Although George W. Bush likes to compare his presidency to that of Ronald Reagan, it most resembles that of Lyndon Baines Johnson. Some conservatives and liberals alike may be horrified at the comparison, but that is where the facts lead.
Although Ronald Reagan’s efforts to reduce the size of government were mostly rhetorical, his philosophy was one of small government conservatism. Certainly, the deficits Reagan racked up by cutting taxes more than spending and the percolation of his philosophy into public opinion probably played at least some role in reducing the growth of federal spending during the Clinton presidency
In contrast, both George W. Bush and LBJ ran “guns and butter” presidenciesthat is, spending other people’s money was their specialty. Although Bush claims to be a “conservative,” the growth rate of domestic (non-defense) spending under his watch has increased more than under any recent president except LBJ. And that’s no coincidence. Throughout American history, war is the most prominent cause of government expansion at home. The three recent presidents with long wars during their termsLBJ, Nixon, and George W. Bushalso had higher growth rates for domestic spending than presidents without extended wars during their time in officefor example, Carter, Reagan, and Clinton. In the case of both LBJ and Bush, shoveling money into their respective military adventures eventually “crowded out” their domestic spending sprees and forced at least some financial retrenchment in those programs.
In the 1960s, LBJ and his advisers had little knowledge about what would really solve the problem of poverty. His strategy in the federal “War on Poverty” was merely to throw money at the problem. He didn’t know which programs would work and which would not. But LBJ, the seasoned political operative, knew that it would be difficult to kill even ineffective programs once they were established. Interest groups would fight the funding termination. So he realized that unsuccessful programs could be “adjusted.” Yet LBJ didn’t predict that the entire “War on Poverty” would fail, leading to the massive waste of taxpayer dollars and a permanent underclass dependent on federal assistance.
Similarly, Bush has tried to fix the broken public school system by increasing federal funding and intervention into what had traditionally been a locally dominated policy area. (Interestingly, LBJ was the first president to overcome decades of congressional resistance to general federal aid for education, thus setting the precedent for Bush’s efforts.) Like LBJ’s “War on Poverty,” Bush’s attempt to cure a systemic problem by simply providing greater federal cash, with strings attached, will probably fail.
Although the U.S. economy performed well during LBJ’s term, his economic policies reverberated far into the future. For example, in the 1960s, LBJ’s profligate spending on unsuccessful Great Society social programs and the Vietnam War helped cause the stagflation of the 1970s. Similarly, although the economy is performing well now, Bush’s big government conservatism will likely have future negative economic effects that are not apparent at the current time.
The greatest resemblance of the two administrations, however, may be their deceptions about the need to conduct foreign wars, which later turned into quagmires. In 1964, LBJ used an alleged attack by a North Vietnamese patrol boat on a U.S. destroyer off the coast of Vietnam to push through Congress the open-ended Gulf of Tonkin resolution. The resolution allowed him much flexibility to conduct military operations against North Vietnam. He made a fatal mistake, however, by conducting a piecemeal, secret escalation of the war without gaining congressional or public support for growing U.S. involvement. Thus, as the war dragged into a stalemate involving more than a half a million U.S. combat troops, the American public began to bail out. Although LBJ had moments of tactical candor as popular support for the war ebbed, his failure to allow an informed debate on escalation before the going got tough eventually doomed the war effort. Furthermore, under LBJ’s acquiescence, the U.S. military, using heavy-handed tactics and massive firepower to substitute for a more sophisticated counterinsurgency strategy, also made the U.S. war unpopular in Vietnamfurther eroding the possibility of success.
In the same way, Bush exaggerated the threat that Saddam Hussein posed to get initial public and congressional support for invading Iraq. But when no weapons of mass destruction were found after the invasion and U.S. casualties mounted as a guerrilla war slogged on, public support for the endeavor eroded domestically. Recently, in a likely vain effort to turn around long-term public opinion on the conflict, Bush has grudgingly admitted that mistakes were made but has promised ultimate victory if the public is patient. Unbelievably, in a replay of Vietnam, the U.S. military, under Bush’s tacit acceptance, made the U.S. occupation unpopular in Iraq by using large conventional units and heavy firepower to destroy Iraqi towns in order to save them. Losing public support at home and in the country of occupation dramatically lessens the chance that any counterinsurgency will succeed.
Overseas counterinsurgencies are difficult to conduct even when leaders are honest about the goals and costs of the war, but are even more treacherous in a democracy when leaders deceive their publics and their legislatures. If anything goes wrongas it inevitably doesthe leaders are left standing out on a very fragile limb.
Foreign wars are often the signature event in a president’s time in office. Vietnam took over LBJ’s term, as Iraq has Bush’s tenure. Vietnam destroyed LBJ’s “guns and butter” presidency, and Iraq will likely destroy Bush’s 21st century counterpart.
Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.
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