Probably the last Democratic president who held views roughly similar to President Bush’s was Grover Cleveland in the late 19th century. Cleveland embodied the resistance to activist government that dominated the Democratic Party through its first century and fuels the GOP today.
But the unlamented Cleveland isn’t one of the predecessors Bush and his allies are enlisting to sell his initiatives at home and abroad. Instead, they are trying to link Bush’s agenda with Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Bill Clinton.
In each case, to put it mildly, the connection is a stretch. In fact, in each instance, the Bush team is citing the Democrats to sell policies that reverse the strategies those presidents pursued. It’s as if General Motors were using a testimonial from Ralph Nader to sell an updated Corvair.
Bush’s allies have routinely described his recent inaugural address as the most idealistic statement of America’s commitment to expanding liberty since Wilson’s declaration in 1917 that, “The world must be made safe for democracy.”
Up to a point the analogy holds. Like Bush, Wilson believed that the spread of democracy would make America more secure. And Wilson, like Bush, considered U.S. influence key to encouraging that spread.
But the differences dwarf the similarities. Wilson wanted the U.S. to help organize the world into a League of Nations that would confront threats as “a community of power.” In both Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush has demonstrated that he is more comfortable working virtually alone than accepting restrictions on America’s freedom of action.
Just as important, Wilson believed that each generation of Americans had to bear the burden of world leadership, not pass the costs to future generations.
Wilson pledged to make the world safe for democracy in his April 1917 speech asking for a declaration of war in World War I. Wilson insisted that, as much as possible, the costs of the war should be “sustained by the present generation, by well-conceived taxation” rather than burdening future generations with “the very serious hardships and evils” likely to arise from overly increasing the national debt.
As Steven R. Weisman recounts in his definitive book “The Great Tax Wars: Lincoln-Teddy Roosevelt-Wilson; How the Income Tax Transformed America,” Wilson put flesh on that sentiment by pushing through Congress an unprecedented tax increase to help fund the war, including tough levies on estates and “excess” corporate profit and an increase in the top personal income tax rate to 67%.
The next year, Wilson won another tax increase (which, among other things, raised the top rate to 77%) after telling Congress that Americans “know that the war must be paid for and that it is they who must pay for it, and if the burden is justly distributed ... they will carry it cheerfully and with a kind of solemn pride.”
By contrast, Bush is billing future generations for the war on terrorism through an increased national debt, largely because he is the first president to significantly cut taxes during wartime.
Last week, Bush announced that he wanted Congress to provide $80 billion more to fund operations in Iraq and Afghanistan this year. But he did not propose to cover even a dollar of that expense with new revenue. The result is that his administration projects the federal deficit this year will reach another all-time record, adding an expected $427 billion to the debt future taxpayers must pay. That’s hardly Wilsonian.
The comparison to Roosevelt is just as strained. Progress for America, a conservative group, has run television ads arguing that Bush, in his drive to restructure Social Security, is displaying the same “courage and leadership” that Roosevelt did in creating the program during the Depression.
No one doubts that Bush is willing to take political risks. But he is taking those risks on behalf of an agenda that, for better or worse, inverts Roosevelt’s vision of how to increase economic security for ordinary Americans.
With ideas like personal investment and healthcare savings accounts, Bush is proposing policies that would shift more of the risk for funding retirement and healthcare from large collective institutions (like Social Security or group health insurance) to individuals in the name of expanding ownership and choice.
Roosevelt’s goal was precisely the opposite: to create public programs that shifted the risk for life’s challenges (like retirement or disability) from individuals to society overall.
Bush’s backers believe he’s acting in Roosevelt’s flexible spirit to update the social safety net for a new century. But in the changes he’s pursuing, Bush comes closer to reversing Roosevelt than emulating him.
Bush’s frequent invoking of Clinton on Social Security is even more surprising, given the conservative hostility to the former president. Bush is right that Clinton was more likely than today’s Democratic leaders to describe Social Security’s long-term financing imbalance as a “crisis.” But Clinton’s response to that challenge was close to Bush’s only in the sense that two trucks are close when they collide head-on.
Clinton had a two-step answer. First, he wanted to reduce government interest costs by paying down the national debt with the federal surplus of the late 1990s. Then he would have used the annual savings on interest to help fund Social Security. Bush instead applied the surplus to massive tax cuts that had contributed to mounting federal debts and rising interest costs.
Clinton also wanted to create tax-subsidized personal investment accounts on top of Social Security; Bush wants to carve out personal accounts from Social Security by diverting part of the payroll tax that funds benefits for retirees. One would have added onto Social Security; the other would take from it.
At home and abroad, Bush’s agenda is decisive and ambitious. But it isn’t a Democratic agenda. Pretending it is serves no one.
Ronald Brownstein’s column appears every Monday. See current and past columns on The Times’ website at www.latimes.com/brownstein.