George W. may surprise us after all

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted January 15, 2001

As George W. Bush prepares to become the next President of the United States on Saturday, permit me a few reflections on our expectations from the vantage point of someone who has been around this track quite a few times now.

I came to Washington when Lyndon Johnson was President. The Great Society was in full swing but the 1966 elections had produced a reaction in the electorate. Republicans gained 46 seats in the House and 5 seats in the Senate. The enormous Johnson credibility had been broken. The 1966 elections were a foreshadowing of the 1968 elections, which saw Richard Nixon, the election likely stolen from him in 1960, ascending to the presidency with a plurality of the vote. Still, expectations were high. Nixon said he had a secret plan to end the Vietnam War and the electorate took him at his word.

It wasn't long before Nixon settled into the job nicely and began to enjoy high approval ratings. It was at that point in his presidency that he thought he might be able to translate those approval ratings into electoral victories in the 1970 elections. If he could do so, Nixon reasoned, he could then really change things. The Nixon plan worked to some extent, electing Bill Buckley's brother on the Conservative ticket in New York and defeating Al Gore's father in Tennessee.

But overall it fell short of the mark, so Nixon plotted an unprecedented landslide in 1972. Nixon intended to use that landslide to undo parts of the New Deal that had remained untouched by Republicans since FDR's day. Nixon overreached, and in the process came Watergate and thus his plans for reform were not just abandoned. A reactionary Congress was elected in 1974 which undid what little Nixon had been able to accomplish in his six years in office.

Then came Jimmy Carter and more big government. But it was big government combined with weakness, something which the American voter had not seen in modern times. Ronald Reagan understood how to exploit that weakness and he turned it into a landslide presidential victory, carrying with him a Republican Senate and an ideological majority in the House of Representatives.

Reagan helped to dismantle the Soviet Empire, no doubt about it. But in Washington, he left things pretty much the same. He helped his Vice President, George Bush, get elected to succeed him. Bush was a good and decent man but he did not know how to change things. Bill Clinton exploited that fact and ran on a platform of changing things but, of course, he reinforced the status quo in every way that he could. Only the 1994 election of the first Republican Congress in 40 years produced some actual change in a limited number of areas such as welfare and agriculture. On the whole, however, it has been business as usual.

Now comes George W. Bush. Elected under the most unusual circumstances of any president in our history, his opponents even question his legitimacy. The Supreme Court made him president by one vote, they claim. He faces a Senate with a radicalized opposition, split down the middle, run by a demoralized majority leader. This crowd smells blood. They can taste victory in 2002 and intend to do nothing to help Bush with his reform program, which interestingly enough, is a direct challenge to FDR and Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson all rolled into one. On paper Bush is dead in the water. He has so many handicaps he can't even get on the scoreboard.

There is something different about the way this man operates, however. It is hard to get a grip on it. The point is this: If anybody is ready to write him off, they ought to think again. Blindfolded and with his hands tied behind his back, George W. Bush just might be able to accomplish more real reform by the end of his time of service here than all the others combined. I hesitate to get my hopes up. I shouldn't. He ought to be an easy target for the left. Call me a fool, but I just have a feeling he is going to surprise all of us. ESR

Paul Weyrich is president of the Free Congress Foundation.

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