Bush’s Second Term

Why liberals should hope he keeps governing like Reagan.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

Washington embraces two seemingly contradictory Laws of Second Terms. The first law holds that presidential re-election bestows greatness, or at least near-greatness, upon the victor. At a bare minimum, a second term spares a president from being judged an abject failure. Even Richard Nixon is with hindsight viewed more favorably than one-termers such as Jimmy Carter or George H.W. Bush. The second Law of Second Terms, on the other hand, offers a warning: Re-election sows the seeds of presidential self-destruction. Watergate, Iran-contra, and impeachment all blossomed while a lame duck was in the Oval Office, so second-law advocates argue that these neutered presidents inevitably sink under the weight of scandal.

Which law will hold for George W. Bush, who begins his second term Thursday? Is he headed for the National Mall or the federal pen? Why not both? While contradictory, the two laws aren’t incompatible. Reputations rise and fall over the years, and short-term scandal is often forgiven with time. So, perhaps Bush’s second term will be marred by failure, yet the Mall will also be marred by the renaming of the George W. Bush Washington Monument a few decades hence.

Rooting for Bush to flop in his second term should give liberals at least some twinges of conscience. The obvious ways that Bush could fail in the next four years—thousands more American soldiers dead, a theocratic Iraq, another terrorist attack on U.S. soil—would be catastrophic for the nation as well as for the occupant of the nation’s highest office. Is there a patriotic way to root for your president to fail? Try this as a liberal wish for the next four years: After infuriating Democrats in his first term by governing like Ronald Reagan, Bush will spend his second term infuriating Republicans by governing like Ronald Reagan.

It’s been widely noted that Bush is Reagan’s heir, even if he’s Reagan’s vice president’s son. But as Joshua Green noted in an article on “Reagan’s Liberal Legacy” for the Washington Monthly, not all of Reagan’s accomplishments were conservative. Reagan’s second term was markedly different from his first, particularly in foreign policy. Reagan had never even met with a Soviet leader before his first meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985. But soon after, he bucked his administration’s hard-liners (including people like Richard Perle) by agreeing to arms-reduction pacts with the Soviet Union, and he even agreed in principle to the abolition of nuclear weapons, until Gorbachev predicated that deal on the abandonment of SDI.

What had been an existential death-struggle with an enemy bent on the destruction of the American way of life turned out to be just one big misunderstanding. In an article for Political Science Quarterly, Barbara Farnham observed that Reagan entered office as an “essentialist”—someone “who believed that the Soviet Union was governed by an ideology that put no limits on what it could justifiably do to gain its ends”—but left office as an “interactionist,” someone “who saw the conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States in terms of mutual misperception.”

There’s a limit to the usefulness of this analogy, of course, since nobody wants Bush to sit down with Osama for a look-into-his-soul summit in Reykjavik. But could Bush decide, for example, that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is a “terrorist he can do business with,” just as Reagan intuitively determined that Gorbachev was a genuine reformer? Could Bush’s skepticism of the United Nations, like Reagan’s skepticism of arms control, lead him to push for the creation of a new, stronger, more effective international body? Bush does, after all, enjoy pushing to “modernize” institutions, from Medicare to Social Security to the Pentagon. Could he—dare we dream it?—make nice with the French?

Liberals may have more reason for hope on domestic policy. Bush doesn’t embrace what Slate’s William Saletan has dubbed “Reagan’s Law,” the belief that, as Reagan explained in his farewell address, “As government expands, liberty contracts.” Rather, Bush believes in using government to expand individual choice in programs like Medicare and Social Security, as Jonathan Rauch explained in a 2003 essay for National Journal that remains the most compelling explanation of Bush’s political philosophy. “For Bush,” Rauch wrote, “individual responsibility and Big Government are not necessarily opposed to each other.” Liberals could find much to like, for example, in a further expansion of the federal role in education. Bush’s immigration reforms might be to liberals’ liking, too.

And who knows? Maybe Democrats can even convince Bush to throw a few “revenue enhancers” (Reagan’s preferred term for his tax hikes), such as a more progressive payroll tax, into his Social Security bill. At the very least, “governing like Reagan” would mean agreeing to a budget deal that reins in the deficit.

Sure, few of these things are likely to come to pass. No matter what happens, between now and January 2009, Bush will do lots of things that make liberals and Democrats unhappy. So did Reagan during his eight years in office. But if Bush means to faithfully execute Reagan’s model for the presidency, that’s not all he will do. Conservatives keep praising George W. Bush as the second coming of Ronald Reagan. Let’s hope they’re right.