The “Reagan rebound,” he said at this morning’s panel “Bushed: Conservative Failure and the Danger the Legacy Lives On,” “allowed them to define conservative government as a success.” It had, indeed, been a conscious plan: squeeze out all the approval points they could in order to spin the press into recalling President Reagan just as they ended up doing — as popular from start to finish, across the board. And, Brad argued with forceful brilliance, that’s precisely the conservatives’ strategy for the final seven months of George W. Bush’s presidency. They’ve even admitted it: if they can just get his approval ratings up into the forties by the inauguration of the next president, they can more credibly claim to credulous reporters that Bush was at least a moderately successful president. They can [say] conservatism hasn’t failed.
Point taken. But I don’t think you can push this too far. Reagan’s team may have consciously tried to boost his approval ratings during his final year in office (who wouldn’t, after all?), but in the end, Reagan’s legacy surely rests on two big concrete things: he lowered taxes and he brought down the Soviet Union. Without those two accomplishments, he’s nothing.
Now, both of these legacies are overblown. Reagan lowered marginal tax rates on the rich, but he also blew up the deficit doing it and then raised taxes half a dozen times to make up for it. Paul Volcker and the end of the Iranian oil crisis had more to do with halting inflation and getting the economy back in gear than Reagan’s 1981 tax cut did.
Likewise, the fall of the Soviet Union was largely due to internal bleeding from the Afghanistan war, the mid-80s collapse in oil prices, and the ascension of Mikhail Gorbachev. Reagan’s defense buildup played a role, but hardly the definitive one that his fans suggest.
But in the storybook, none of this matters. Reagan did cut taxes and the economy boomed. He did increase defense spending and the Iron Curtain fell. To most people, that’s all that matters.
But what are George Bush’s legacies? The economy has been mediocre throughout his presidency and he’s leaving it in tatters as he steps off the stage. On the foreign policy front, Osama bin Laden is still on the loose, Afghanistan is slowly slipping back into chaos, and Iraq remains a hideous quagmire. Bush is obviously hoping that Iraq will turn around and he’ll get the credit, but what are the odds? Close to zero.
Brad promises a Bush Legacy Project to make sure that Bush’s approval ratings stay low, thus preventing conservatives from turning him into yet another mythic keeper of the flame. I have a feeling that particular project is going to be a smashing success.