In recent weeks, George W. Bush has started to come in for the first meaningful criticism from mainstream conservatives during his presidency. While nascent, it could become the only real barrier to his re-election next year unless dealt with quickly.
To be sure, there are those on the right who have been critical of Bush since Day One. But at least since the World Trade Center attack, such criticism has been mostly confined to fringe publications and websites that do not represent the mainstream of conservative thought. Therefore, it is significant when people like Rush Limbaugh, George Will and William Safire all begin attacking Bush from the right and comparing him to Richard Nixon.
Although those on the left view Nixon as an archconservative, there is really precious little evidence for such an opinion. As president, he did almost nothing that was fundamentally inimical to the liberal agenda. Had Bill Clinton been president during those years, I believe that his policies would have been little different from Nixon's. They were classic "New Democrat" policies -- split the difference between right and left, and declare victory. But, since the left controlled the agenda, the result was always to move in a leftward direction.
I remember as a college student reading the most virulently anti-Nixon attacks not in left-wing publications, but in those on the far right. The John Birch Society, for example, just hated Nixon. And though it is mostly forgotten, Rep. John Schmitz, Republican of California and Nixon's own congressman (he represented San Clemente), ran against him in 1972 and got over 1 million votes in the general election. I doubt that many liberals were among the total, since Schmitz advertised proudly his John Birch Society membership.
Schmitz emphasized Nixon's liberal domestic policies -- he established more regulatory agencies of any president since FDR, raised taxes, busted the budget and spilled red ink, imposed price controls, and caved-in to Soviet demands for an anti-ballistic missile treaty, among other things. Substantively, there was absolutely no reason for any conservative to support Nixon in 1972 except that he was better than George McGovern -- the most left-wing Democratic nominee since William Jennings Bryan.
No doubt, that is the same reason why most conservatives supported William Howard Taft against Bryan in 1908. But the result was that Taft signed into law the federal income tax and created a national bank for the United States (the Federal Reserve), two cherished liberal ideals that Bryan never could have accomplished. Only a Republican president could have rammed these measures through a Republican Congress.
Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.
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