Posted by Tod Lindberg on December 19th, 2006
The Washington Times
Not that they are in any other respect comparable, but Iraq and the Clinton health care reform effort of 1993-94 are politically comparable in that each precipitated the loss of control of Congress by the party of the president. Politically speaking, they were both the product of great ambition, the repository of the fondest hopes of each administration for fundamental policy change that would remake their respective policy areas in a fundamental way, and thus provide a lasting legacy for the administration.
Each had the opposite effect. Voters grew wary or angry with the substance of the policy change proposed or the evidence of incompetence in execution. They retaliated by taking the drastic action of turning out the congressional majorities each president enjoyed in Congress.
Now, there was more to the 1994 election than the fallout from the collapse of health care reform, just as there was more to the 2006 election than the fallout from a “grave and deteriorating” situation in Iraq (in the phrase increasingly recognized as the only genuinely useful contribution of the Iraq Study Group to the debate). Both congressional majorities of their day bore tell-tale signs of decadence, on fronts ranging from corruption to the inability to engage legislatively except on the narrow matters related to retaining their own power, and in the end, only incompetently at that. The electoral environment each faced was favorable to the opposition not only because of the headline problem.
The question for Mr. Bush, then, as for Mr. Clinton before him, is what the president does when confronted with a congressional majority from the other party for the first time, thanks at least in major part to a political problem of his own making.
For Mr. Clinton, the question was easier: No one was dying because of his health care proposal, and he, unlike Mr. Bush, was eligible to run for another term. Republicans handled their new congressional majority with the expectation that Mr. Clinton was doomed, a discredited figure who would surely lose in 1996 if he even dared to run for reelection. If, indeed, Mr. Clinton had been in his second term in 1994, and thus ineligible for another, the GOP might have had more leverage over him. But his solid intention to run again led him in the direction of simultaneously accommodating and confronting the GOP majority. As the only Democrat truly in power, he was able to cast himself not as the politician who had blown Democratic congressional control but as the only person standing between Democrats and oblivion.
Needless to say, however, Mr. Clinton’s own policy agenda was over. He would necessarily be reacting to the GOP majority’s wishes. So health care reform and the promise of universal insurance coverage exited stage left, never to be heard from again.
Mr. Bush’s situation is different in two key respects. In the first place, he is not what stands between the GOP and oblivion; the 2008 Republican nominee is. Republicans show signs of optimism in that regard. And the GOP has not given up its hope of retaking Congress. If not in 2008, the Senate being very difficult terrain for the GOP, then two or four years later. He is actually something of a free agent at the moment, especially insofar as he isn’t seeking to advance his vice president to the top slot, as Mr. Clinton was.
In the second place, the policy that got Mr. Bush’s party in trouble is very much a live issue, and one over which he still exerts more control than anyone else. Moreover, while Mr. Clinton might have been remembered as the president who got himself into and then blew health care reform had he lost in 1996, Mr. Bush will certainly be remembered as the president who got himself into and then blew Iraq, unless any other outcome is possible while he remains in office.
He had an engraved invitation to acquiesce in the view of himself and his presidency as a failure with the report of the Iraq Study Group: He could effectively have ceded control of events there to a “special envoy” charged with negotiating the terms of U.S. withdrawal and the return of “stability” to the region. But if co-chairman James A. Baker is still sitting by the phone waiting for the president’s call, he should give up. It doesn’t look like it’s coming.
No, Mr. Bush has two years as commander-in-chief to get to a better place in
Iraq. He has every incentive to try rather than to give up, because otherwise he will indeed be assenting to the view that his “freedom agenda” is a failure because Iraq was a failure, and therefore his presidency was a failure. He has not exhausted all his options, as he seems to be realizing.
Some say failure in Iraq is inevitable, having already occurred, and they may be right. But given the consequences that would ensue, it’s good that the incentives have lined up for Mr. Bush to reject that view and also to recognize that he has to try something different.