bush White House. As he has in the past, the current president seems to be attempting to use the Reagan presidency as a model. The problem is that the comparison is preposterous.
It starts with a superficial similarity: Reagan’s presidency hit its nadir six years into his presidency, amid the Iran-Contra scandal, much as the Bush presidency has reached a low point today. By the early months of 1987, the Reagan administration seemed to be in hopeless disarray. Mr Reagan fired his chief of staff; his national security adviser resigned; the previous national security adviser attempted suicide; Reagan’s Central Intelligence Agency director was in the hospital on his deathbed; the Democrats had taken over the Senate; Congress was vigorously investigating the administration. Time Magazine’s cover story for March 9 1987 asked: “Can Reagan Recover?” (It quoted a rising young Republican congressman named Newt Gingrich, who said: “He will never again be the Mr Reagan that he was before he blew it.”) Yet Mr Reagan eventually left office on a high note. In his last two years, overcoming the opposition of conservatives in his own party, he negotiated and won Senate approval for an arms-control treaty banning an entire class of nuclear weapons. He held summits with Mikhail Gorbachev in Washington and Moscow that eased cold war tensions. In 1987, his administration persuaded Chun Doo Hwan, the South Korean president, to give way to democratic change.
The George W. Bush administration now seems to be hoping for a similar, Reagan-style turnround. The president may conceivably look for diplomacy to come up with something he can leave as a legacy – in North Korea, for example, or (after the goading of the Baker-Hamilton report) in the Middle East. In his rhetoric, Mr Bush may try to move towards the political centre by emphasising the themes he tried out in last year’s State of the Union speech: that he is opposed to isolationism and protectionism.
Yet all these efforts seem likely to fail, for the simple reason that in both personal and political terms, Mr Bush has been profoundly different from Mr Reagan, in ways that go to the heart of Mr Bush’s situation today.
The most obvious reason he will not be able to turn things round is that there is a war on: it will consume the administration’s energies over the final two years. The Iraq war underscores the first and most important difference between the two presidents: Mr Reagan was extremely cautious about sending troops into conflict. His military intervention in Grenada was small-scale and quick; when American marines were killed in Lebanon, he reacted by quickly withdrawing the troops. The ideas that eventually became known as the “Powell doctrine” for the use of force – that US forces should be sent to war only under limited circumstances, on a carefully defined mission, in overwhelming numbers and with a clear understanding of how the conflict will end – were originally drafted in 1984 by Caspar Weinberger, defence secretary, for Mr Reagan. (Weinberger’s military aide at the time was Colin Powell, who then embraced and updated Weinberger’s rules when he became chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.) It was precisely these Reagan-era rules that the present Bush administration cast aside in going to war in Iraq.
Second, in foreign policy, Mr Reagan, in spite of his truculent rhetoric, took care not to rule out dialogue with adversaries. One of Mr Reagan’s most hawkish advisers on Soviet policy, Richard Pipes, recalled in his memoir how, even amid the defence build-up of Reagan’s early years and his denunciation of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire”, he specifically warned his advisers that the administration should do nothing to “forego compromise and quiet diplomacy” with Moscow.
Third, as a politician Mr Reagan courted bipartisan support from the start of his administration. The thrust of his strategy was to win over Democrats in Congress, not humiliate them or draw partisan lines, as Mr Bush has. To be sure, Mr Reagan had a greater need to do this: he faced a Democratic House of Representatives throughout his presidency, while Mr Bush has until now possessed a Republican majority. Mr Reagan also knew that he had the ability, as a speaker, to go over the heads of Democratic congressmen to their constituents. But Mr Bush has been neither genial in dealing with Congress nor articulate in public, and thus has little chance of appealing for support in the way Mr Reagan did. In fact, the “Reagan Democrats” of the 1980s are precisely the sort of voters Mr Bush just lost in the November congressional elections.
Mr Bush still retains the considerable authority of the presidency and one should not underestimate the opportunities this gives any occupant of the White House to change course if he chooses, particularly in foreign policy. But Mr Bush will have to spend most of his remaining time in the White House dealing with the war on which he chose to stake his presidency.
The idea that he can mount a Reagan-style recovery by 2008 is a mere chimera.
The writer, author of Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet, is author-in-residence at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies