Hey, hey LBJ!
As an occasional news watcher and voter, I’ve found the lock-step anti-Bush hysteria of much of the left this last year something to behold. By no means do all liberals buy into the rabid Bush = Hitler rants of some protesters, but if half the things that, say, all the contributors to the New York Review of Books believe about the administration are true, fears about the future of democracy in the U.S. would not be paranoid ones.
To many, the president has become a diabolical figure–some protest signs show actual horns and fangs dripping with blood. In the Evil Bush version of history, he stole an election and then took food from babes with his tax cuts. He exploited the tragedy of September 11 to his immense political benefit and the country’s harm. Egged on by a neoconservative cabal, he fought a war for oil and Israel, and he threatens to further upset the global balance of power. Our commander-in-chief hates gays and minorities and wants to give industry free reign to pollute rivers and belch toxic gasses into the air. If he had his druthers, Bush would impose his own born again kind of Christianity, and perhaps his Southern drawl, on the rest of us.
I could argue with this assessment but I’d have more luck trying to convince a brick wall. One thing to emerge from the polling data this year is that an unusually large number of people had their minds set firmly against Bush before the fall election cycle kicked off. The mantra has been “anybody but Bush.” In practice, that translates to “beat Bush, whatever the cost.”
The price tag has been steep. Progressive Democrats tried to scare consumerist stalwart Ralph Nader away from another third-party run at the presidency by repeatedly criticizing him in the press and by none-too-subtly threatening the funding of his various watchdog groups. This did spook Nader enough to forgo the nomination of the Green Party, an act which took him off the ballot in several blue states and probably set the Greens back a generation. In the primaries, progressive but win-at-any-cost voters quickly shifted their support from the popular anti-war firebrand Howard Dean to the staid squish John Kerry the moment Dean showed the slightest weakness.
Now that they’re stuck with Kerry, most southpaws have decided to brazen it out. The reasoning runs: Sure, John Kerry is less than ideal–he flips and flops, his personality sucks the life out of a room, and he probably would have gone to war in Iraq–but at least he’s not Bush.
Nor is that an exaggeration. The New York Press’ Alexander Zaitchik recently likened this election to 1964, with Bush as Goldwater and Kerry as LBJ. Zaitchik argued that Johnson was the better choice. Granted, the oddball Texan “gave us the Gulf of Tonkin lie, escalation in Vietnam and a toss-off invasion of the Dominican Republic. But he didn’t start WWIII, which is probably what Goldwater would have done.” Talk about your ringing endorsement.
But Zaitchik got the current contest all wrong. A better model is the 1968 election if Johnson hadn’t dropped out of the race. LBJ’s major accomplishments were three: tax cuts, an explosion in social spending on new programs, and war. It happens that that broad outline is a good match for Bush’s record.
Senator Kerry, leading with his substantial chin, would have been a great understudy for Richard Milhous Nixon. Echoing Tricky Dick’s secret plan to end the war and win the peace, Kerry has refused to give specifics for how he would get us out of Iraq and prosecute what remains of the War on Terror, saying only that we should trust his intuitions and his relationships with foreign leaders. In the meantime, he favors a massive escalation of troops, which, as these things go, would lead to greater military action. And like Nixon, Kerry is likely to continue the free spending ways of the previous administration, leaving a mess for the next several presidents to muddle through.
A thought for progressive Bush haters: You’ve already suffered through the first term of the modern LBJ. Do you really want a Nixon?
Jeremy Lott is a contributing editor to Books & Culture.