George W. Bush’s gift to the American Republic may be that he has discredited a host of right-wing theories and practices –-“trickle-down economics”; “self-regulating markets”; “tough-guy” foreign policy; the “imperial presidency”; and the notion that “government is the problem.”
As the United States gazes out on the wreckage of the past eight years--a $1.2 trillion (and growing) budget deficit, 7.2 percent (and rising) unemployment, two open-ended wars, a sullied U.S. image abroad, environmental degradation and a world that seems to be ripping apart--the hope must be that Bush has so tarnished these policies, which trace back to Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, that they will never be tried again.
If that is the lesson that the United States learns, then Barack Obama’s election truly could mark the end of an era and the start of something very different. However, if Obama and the Democrats fail to drive these lessons home--if they let bygones be bygones--they are courting a huge risk in that the same behavior could reemerge and the misjudgments could reoccur.
So far, it appears that President-elect Obama is so set on making friends with Washington’s corrupt Establishment--from dinner with neoconservative columnists like Charles Krauthammer to coffee with the Washington Post’s editorial board, which avidly supported the Iraq War--that he may be missing the opportunity for a genuine transformation.
Rather than confronting the architects of America’s debacles and decline, Obama is currying favor with them. He’s even equivocating over whether Bush and his subordinates should be held accountable for criminal behavior, like torture and aggressive war, violations of longstanding American principles.
It’s possible that Obama is engaged in a tactical maneuver, keeping these pooh-bahs at bay or at least delaying their fury until they see their Establishment interests challenged. But there is a more troubling interpretation of Obama’s positioning.
It’s possible that Obama--an African-American outsider raised in Hawaii by a single mother on food stamps--really aspires to be part of the Establishment, that he sees his presidency as not transformative or revolutionary but only mildly reformist, with an emphasis on continuity, not change.
That is how Krauthammer, one of the President-elect’s recent dinner partners, views Obama’s quiet embrace of so much that was George W. Bush.
“Vindication is being expressed not in words but in deeds--the tacit endorsement conveyed by the Obama continuity-we-can-believe-in transition,” Krauthammer wrote in his Washington Post column on Friday.
“It's not just the retention of such key figures as Defense Secretary Bob Gates or Treasury Secretary nominee Timothy Geithner, who, as president of the New York Fed, has been instrumental in guiding the Bush financial rescue over the past year. It's the continuity of policy.”
The Clinton Example
If Krauthammer is right, Obama appears poised to make many of the same mistakes that marked the start of the Clinton presidency 16 years ago, when another Bush was leaving office in the midst of an economic recession and the Establishment (led by its chief mouthpiece, the Washington Post) was nearly unanimous on the need to look forward, not backward.
Then, there was widespread (and bipartisan) agreement with President George H.W. Bush’s pardons of six Iran-Contra defendants, short-circuiting a trial of former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger that was set to begin in early 1993. That trial would have altered the historical understanding of the scandal by revealing the high-level approval of crimes by President Reagan and Vice President Bush.
The Weinberger trial also would have put front and center the concept of an all-powerful President. In effect, the Iran-Contra Affair was a way station in the restoration of the imperial presidency, from its collapse in Watergate to its post-9/11 resurrection under George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.
At its core, Iran-Contra – like its related scandals of secret Iraqgate assistance to Saddam Hussein and the cover-up of cocaine trafficking by the Nicaraguan contras – was a reassertion of Richard Nixon’s famous edict: “When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal.”