The Really Interesting Question

In thinking about political history, it helps to periodize. To the extent that you listen to any of the hoopla emanating from New York City this week about jobs, pay, retirement security, health care, education, energy and the environment, spare a moment to think back on a memo that Dick Cheney wrote nearly thirty years ago whose history sheds much light on the situation that obtains today.

Seldom, if ever, in American history has a political team remained intact for so long. In Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet, veteran journalist James Mann tells the story — how George H. W. Bush, Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell began their careers in the executive branch under Richard Nixon, moved to positions of power under Gerald Ford (except for Powell), bided time under Jimmy Carter (again, except for Powell, who served in various important jobs at the Pentagon and Cheney, who was elected to Congress in 1978), split under Ronald Reagan, served or were exiled under the first President Bush, left government altogether during the Clinton administration, then returned to government together under “Dubya.”

There are several salient aspects of the presidency of George W. Bush that deserve emphasis as he begins to make his case for a second term.

Robin Abcarin’s story in the LA times today paints Bush as a high-roller willing to take extraordinary chances in order to overcome the entitlements of an more parentally-favored younger brother (Florida governor Jeb) and to escape the shadow of a successful father.

John Harris and Mike Allen analyze in The Washington Post some of the numerous misjudgments and tactical errors that have reduced Bush from the overwhelming favorite he was two years ago to the apparently beatable candidate he is today.

Somewhat less persuasive is The New York Times’ Adam Nagourney’s and Elizabeth Bumiller’s depiction in of the president as a master-politician who is orchestrating the demonization of an opponent who otherwise would be a more-likely winner. (All three links require registration)

But seeing the long-term trajectory is also indispensable to a clear view of why Bush may or may not be elected, and how his administration will enter the history books.

The Cheney memo I have in mind was one written in July 1975 recommending that President Ford see Russian exile Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Cheney was then serving as deputy to White House chief of staff Donald Rumsfeld. The AFL-CIO had invited the Russian dissident and Nobel laureate to Washington. Wrote Cheney: “Seeing [Solzhenitsyn] is a nice counter-balance to all the publicity and coverage that’s given to meetings between American Presidents and Soviet leaders. Meetings with Soviet Leaders are very important, but it is also important that we not contribute any more to the illusion that all of a sudden we’re bosom buddies with the Russians.”

Cheney’s memo was in fact an unprecedented attack on the policies of Henry Kissinger, who for years had crafted the policies of détente for Richard Nixon. He lost the battle (and in due course, Gerry Ford lost the election) but ultimately won the war against those, like Kissinger, who felt that America needed to scale back its ambitions in world affairs in the wake of Vietnam. After the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Jimmy Carter turned sharply to the right. Ronald Reagan was elected on a platform that emphasized military self-reliance and eschewed accommodation.

Self-reliance has been the path to power ever since. There is much of the music of the last thirty years that author Mann doesn’t hear. There is only one mention of OPEC in his book, none of Paul Volcker, none of Reagan assassination attempt. But as chronology, if not interpretation, Rise of the Vulcans is an invaluable guide to how these men and women have remained on theme in foreign policy from the early 1970s to the present day.

In fact, self reliance is only one of two dominating political ideas in American political and intellectual life. The other emphasizes interdependence. In one view, all choices are basically personal; in the other, many are unavoidably social, made most often in a realm beyond the intending, conscious mind, often by governments, democratically-elected and otherwise. (These modalities were employed by historian Thomas Haskell in The Emergence of Professional Social Science, as a way of explaining the great increase in the authority of economics in twentieth century.)

Doctrines of interdependence and increasingly remote causation were behind the reforms of the Progressive Era and the New Deal, to say nothing of the Russian Revolution, the Quit India Movement and the Chinese Revolution. Gradually these understandings of the appropriate relationships between individuals and state reached their limits and were repudiated, on a case-by-case basis. Now, after five or six American presidential terms of emphasis on self-reliance (seven if you count Jimmy Carter), the candidate who masters the rhetoric of interdependence (without abandoning lip service to the self-realiance ideal) probably will become the 44th president of the United States.

On this analysis, Howard Dean was the Democratic Party’s Barry Goldwater. His meteor-like appearance as a presidential contender last winter probably presaged the beginning of a different era, one whose outlines today can only dimly be perceived. Too bad he didn’t get the opportunity to develop these positions more fully through trial and error. Instead, John Kerry took the nomination and improbably has staked everything on his reputation as a fighter and resister in a war that ended thirty years ago.

So for all the talk about economic issue in the coming weeks, George W. Bush very likely has already succeeded in making the central question of his re-election campaign, Who do you think will keep you safer for the next four years? But no matter who wins in November, the Ford-Bush-Bush administration is coming to an end — either in 2005 or in 2009. In the realm of economic policy, its mandate is exhausted. The really interesting question is which Democrat willsucceed.