Dana Milbank gets it backwards

Today’s Washington Post includes a piece by its Democratic mouthpiece, Dana Milbank called “The Making of the President: The Nixon in Bush.” Milbank’s thesis is contained in this quotation from Yale professor David Greenberg: “Ideologically, Bush is the son of Reagan; stylistically, he’s the son of Nixon.”
I would submit that, if anything, Milbank and the professor have it backwards. Bush’s style is far closer to Reagan’s than to Nixon’s, but his ideology is closer to Nixon’s than one would like. Milbank all but concedes the first point towards the end of the piece: “In several ways, Bush does have more in common with Reagan than Nixon. Like Reagan, Bush leads with straightforwardness rather than with Nixonian nuance and complexity. Like Reagan, Bush is far closer to the conservative base than was Nixon, forever distrusted by the right because of his secret dealings with Nelson Rockefeller. And Bush, sunny and optimistic like Reagan, shows no sign of the Nixon paranoia. And though Bush frets about leaks and his aides have boasted of a ‘leak-free White House,’ nobody has seriously accused Bush of the heavier-handed Nixon techniques such as wiretaps and Plumbers, nor the sort of dishonesty or lawlessness that caused the Watergate scandal.” In other words, Bush lacks precisely the key negative stylistic attributes that we associate with Nixon.
What, then, are the similarities. Well, Bush would rather communicate directly with the American people than have his message filtered through the media (a preference that any functioning politician, including Reagan, surely would share). He also relies on four key advisors rather than on his cabinet. But Milbank acknowledges that Nixon “ended” the practice of giving primacy to cabinet members, so all post-Nixon presidencies share this characteristic. The “most striking similarity,” according to Milbank, is that Bush, like Nixon, tries to “manage the news” through “message discipline.” But Reagan was constantly accused of doing this through Michael Deaver, for example. In short, the traits Milbank isolates are the staples of most modern presidencies. Milbank might just as well argue that Bush resembles Nixon stylistically because they lived in the same house and used the same telephone company.
When it comes to substance, though, I think there are some meaningful similarities. Both are/were “foreign policy first” presidents. Both are/were largely pragmatic centrists on many important domestic issues — perhaps in order to retain enough popularity to be allowed to continue their stewardship of foreign policy; perhaps because they are/were true moderates on these issues. And, incidentally, both seem to be hated by the Democrats to an even greater extent than Reagan, a genuinely ideological conservative, was.
The key difference, other than the important stylistic ones described above, is that Bush is a reluctant foreign policy hard-liner, whereas Nixon was an eager accommodationist. But the comparison is imperfect. Nixon, I think, might well have been equally hard-line (i.e., might well have attacked Iraq) if confronted with the current set of circumstances. Bush might have favored accommodation with the Soviet Union during the Nixon era. He might even have gone to China. My guess, however, is that his policy towards these two enemy powers would not have been Nixonian. Nixon lived to conduct a dazzling foreign policy. Bush would have been happy not to have become significantly involved with foreign policy at all, had we not been attacked so directly by the Islamofascists.


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