Time to Make Room for Daddy: To Succeed Abroad, George W. Bush Needs to Be Less Reaganite and More, Well, Bush-Like

Article excerpt

Most politicians learn their craft not from abstract theories but from history. Usually their own history. As a young man, Ronald Reagan admired Franklin Roosevelt's infectious optimism and developed his own sunny style. Lyndon Johnson learned what he called the "political facts of life" by watching the Texas Legislature at work. As vice president, Richard Nixon closely studied his boss, Dwight Eisenhower. George W. Bush is no exception to this pattern. The president greatly admires his father. Through much of his life, he has quite literally followed in his footsteps: Andover, Yale, Skull and Bones, Texas, the oil business and, finally, politics. His political instincts were shaped watching, at close quarters, his father's presidency. And the central lesson he seems to have taken from it is, Don't do what Daddy did.

Ever since he became a candidate for president, Bush and his advisers have laid out a set of rules: keep close to the conservative base; don't compromise on big issues like taxes; take bold positions based on principle and ideology; always use political capital. They don't add the final phrase, but it's obvious: "unlike the first President Bush."

In these beliefs, W's team is hardly alone. For many conservatives--particularly neoconservative intellectuals--it is an article of faith that George H.W. Bush's presidency was an utter failure. It betrayed the heroic legacy of Ronald Reagan. It is the Gipper's path that true conservatives want to follow. But this mythology is in need of revision. Reaganism is the right strategy for the wrong age. If Bush is looking for a political style for our times, he should embrace his own family values.

The fiery leadership of a Reagan or a Churchill, crucial for the challenges that they faced, is out of place in a world that America dominates, in which capitalism and democracy are on the march, and in which conservative policies are triumphing every day. What once seemed bold now seems divisive. What once seemed heroic now seems vindictive. Where once we confronted the Soviet Union and international communism, now we are battening down the hatches and manning the barricades against... er, North Korea?

One of the measures of the country's shift in mood is its newfound appreciation of Bush pere. Last year Gallup asked people to rate all past presidents since 1960. George H.W. Bush came in second, ahead of Reagan. Since the first place went to Kennedy, who was president 40 years ago and is remembered through a gossamer haze of nostalgia, it is fair to say that of all the presidents of whom people have an actual recollection, George H.W. Bush ranks first. The poll was not a fluke. The same question was asked in 1998 and 1999, with the same results.

In fact, Bush Sr. …