Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Farewells to Saddam and Jerry

Before we ring in the new, let’s review a pair of ’06 holiday season deaths:

Saddam Hussein...When the old tyrant took his final swing, the Bush White House barely mustered a response. What a contrast from three Decembers ago, when Hussein was yanked out of his spider hole. Back then, President Bush devoted an Oval Office TV address to the occasion, declaring that Hussein’s capture was “crucial to the rise of a free Iraq,” and a signal that “the United States of America will not relent until this war is won.”

This time, by contrast, the White House merely released a terse written statement, although it did repeat the old mantra that Hussein’s death was another “milestone” on the road to freedom. (Actually, there have been many Bush-described “milestones” on the road to sectarian civil war.)

The muted Bush response signifies, however, that the administration is well aware that any fresh display of triumphalism would not sell well with those Americans (a majority, in fact) who now view the Iraq war as a mistake. Indeed, triumphalism probably would not have sold well with the troops either, since (according to an underrreported Military Times poll) it now appears that only 35 percent of active-duty soldiers support Bush's prosecution of the war.

And it certainly would have been bad salesmanship for Bush to hail Hussein’s death as a great victory – while continuing to plan for a troop escalation that will, in reality, demonstrate that the death of the Bush family's longtime foe has changed absolutely nothing on the ground. Which is apparently what most soldiers believe as well, because only 38 percent told the Military Times poll that they would support escalation.

Gerald Ford...Forget all the satirical shorthand about this accidental president – the physical stumblebum, the Nixon loyalist who handed Nixon a get-out-of-jail-free card, the clumsy debater who insisted that the Soviets did not dominate communist Poland, the leader who tried to combat inflation by wearing a Whip Inflation Now button, the humble guy who really did toast his own English muffins.

What’s most important about Ford – and this could not be truly discerned at the time, back in 1976 – is his historic status as the last GOP leader to serve in the White House prior to the rise of the Republican right. Indeed, as a sitting president, he was nearly derailed in the 1976 GOP primaries by an upstart named Ronald Reagan, who, at the time, was in the process of harnessing the grassroots conservative movement that rose from the ashes of the 1964 Barry Goldwater debacle.

Ford was a man of the Democratic House; as a longstanding congressman in the GOP minority, he had long been a deal-maker and compromiser with the liberals who ruled the roost in those days. As president he even named, as his veep, Nelson Rockefeller, that pillar of the old GOP eastern establishment who had been booed at the Goldwater convention. Ford’s general profile didn’t cut it with the Reagan loyalists, who advocated a more combative conservatism - promoting a more hawkish anti-communist stance abroad, rejecting deals with Democrats at home, and inveighing against ‘60s social "permissivism."

Pressure from the New Right (as it was known then) eventually forced Ford to dump Rocky from the ’76 ticket and replace him with the scrappier Bob Dole, but none of this slowed the inexorable momentum of the Reagan movement; even though it came up short by barely 100 delegates in ’76, it triumphed four years later. As Jonathan Martin of the National Review writes, “(Ford’s) spirited and successful campaign to bat back Reagan’s insurgency marked the last stand of the moderates’ hold of the GOP. No Republican has since won the party’s nod without the backing of the conservative wing of the party.”

It’s noteworthy that Ford in his last years became increasingly outspoken about the conservative wing; in interviews, he described himself as a supporter of abortion rights, he criticized religious conservatives, and in 2004 he told Bob Woodward that the war in Iraq was wrong. Ex-presidents always tend to their legacies, and it’s clear that Ford – who, during the ‘60s, had tried to impeach liberal Supreme Court justice William Douglas over an article that Douglas had written for a semi-racy journal - was increasingly anxious to distance himself from the right-wingers who had won control of his party.

But Ford, at the end, never did address the big question: Would the Republicans have dominated national politics for a generation, starting in 1980, if they hadn’t rejected moderation and moved sharply to the right?

No doubt there are many conservatives today who will stipulate that Ford was a good and decent man. But winning comes first; the Reagan forces tapped into an angry conservative populism, and turned it into votes. And even though the conservative movement that rattled Ford in 1976 might well fail in the presidential election of 2008, consider its recent track record: The GOP is 5-2 since 1980, and it can be argued that Ford’s socially moderate, fiscally-prudent Republicanism would never have pulled that off.

So, 2007:

The Democrats take over Congress on Thursday. I’ll talk about it tomorrow morning on WHYY radio (90.9 FM, the NPR outlet in Philadelphia).

From 10 to 11 a.m. Wednesday, I’m slated to be a guest on “Radio Times,” along with Susan Milligan, who covers Congress for The Boston Globe. You can listen live here.