“They told me that if I voted for McCain, we’d get a continuation of Bush’s wartime policies. AND THEY WERE RIGHT!”
After the jubilation wore off from Sunday night’s news, it started to remind me of something that former Dallas Cowboys fullback turned broadcaster Daryl Johnston once said. At the very end of the NFL Films’ America’s Game segment on the 1995 Dallas Cowboys, and their victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XXX, Johnston tells his interviewer that his team’s season “was just a very, very strange year. A testimony to that team that we were able to get through all that, and somehow, find a way to win a championship.
“My position coach, Joe Brodsky, said that it was one of the best performances that he had ever seen by a team,” Johnston added. “And I asked him why, and he said, because you guys won in spite of the coaching.”
As details emerged yesterday on how Osama bin Laden was killed and how the information was obtain that led to that dramatic moment, more and more Americans were reminded that President Obama was building upon the infrastructure that President Bush and his administration very quickly assembled in the wake of 9/11. Like Switzer building upon Jimmy Johnson’s efforts, President Obama was lucky enough, in spite of his own efforts to the contrary, not to dismantle it. Or as Professor William A. Jacobson quips at Legal Insurrection, “Obama may be re-elected because George Bush had the good sense not to listen to Obama.”
The 1992 election is probably the best reason to be careful when making any predictions about how the death of bin Laden is likely to impact American politics. As Silver notes, at this point in his Presidency George H.W. Bush seemed to be unbeatable thanks to the overwhelming success of the Persian Gulf War, but within a year that boost in the polls had largely disappeared thanks to a flagging economy, not to mention the fact that he had greatly annoyed his conservative base by going back on his “No New Taxes” pledge. This time around, the President is likely to get a boost in the polls but it’s not at all clear that it’s going to last, especially since we’ve already seen plenty of evidence that Obama’s approval numbers are subject to wide fluctuations.
So yes, barring a disaster in Libya or elsewhere, this likely takes national security off the table as an issue in 2012, but the election was never going to be about national security anyway. Much as George H.W. Bush found it hard to translate his post-Gulf War popularity into domestic success (something that his son was also largely unable to do in the wake of the September 11th attacks), it isn’t at all clear that killing Osama bin Laden is going to make any difference at all in the political battles to come over the budget, entitlements, the deficits, and the size and scope of government, In fact, there’s no reason to think that it would.
It’s a good day for the White House, and the President deserves credit here, but the battles are far from over.
Beyond Bush in ’92, presidents during the last 100 years found out the hard way that strange things can happen to their fortunes after decisive military victories. Woodrow Wilson won World War I, but the post-war chaos both at home and in Europe doomed his his Democratic successors, former Ohio Governor James M. Cox and his vice presidential candidate, then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt. They lost in 1920 to Warren G. Harding and his vice-president, Calvin Coolidge, ending war-era socialism (albeit temporarily in retrospect) and paving the way for the laissez-faire roaring twenties.
Similarly, building on FDR’s long-term efforts, Harry Truman successfully concluded World War II — only to see the Democrats lose Congress the following year, and eking out a victory against Thomas Dewey only by going intensely negative at the tail-end of the campaign — to the point of red-lining the Godwin meter — in ’48.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Winston Churchill saved England from the forced collectivization of the Nazis, only to lose Parliament immediately afterward and witness the collectivization of the Labour Party in the form of socialized medicine and a lengthy period of harsh postwar rationing that wouldn’t end until the early 1960s. Or as Lawrence H. White of George Mason University noted last year:
After Labour‘s landslide victory in the 1945 election, in [socialist and Labour MP Barbara Castle‘s] words, “What we set out to do was to ensure that this system of fair shares and the planning and controls continued after the war, and when we won, that‘s what we did.” She was right about the “fair shares” (government rationing) and controls. Prices controls and rationing of consumer goods continued for years after the war.
Which doesn’t seem much like the post-war England Churchill had likely imagined. But socialized medicine coupled with “this system of fair shares, planning and controls” certainly sounds oddly reminiscent of our own increasingly centralized Obaconomy, doesn’t it?
Which brings us to our current era. To get a sense of what could happen next, check out this quote from liberal pollster Nate Silver in the New York Times:
In 1991, the top 8 or 10 Democratic candidates skipped the presidential race because George H.W. Bush seemed unbeatable in the wake of the popular Gulf War. But by November 1992, Mr. Bush’s approval ratings were in the 30s, and Bill Clinton defeated him easily — as most any Democratic candidate would have.
Well, with a little help from Ross Perot, of course. But sensing a huge opening, Clinton only entered the race when he saw the weakness in the milquetoast other Democrat candidates, who were too timid to take on a seemingly-invincible Bush #41. Fortunate favors the bold — with the economy still in disastrous shape and knowing the finite nature of the “Rally ’round the flag effect” on poll numbers, who’s going to seize the opportunity and give President Obama a run for his the taxpayers’ money?
Beyond, heaven help us, Donald Trump, of course.