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Victory from the Jaws of Defeat?

Victory from the Jaws of Defeat?

In the wake of the federal government’s failure to quickly address the crisis wrought by Hurricane Katrina, and amid a growing sense among some that the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq and at home have become mired in bureaucratic corruption and legislative gridlock, some liberal pundits claim to hear the death rattle of George Bush’s political influence, an idea nicely encapsulated in a recent syndicated column by the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne, Jr.

“The Bush Era is over,” Dionne wrote on September 13. “…Recent months, and especially the past two weeks, have brought home to a steadily growing majority of Americans the truth that President Bush’s government doesn’t work. His policies are failing, his approach to leadership is detached and self-indulgent, his way of politics has produced a divided, angry and dysfunctional public square. We dare not go on like this.”

While George W. Bush—his legacy, his agenda—may or may not prove the great political casualty of 2005, the notion that Americans will now reject his brand of conservatism is probably misplaced.

Remember Watergate. Then as now, a sitting Republican President saw his poll numbers, and those of his party, plummet. (There is a difference, of course, in the circumstances leading to each President’s declining political fortunes. Nixon was corrupt; Bush is viewed as inept.) In 1974 the Democrats swept off-year elections and racked up massive majorities in both houses of Congress. If state-by-state polls are any indication, the same may very well be true of next year’s elections.

But in 1974, the Democrats enjoyed only a temporary boost from Watergate. Ironically, in the long term, it was Nixon’s Republican party—particularly its ascendant conservative wing—that benefited most from Watergate.

American conservatives are a very diverse lot. Some embrace libertarianism; others endorse the politics of social control. Some are interventionists; others are isolationists. If they agree on little else, most conservatives believe that government is inherently less efficient than the private sector, that taxes stunt economic growth and hinder liberty, and that people are most free where government is small.

Watergate shook the American public’s faith in government. To be sure, the credibility gap over Vietnam and other events of the sixties had already weakened Americans’ affection for their government. But it was Watergate that did the most harm to the government’s popular standing.

Since the 1930s an entire generation of Americans had been lifted into middle-class comfort and security with the help of New Deal and Great Society entities like the HOLC, FHA, Social Security, the Veterans Administration, and Medicare. To some extent most middle-class Americans owed their homes, their education, their jobs, their union benefits, and their protection against illness, injury, or unemployment to the government.

“After Watergate,” explained a public school teacher in the mid-1970s, it was “crazy to trust in politicians. I’m totally cynical, skeptical.”

So who won? The Republican party, specifically, and the conservative movement, more broadly.

The tax revolts of the late 1970s, the growth of anti-government sentiment, the great embrace of the private sector—all followed on the heels of Watergate. November 1974 may have been kind to the Democrats. But the ensuing decades have been brutal.

Today we are in a similar situation. George W. Bush may very well be a lame duck President. But in the long run, he may have masterfully promoted the good fortunes of his cause.

Conservatives need government to fail. When they’re in power, they sometimes seem to make sure it does.