A history of past greatness at home and abroad, and, since 1960, of growing weakness, hubris, and failure.
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RICHARD NIXON ENDED Mutual Assured Destruction by starting anti-missile deployment; pursuing what he called “nuclear sufficiency,” which in practice was a restoration of U.S. nuclear superiority, based on technological advantages, especially Multiple, Independently Targeted warheads (MIRVs) on the same missiles; and using this strength to “build down” through the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks process, thus impressing hawks with his enhancement of American military strength and doves with the greatest arms limitations agreement in history, in 1972.
Vietnam by 1966 was killing 200 to 400 American draftees every week, with no prospect of victory. The greatest military blunder in U.S. history was failure to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail, when public opinion would have supported it. President Johnson effectively gave up in Vietnam in October 1966 when he offered a joint withdrawal of all non-South Vietnamese forces from the South. Ho Chi Minh declined this, because he wished to defeat the U.S. directly, signaling a decisive victory in the Cold War of the Communists over the West. He could have won his declared objectives by accepting the joint withdrawal and then returning six months later. He knew the U.S. would not commit ground forces again to the war. That he did not accept Johnson’s offer demonstrates the fervor of his ambition to defeat the United States itself.
Richard Nixon handed the Vietnam War over to the South Vietnamese, bought them time to ramp up their war effort by wiping out the North Vietnamese sanctuaries in Cambodia as he drew down U.S forces, and resumed heavy bombing of North Vietnam when that country overtly invaded the South in 1972. Nixon opened relations with China, which helped propel a reduction in tensions with the USSR, and he detached both the Chinese and the Russians from support of Hanoi’s effort to defeat the U.S., as opposed to just unifying Vietnam. Nixon enabled the South to hold its own on the ground with heavy U.S. air support. He ended the Vietnam War with a non-Communist government in place in Saigon and believed it could have been preserved if the U.S. had retained its readiness to respond with heavy air reprisals to a renewed North Vietnamese invasion of the South. For that reason, he sent the peace accord to the Senate for ratification, although he was not obliged to do so, to gain Senate support for the enforcement of the treaty if necessary.
The great watershed of modern American politics was the tawdry Watergate affair. Historians will long debate whether Nixon actually committed crimes or whether, as he claimed, he committed “mistakes unworthy of a president” but not crimes. Certainly, the impeachment counts presented to the House Judiciary Committee were outrages of partisan hysteria, and liberals in the Congress and the national media grossly exaggerated the significance of what was uncovered. Assisted by Nixon’s inexplicable mismanagement of the affair, they hounded Nixon from office, diminished the presidency as an institution, and then, for good measure, cut off all aid to South Vietnam, ensuring that that country would fall to the Communists, that the United States would be completely humiliated, and, although they would not precisely have foreseen this, that millions would die in the killing fields of Cambodia, and drown when forced to flee Vietnam as boat people. And for Watergate and the debacle in Vietnam, the liberal political and media establishment took a decades-long bow and claimed the status of redeemers of American democracy and integrity in government.
Nixon had saved America from the liberal debacle in Vietnam and the self-imposed cul-de-sac in the arms race, and Nixon ended school segregation without falling into the catastrophe of compulsory school busing between districts as was being ordered by the courts. He proposed, but did not get to enact, welfare reform, founded the Environmental Protection Agency, which he foresaw would become another faddish leftist hobby horse if conservatives were not sensible, abolished the draft, and reduced the crime rate. He had taken a great deal of the liberals’ clothes, while holding the conservative majority in place, and his reelection by the greatest plurality in American history in 1972 (18 million votes and 49 states) showed the extent to which liberalism’s failures under Kennedy and Johnson had been recognized and corrected.
THOUGH MANY LIBERALS were doubtless sincere in believing that Nixon was a menace to constitutional government, and he did have some completely unacceptable notions of executive privilege in national security matters (such as the claimed right to ransack the Brookings Institution and break into the office of a dissident Vietnam consultant’s psychotherapist), Nixon was a patriotic American, a very capable president, and he did much more to stabilize constitutional government than to undermine it. The effect of the Watergate and Vietnam disasters was to criminalize policy differences and help turn the United States into a prosecutocracy terrorized by overzealous U.S. attorneys; propel the media to depths of investigative cynicism that made the lives of anyone trying to accomplish anything newsworthy unprecedentedly difficult; temporarily reduce the executive branch to less than its constitutionally allotted position of equality with the legislature and judiciary; cause scores of millions of Americans to be disillusioned with government and to abandon the national media for competing and new technology rivals as they became available; and introduce a period of aggressive Soviet expansion in southern Africa, Central America, and Afghanistan.
