Perception vs. reality

Bruce Bartlett
|
Posted: Dec 09, 2003 12:00 AM

It is a fact of life that perception is often more important than reality. This is especially so in politics, where people can be dogged by impressions even when they are completely untrue.

A classic example is the notion that former Vice President Dan Quayle is stupid, a view still widely held that I know to be false, having worked with him dating back to his days in the Senate. Nevertheless, once this idea took root, it became impossible to dislodge. Everything Quayle did was interpreted through this prism, magnifying any mistake he made, no matter how small.

I believe that President Bush is in danger of creating a perception about himself that may prove equally hard to eradicate if it is allowed to continue. That is the view that he is "Nixonian," having an approach toward politics and policy paralleling that of Richard Nixon. It is characterized by a willingness to subordinate everything to one's re-election -- to say and do anything to advance this goal, with no concern whatsoever for the long-term consequences.

I first discussed this equivalence back in August, after hearing Rush Limbaugh mention it and reading a July 7 column by William Safire in The New York Times. Since then, a number of commentators have noticed a similarity between the two presidents. On Oct. 20, Newsweek columnist Bob Samuelson pointed out that the two showed an equal obsessiveness with getting the economy up at all cost. In particular, he sees both as willing to run far larger budget deficits than justified by economic conditions.

Jacqueline Doherty of Barron's pointed to "eerie parallels" between Nixon and Bush on Nov. 17, which "suggest to some sage observers that the Bush administration's efforts to stimulate the economy will lead to similar sorry ends." The last point refers not to resignation, but to stagflation, that awful combination of slow growth and high inflation that characterized the economy of the 1970s.

Newsday columnist Jim Pinkerton noted that there were similarities between Vietnam and Iraq on Nov. 18. He pointed out that Bush and Nixon both promised an early end to American involvement by turning over peacekeeping duties to local authorities. At the same time, they continued to promise "victory" in their respective conflicts. This allowed them simultaneously to appeal to hawks and doves.

On Nov. 25, Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank wrote about ways in which Bush's style is reminiscent of Nixon's. Their administrations are organized similarly, and both stayed aloof from Washington's political and social establishment, and avoided the Washington press corps in favor of local media whenever possible. Both presidents also obsessed over "leaks," held information very closely among just a few trusted aides and treated any hint of internal conflict as evidence of disloyalty.

That same day, Limbaugh talked again about how Bush revives memories of Nixon. "This administration reminds me of Nixon," he told his radio audience. "He's following Richard Nixon's footsteps on domestic policy" by pumping up federal spending for any group whose votes can be bought. Limbaugh warned that Bush was endangering his support among conservatives who want limited, constitutional government, not new Medicare entitlements and other expansions of the state into our lives and pocketbooks.

Veteran Associated Press reporter Tom Raum wrote that Bush is "retracing the steps of Richard Nixon three decades ago" on Nov. 29. On Dec. 2, Wall Street Journal columnist Alan Murray said, "Presidents Nixon and Bush may turn out to be bookends to the conservative era, with their big-government drift." The former took office at the end of a liberal era when voters were not yet ready for conservative policies, while the latter took office at the end of a conservative era when they have grown tired of efforts to limit government expansion, Murray wrote.

Lastly, Newsweek reported in its Dec. 8 issue that it was now "conventional wisdom" that Bush is following the Nixon model: "Medicare bill passes, economy surges. Thanksgiving stunt a PR coup. Like Nixon in '72?"

This is very dangerous for President Bush. Nixon is one of the few presidents in history reviled almost equally by left and right. The former will never forgive him for Watergate and bringing down Alger Hiss. The latter remains disgusted by Nixon's wage and price controls, his creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and other regulatory agencies, and his overtures to the Soviet Union and Red China.

With so many on the right comparing Bush to Nixon, it is only a matter of time before those on the left pick up on it and start making the comparison themselves. With the left's control of the media, it could soon be echoed far and wide. This will not be good for Bush's re-election or ability to govern. He can nip it by expending some political capital on an issue of principle.