Bush’s Recipe for Failure

If there is such a thing as the curse of the second term for presidents, then George W. Bush may be setting himself up for failure. His inaugural address was the most rhetorically ambitious since John F. Kennedy’s, and laid down a challenge few presidents from the past, or magicians of history, could possibly meet.

Of course, when a conservative calls for the end of tyranny on Earth, we may safely assume that he is, well, being romantic. One of the defining characteristics of conservatism is a skepticism about the perfectibility of man; and Bush, as his critics remind us, is not just conservative but one of the extreme, right-wing variety. So I am inclined to believe that the president’s speech was a standard specimen of inaugural oratory: inspirational and windy, to match the weather, and not altogether meant to be taken literally.

Not literally, perhaps, but certainly seriously. In foreign-policy terms, the president is a novel hybrid of realist and idealist: the son of his father, but with large chunks of Woodrow Wilson thrown in. Bush wants to evangelize the world for freedom and democracy – that’s his idealistic, Wilsonian side – but is prepared to welcome such allies as China and Pakistan in the war against terror. That’s the realist part. Can these two traditions, mutually contradictory, coexist? We don’t yet know.

Still, the president’s inaugural vision is not fanciful. Although the words “Afghanistan” and “Iraq” were never mentioned in his speech, they are obviously his test cases. Bush is very proud that the Taliban and Saddam Hussein are out of power, that Afghanistan now has a freely elected president and balloting is scheduled to take place in Iraq. But he is shrewd enough to hedge his bets, acknowledging that democracy in cultures different from our own will take varying forms.

In other words, if Iraq ends up with some kind of quasi-theocratic system, or all-powerful elected president, Bush’s work will be done. And on that basis his second term – indeed, his presidency – will be judged.

So what about the curse? I was intrigued by the anchor-booth consensus, on Inauguration Day, that second terms are fraught with peril.

Discounting for the likelihood that many commentators were probably hoping that Bush’s next four years, at least, will be disastrous, the evidence for such a sweeping assertion is thin. Benjamin Bradlee, retired editor of The Washington Post, explained on CNN that most presidents “run out of gas” in their second term. And Chris Matthews, of MSNBC, cited Franklin Roosevelt’s court-packing plan as a classic instance of a second-term catastrophe. But Roosevelt is a singularly inapt example.

To begin with, FDR won a second term by a landslide in 1936, and the court-packing plan – a scheme to guarantee the survival of New Deal legislation by adding six (friendly) justices to the bench – was a product of his post-election sense of omnipotence. George W. Bush won a decisive victory against John Kerry, but it was no landslide; and although Republicans strengthened their hold on Congress last fall, their House and Senate majorities are not huge. So while the president is entitled to claim a mandate, it is a mandate that needs to be carefully deployed.

And did Roosevelt really “run out of gas,” as Bradlee suggests? The more accurate description is that Congress reasserted itself in Roosevelt’s second term, and FDR’s prosecution of World War II does not suggest a president whose tank was running low.

The curse of second terms is that the public tends to grow slightly weary of incumbents, and the habit of incumbency yields minor scandals. Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky are the obvious recent examples. Even a wildly popular president like Dwight Eisenhower suffered second-term blues: He lost congressional seats in the 1958 off-year elections, and his chief of staff, Sherman Adams, was obliged to quit for accepting a gift from a Boston businessman. Yet Ike’s second term featured the creation of NASA and the Interstate Highway System, the 1957 civil-rights bill, the Camp David summit, a triumphant world tour, and on and on.

Ronald Reagan’s second term was bedeviled by the Iran-Contra affair, and loss of the Senate in 1986; but it also featured a drastic revision of the tax code, major arms-reduction treaties with the Soviet Union, and the opening scenes of the final act of the Cold War. Like Eisenhower, Reagan left office widely admired, and certainly more respected, than when he entered the White House.

Which leaves George W. Bush in the following position. He may plan to expend his “political capital” on a series of structural domestic reforms  S-ocial Security privatization, tort and tax reform – and save the world from tyranny. But the verdict on his presidency, like the verdict on his first term, may largely depend on events in Baghdad.

(Philip Terzian, The Providence Journal’s associate editor, writes a column from Washington.)