But Watergate and Vietnam hastened the decline of American liberalism. Jimmy Carter squeaked into office in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate and failed in his quest for a more liberal state and a safer world through accommodation of the USSR. Ronald Reagan led the definitive takeover of the Republican Party by conservatives; he was as much to the right of Nixon as Nixon had been to the right of Eisenhower. He cut taxes and promised a defensive anti-missile system that effectively cracked the Soviet Union completely. Unable to envision a further increase in the percentage of GDP devoted to defense, scarcely able to maintain its hold over Eastern Europe and its own restive ethnic minorities, the Soviet Union quietly imploded and international Communism collapsed, as China, partly under the influence unleashed by Nixon’s opening to it, became a hotbed of state capitalism. Reagan led the country to huge productivity increases, the creation of 18 million net new jobs, and the adaptation of the American economy to new techniques and technologies. Conservatism was triumphant.
Americans calling themselves conservative as opposed to liberal were now at a ratio of about three to two. After the chaotic and violent convention of 1968, the Democratic Party took the nomination process away from the party bosses who had chosen and supported Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson, as well as the less successful but respected Adlai Stevenson and Hubert Humphrey, and the elevation of a very improbable sequence of candidates resulted, from George McGovern in 1972 to Michael Dukakis. After Reagan’s vice president, George H. W. Bush, succeeded him and mismanaged the economy, broke his pledge of “no new taxes,” and ran a very inept reelection campaign after allowing an eccentric Texan billionaire to seize a chunk of Republican support, the Democrats won with a young, Ivy League-educated Southern governor, who ran as a “new Democrat,” which in policy terms, meant essentially a Republican. Bill Clinton tried a turn to the left, especially on health care, was beaten badly in the midterm elections in 1994, and then produced budget surpluses, engaged more policemen, and proved too agile for the Republicans to catch. The country was, however, and in the new Watergate tradition, reduced to a demeaning impeachment hearing based largely on the president’s rather undiscriminating extramarital sex life. In the midst of it, the Republican leaders in the Congress finally rolled back much of the shambles of the Great Society and rammed through comprehensive welfare reform.
The 2000 election was an uncertain draw between Clinton’s vice president and Bush’s son. The eight Bush years that followed were clouded by the preoccupation with terrorism after the suicide attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. Bush mismanaged the budgetary deficit, and the Clinton-originated practices of immense current account deficits and the encouragement of the issuance of trillions of dollars of worthless real estate-backed debt, supposedly to facilitate home ownership, came home to roost in severe recession while the country’s entire conventional armed forces capability was mired for five years in Iraq and Afghanistan. President Barack Obama is the result, after he deftly took the Clintons’ party out from underneath them and liberated white America from its guilt complex after 350 years of mistreatment of blacks (and as a bonus, liberated them also from having to listen to charlatans like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and Charlie Rangel as African American leaders).
Mr. Obama broke the glass ceiling barring non-whites from the highest office but tried to use the economic crisis to justify a sharp turn to the left, expansion of the state in health care and the environment, tax increases, and outright bribes (“refundable tax credits”), to the indigent. The resulting political and economic debacle gave a no-name, leaderless Republican Party a huge sweep as a reward for unimaginative denigration of the administration in November’s elections, and if Obama is to have a chance of reelection, it will be by turning the balance of this term into, as has already begun, a tutorial from Bill Clinton on how to masquerade as a Republican. All polls now indicate that there are twice as many self-designated conservatives as liberals, but also almost twice as many independents as liberals.
AMERICANS ARE WORRIED about debt and tax increases, distrustful of government regulation, concerned at extreme income disparity and the loss of huge chunks of business, including energy supplies, to foreigners, and they associate liberalism with extravagance, the use of the welfare system to buy the votes of the underperforming (whether with a legitimate excuse or not), the belittling of America in the world, and a general erosion of cherished values. And the last liberal leader the people really liked was John F. Kennedy, and in that they were largely buying a public relations confidence trick, amplified by the horrible tragedy of his premature death. If the Republicans have a plausible leader, and the Bushes were no world-beaters, their program will win for them. Leaders of unusual stature or agility, such as Eisenhower, Nixon at his best, and Reagan, win heavy majorities.
Liberalism saved America and led it to its greatest days under Roosevelt and Truman. And it essentially continued under Eisenhower, a nonpartisan war hero who pretended to be above politics. Under Kennedy and Johnson and their inept Democratic successors, liberalism ceased to be perceived as helping the deserving and instead became taking money from those who had earned it and giving it to those who hadn’t in exchange for their votes. Nixon saved the country from the Kennedy-Johnson failure to redefine liberalism successfully, but freakishly squandered the political credit for doing so. Reagan won the battle for the conservatives against the liberals, and the Democrats have only won since when they ran an ostensibly moderate candidate against a very weak Republican. (Bob Dole and John McCain, whatever their merits as senators, were hopeless blunderbusses as presidential nominees.)
Liberalism will revive, as conservatism did, when it redefines itself as something that is new, looks likely to succeed, favors economic growth, and is no longer tainted by envy, hypocrisy, and the mere bribery of voting blocs. This will take a leader of the stature of a Roosevelt or Reagan. No such person is now visible, in either party, but neither were they seen in that light before they were elected and became candidates for Mount Rushmore.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?