At midterm, President George W. Bush’s stunning dominance over the national agenda rivals that of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s during his curtain opening New Deal years.
The accomplishment especially impresses because Mr. Bush’s starting line was inauspicious. He lagged behind Democrat candidate Al Gore in nationwide balloting. He parachuted into the White House from a highly controversial decision of the U.S. Supreme Court.
He enjoyed but a razor-thin Republican majority in the House of Representatives, and confronted a Democrat-controlled Senate. In contrast, President Roosevelt decisively defeated the Republican incumbent, Herbert Hoover. And he held juggernaut Democrat majorities in the House and Senate thirsting for presidential guidance. In sum, Mr. Bush’s political protoplasm on entering the White House was decidedly inferior to Roosevelt’s.
But two years later, like Shakespeare’s Caesar, President Bush bestrides the world like a colossus in national security and international relations. While Mr. Bush’s domestic initiatives, other than tax cuts and terrorism insurance, frequently sputtered in Congress, he framed the terms of debate and set the stage for legislative action during the closing two laps of his first term. In comparison, President Roosevelt’s foreign policy scorecard at midterm 1934 consisted largely of an insipid Good Neighbor policy in Latin America, revoking the interventionist Platt amendment concerning Cuba, and verbal cannonading over Japan’s occupation of Manchuria and renunciation of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922.
On the domestic front with a docile Congress, Roosevelt’s early achievements outdistanced Mr. Bush’s: the Tennessee Valley Authority; the National Industrial Recovery Act; the Agricultural Adjustment Act; the Public Works Administration; the Securities Act of 1933; and, the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934. But a netting of national security and domestic dominance shows Mr. Bush a more masterful and remarkable president than FDR in their respective opening rounds.
President Bush unilaterally terminated the ABM treaty with Russia. Missile defense accelerated from adagio to allegro. The ill-conceived International Criminal Court and Kyoto environmental pacts were renounced. Unflinching war against global terrorism was launched in the aftermath of the September 11 abominations. The United States destroyed Taliban in Afghanistan and scattered al Qaeda’s surviving leadership into remote caves.
Military commissions for the trial of noncitizen war criminals were authorized, as were indefinite detentions of illegal combatants designated by the president. Deportations and investigations of suspected terrorist aliens climbed dramatically. Counterterrorism intelligence and law enforcement were fortified strengthened by the U.S. Patriot Act and the Homeland Security legislation.
Congress generally saluted President Bush’s impending liberation of Iraq and ouster of Saddam Hussein. Ditto for the president’s stiff response to North Korea’s nuclear and missile brazenness. Despite the consignment of Congress in national security and foreign policy matters to ornamentation, no member even whispers about adding legislative teeth to the toothless War Powers Resolution. And Congress has bowed to Mr. Bush’s extravagant claims of executive privilege without a whimper, like shielding Homeland Security adviser Tom Ridge from legislative oversight.
In contrast to Mr. Bush, FDR’s foreign policy objectives were repeatedly arrested or hamstrung by a Democrat Congress. The Johnson Act of 1934, for example, prohibited loans or assistance to European allies in arrears on their World War I debts to the United States. The Neutrality Acts of 1935 and 1937 compelled the United States to stand aloof from foreign conflicts no matter what the long-term danger to our national security, such as Japan’s invasion of China. The bases-for-destroyers deal with Great Britain required legal acrobatics by FDR because of a recalcitrant Congress. And on the eve of Pearl Harbor, an extension of the draft by the House of Representatives passed by a heart clutching one vote.
Mr. Bush confronted a Senate Judiciary Committee roadblock in appointing five-star quality federal judges, like John Roberts and Miguel Estrada. But his frustration was dwarfed by FDR’s mortification over the congressional whip lashing of his ill-conceived court-packing plan. On the other hand, Mr. Bush’s domestic agenda was substantially more stymied in Congress than FDR’s: no faith-based initiative legislation to help charities; no school vouchers to stimulate competition in education; no prescription drug expansion of Medicare; no tort reform; no modest revamping of social security taxes to offer modest investment choices to covered employees; and, no health-care tax credits to inject more competition into a lethargic industry. But the legislative ideas that generally commanded serious debate were those of Mr. Bush, not of Congress. And they may crystallize into statutes during the next session with Republican majorities in both the House and Senate.
That scholars and pundits have shortchanged President Bush’s astonishing leadership is dismaying, but unremarkable. He acts and speaks without the dash, glitter, or charm of academic favorites FDR or John F. Kennedy. He is denuded of Ivy League or sister pretensions. He doesn’t agonize in Hamlet-like soliloquies over killing terrorists or destroying Saddam Hussein’s brutal and dangerous tyranny. In all these respects, Mr. Bush upsets prevailing liberal prejudices that dominate academic circles. They would rather get history wrong than engage in self-doubting.
Bruce Fein is founding partner of Fein & Fein law firm in Washington.