For those who covered the White House in the ’60s, the similarities between Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush seem to be growing daily — with, of course, one exception: Johnson became a lame-duck president by choice while Bush legally can’t seek re-election.
The latest polls show that public support for the Iraq war is declining rapidly and that angst has begun to detract from what normally would be high marks for the president during a period of steady economic growth. Concerns about Iraq also have spilled over to other areas of Bush’s agenda, just as war concerns did for Johnson.
During the last two years of his presidency, LBJ was losing much of the political advantage he had gained for domestic accomplishments that have had enormous impact on the lives of Americans, including Medicare and Medicaid, landmark civil-rights legislation, the economic opportunity act and other successful initiatives after winning a landslide election in 1964. The nation’s preoccupation with the disaster that was Vietnam and the radicalization of American youth shoved every other Johnson milestone to the rear, where they remain to this day.
Johnson’s decision to quit rather than face humiliating defeat in 1968 came after political advisers reported that voters in key primary states wanted nothing more to do with him. He was devastated, left only with hope for the one thing all outgoing presidents desire _ a favorable place in history.
But history’s treatment of Johnson, who by the end of his tenure was practically a prisoner in the White House, has been far less kind than that of John Kennedy, his predecessor whose policies produced the conflict and whose tragically abbreviated presidency included none of Johnson’s domestic achievements. In fact, in many instances historians either downplayed Johnson’s contributions or vilified him beyond what normally could be expected of even a president during an unpopular war.
That Bush faces the same sort of assessment unless there is some major break in the Iraq situation is evident in the new surveys that show his approval rating on the war and its conduct plummeting to below 40 percent. His overall approval has declined to 42 percent, the lowest of his presidency. Those numbers could spell real trouble for Republicans in next year’s congressional elections, and if the killing of U.S. troops by fanatical insurgents continues at its current pace into the presidential-election season, the GOP’s chances of holding onto the White House in 2008 could be slim to none.
Present are the same elements that turned Johnson’s presidency from the heights of positive to the depths of negative _ false assumptions that led to disastrous consequences. The decision to invade Iraq was based on the erroneous belief that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and was likely to use them _ just as the Vietnam War was based on the similarly erroneous domino theory.
The theory held that, like Europe after World War II, the nations of Southeast Asia would tumble to communist insurgents one country after another if South Vietnam’s corrupt but democratic regime were to fall. All of Indochina would then come under the influence of China despite historic ethnic differences. Actually, pursuing that assumption helped further its validity by lending credence to charges of American imperialism that were used effectively to unite radical elements across the area.
The Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq rather than try to contain it also has succeeded to some degree in destabilizing the Muslim world, causing difficulties for Saudi Arabia and other allies and giving the terrorists an object of common hate by which to recruit young radicals to the cause of martyrdom. As a result, the job of reconstructing Iraq into a bulwark of democracy in the Middle East has been hamstrung. Does anyone remember the Phoenix Program in Vietnam? It too was designed to build a new society from the ashes.
There is little choice but to see this through. Leaving Iraq in the kind of chaos that now exists would be disastrous. We cannot afford to give al Qaeda-backed insurgents that kind of victory. As long as the organized terrorist movement is occupied with Iraq, it might not turn its efforts once again to U.S. soil. Continued losses, however, could so diminish pubic support for the Bush White House that it would force the next administration into even worse policy.
Bush understands that his presidency, like Johnson’s, will be defined historically by what happens in a war zone no matter what he accomplishes at home.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)