At a briefing for conservative journalists before the State of the Union address, White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten said President Bush isn't wistful about the close of his presidency and doesn't foresee a day when he will pine to be back in the Oval Office. Chuckles broke out in the room at the perhaps unintentional comparison to Hillary Clinton's surrogate in chief, who - as with everything else in his life - has decided to make this election year all about him.
This got me thinking. Bush came into office promising to be the un-Clinton. And in many ways - good and bad - he stayed true to that promise. But as Bush opened the final chapter of his presidency Monday night, the similarities between his tenure and his predecessor's seem to have finally eclipsed the differences.
Despite his relative popularity, President Clinton was largely a disaster for his party. He campaigned as a "different kind of Democrat" and helped marginalize the "progressive" wing of his party. During his term, Democrats lost control of both houses of Congress. Clinton's "third way" philosophy and triangulating tactics kept his approval ratings high but at the expense of moving the country to the right on various social and economic issues. Ronald Reagan would have proudly notched Clinton's signature accomplishments - welfare reform and passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement - on his six-guns. And he would have been giddy to proclaim, "The era of big government is over," as Clinton did in his 1996 State of the Union address.
Now look at Bush's tenure. He ran in 2000 as a "different kind of Republican." And just as Clinton moved rightward on race and big-government liberalism, Bush tacked leftward toward the center on race and small-government conservatism. In a bipartisan deal with Ted Kennedy, he federalized education policy - something even Richard Nixon opposed. (Nixon loved big government, for the record.)
Substantively, Bush has some abiding conservative accomplishments on judicial appointments and tax cuts. But rhetorically, his compassionate conservatism reversed a generation-long stance on the need to curtail the ambitions of government, just as Clinton's New Democrat rhetoric abdicated liberalism's decades-long campaign for a European-style welfare state. Bush in effect conceded the liberal complaint that small government was objectively hardhearted, while Clinton conceded the conservative complaint that orthodox liberalism was too utopian.