Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Flubs: A Nonpartisan View

The new Congress hasn't taken office, the presidential race is yet to take shape and the President has postponed the inevitable public rethinking on Iraq. That makes it a good time to go nonpartisan and examine recent presidential goofs in the cold light of history.
All presidents make mistakes. Domestic issues are hard enough, but adding foreign policy to the mix just about guarantees that some decisions at the top level are going to be clinkers. Voters don't rethink their views of a president consciously, but what they SHOULD be thinking is: Does this particular screwup HURT the country, or is it something we will forget in six months with no major consequences? As you would guess, major errors have major consequences (and should!) when the next election rolls around.
But ALL presidents are prone to foul up sooner or later. Let's review the goofs of the last few presidents starting with Ford. Why Mr. Ford? He followed Nixon, whose mistakes were so fabulous and major that complete review here would be impossible.
Ford wasn't president even 2 1/2 years. He did things cautiously, trying to regain the trust which the nation had lost in its CEO over Watergate. Nevertheless, the public howled when Mr. Ford issued a presidential pardon for Richard Nixon. Ford felt it was the right thing to do, and I tend to agree, though I may not have said so at the time. Nevertheless, a newly distrustful public didn't see the pardon as compassion for the nation. It smelled a deal. I don't recall Ford's election opponent, Jimmy Carter, trying to exploit the pardon as an issue. He simply promised never to lie, and that was barely enough to get him elected in 1976, one month after the birth of our daughter #2.
The public soured on Mr. Carter pretty quickly when it became clear that he was not above asking Americans to make sacrifices for the common good. To his credit, he tackled tough issues head on and was pretty blunt about making changes. Too bad he seemed to feel that moral superiority alone would carry the day with his proposals on things like energy. His biggest mistake? He let events control him during the almost interminable Iran Hostage Crisis. In the process, our country ended up looking kind of helpless. Carter seemed too holed-up in the White House and came across as kind of a scold. The public didn't like it, and couldn't act fast enough to put in the smiling, grandfather-type Ronald Reagan in his place.
Lots of people loved the Gipper. He gets credit for helping Americans feel better about themselves, and he juiced our entrepreneurial instincts by dropping taxes for the rich. Did he help end the Cold War? They're still hashing that one out at the "think tanks", but he sure set a high bar for military spending which, in the end, the old Soviet Union just couldn't match. Mistakes? The deregulation of the savings and loan industry was catastrophic financially, and Reagan's budgets brought new meaning to the word "deficit". But personally, I believe his worst legacy was the justification on the part of a growing part of the public sharing his view that not only was the federal government a poor venue for problem-solving. It shouldn't even TRY to help people at the bottom. They'd have to wait for good things to "trickle down" in order to solve their OWN woes. As a result, Reagan gives cover today to those who don't want to do something (anything, really) because they just don't care.
George Bush the elder succeeded Reagan. He liked being president, but didn't take office to change things. It just wasn't his nature. He reacted pretty well to some problems, especially the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq. When it was over, the first Gulf War, financed largely by other countries opposing naked aggression, left Iraq and Kuwait pretty much as they were before the war took place. Iraq even got to keep their dictator. But sometimes REacting isn't enough. History counts Bush I's biggest mistake the ignoring of an economic recession. That little event he DIDN'T react well to, and he lost enough votes to upstart Ross Perot to lose the election to a guy the country didn't really know well, Bill Clinton.
Clinton deserves to be remembered for more than one thing, but the one-issue-per-prez crowd will go no further than his fooling around with a White House intern. Bad mistake, though not the kind which really hurts the country (in my humble opinion). He would tell you that the biggest error of his administration was reacting too slowly (actually hardly reacting at all) to the Rwandan genocide, taking place in a faraway country in which we had no real interest. Who could have known that deaths (mostly by machete) would total in the hundreds of thousands? It's one event Clinton today admits should have been handled differently, but it happened.
Bush II took office under a bit of a cloud from strange events in Florida and Washington. But let's just skip to his biggest mistake. The greatest good or evil from one nation to another comes through war. You don't undertake it lightly, or start it, then look to new reasons to justify yourself. Without going on and on, I (and plenty of others) think invading Iraq was a stupendous error, and I said so before it happened. This issue deserves more discussion in future entries, so let's just leave it at that for now.
We don't have the presidential issue in front of us again for quite awhile unless you live in New Hampshire or Iowa. But when it does arrive, the question of future mistakes (and I don't know how you would know them) deserves.....some thought. Happy Chan, Han, how do you spell that Jewish holiday? Anyway, Happy Kwanzaa.


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