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React, Regroup, Reform : NOW IS THE TIME FOR SOME GOOD PEOPLE TO COME TO THE AID OF THE PARTY ---- AND THE POLICY : A History of Hubris Living at the White House

December 14, 1986|Kevin Phillips | Kevin Phillips is publisher of the American Political Report and Business and Public Affairs Fortnightly

WASHINGTON — Far from being a fluke, the Administration's secret Iranian arms deal has reconfirmed an unfortunate and continuing di mension of U.S. politics: the tendency for American Presidents re-elected by landslide majorities to undercut their second terms with displays of hubris. And these indulgences are often important political turning points.

The precedents are memorable: Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1936, trying to pack the U.S. Supreme Court--and failing. Lyndon B. Johnson, 1964, overcommitting the United States in Vietnam. Richard M. Nixon, 1972, covering up Watergate. Now Ronald Reagan's second term seems equally at risk from his actions--or his omissions--in permitting the secret arms shipments to Iran, with proceeds supposed to fund the contras in Nicaragua.

The political fallout promises to be substantial. The so-called Reagan Revolution, in trouble since November's election reverses, may now be going the way of the New Deal in 1938 and the Great Society in 1967. Moreover, let the scandal continue to unfold, and the Administration's ability to manage domestic and international economic policy in 1987-88 may weaken as the Nixon regime's did during the 1973-74 Watergate period. Prospects for a Democratic presidential victory in 1988 may well surge.

Republicans are justifiably worried. And mindful of how Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North follows in the macho footsteps of Watergate swashbuckler-turned-jailbird G. Gordon Liddy a decade ago, party strategists can rightly caution against ever again giving powerful positions to men whose psychologies are right out of Soldier of Fortune magazine. But GOP strategists will kid themselves if they regard "Contragate" as a coincidence. The current Reagan hubris represents a direct political progression: Live by gunboat diplomacy, die by it; soar by the impact of global swashbuckling in the opinion polls in 1985-86, slump from its overindulgence in 1986-87.

Certainly the impetus of the last year and a half is beyond dispute. From mid-1985 to November, 1986, a whole cavalcade of seeming successes--resolution of the TWA hostages crisis, forcing down the Egyptian aircraft carrying Achille Lauro hijackers and the April air strike against Libya--nurtured a jingo-tinged patriotism already whetted by the 1983 Grenada invasion. Voters, pained by memories of U.S. impotence in the late 1970s, put "Ronbo" on posters where "Rambo" had been. The President's approval ratings climbed to 65%-70%--unprecedented in a second term.

Little of this muscle-flexing originated in the U.S. State Department, where cucumber sandwiches are not just a food but an outlook. The new derring-do came from an ever-more-ascendant National Security Council staff--from officials like Vice Adm. John M. Poindexter and North. Both men earned their Oval Office welcome with Ramboesque operations that sent their commander-in-chief's job-approval soaring higher than it could ever have based on ho-hum public approval of Reaganomics and distinct public skepticism of White House trade, budget, farm and environmental policies. Small wonder that Reagan never reined in Poindexter or North. Until November, swashbuckling paid big political dividends.

Unfortunately, this popular hip-shooting camouflaged a lack of U.S. geopolitical strategy. Relative to our economic and military power in the 1950s and '60s, the United States is now on a downslope of history. North's Errol Flynn-like adventures can only disguise that; they can't change it. Americans may feel better after bombing Libya, but such events hardly constitute a reconstruction of Truman- or Eisenhower-era U.S. strength.

Alas, they actually suggest a more unstable brand of politics and ideology. No analogies are perfect, but the current episode reaffirms the partial parallel between Reagan foreign adventurism and "Shadow Imperial" attempts to recreate past glories in other countries--for example, France's mid-19th Century "Second Empire" under the great Napoleon's posturing nephew Louis Napoleon. On all too many dimensions, nostalgia politics have been an Administration mainstay--from gunboat diplomacy to restoring income-tax rates of the Calvin Coolidge years. But once these restorationist plans are realized (or frustrated), the Administration seems to have little larger vision to draw on. This is one reason why the lame-duck label has appeared so often recently. Legal imbroglios aside, few people in Washington believe the Reagan Administration has any serious domestic or foreign-policy agenda left. Effective management of government is a burden, not a challenge.

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