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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Truman Show

One of the most outrageous aspects of the recent Bush administration counter-offensive aimed at reversing the president’s bad poll ratings has been an effort to recast him as a brave, tough and far-sighted Commander-in-Chief in the tradition of Harry S. Truman (Condi Rice, in particular, has been promoting this wildly revisionist argument).Over at TPMCafe, G. John Ikenberry demolishes this false analogy in considerable detail, mainly in terms of Truman’s strategy for dealing with the post-World-War-II challenges facing America, which couldn’t be much farther from Bush’s strategy in the war on terror. Please read it all.I would, however, like to supplement Ikenberry’s analysis by pointing to the radically different leadership styles of Truman and Bush.Truman famously said of the presidency that “the buck stops here.” Bush’s aversion to admitting mistakes or taking accountability for his administration’s actions is so extreme and notorious that he actually gets praise for his occasional “mistakes were made” admissions, invariably abstract rather than specific, that perhaps he isn’t infallible.Truman quickly and decisively fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur as military commander in Korea, at a time when MacArthur was far more popular than the president himself. Bush cannot bring himself to fire Donald Rumsfeld, whose departure would not cause a ripple in public opinion, and would be quietly celebrated throughout most of the armed forces.Truman was of course a fiery partisan, but he also cooperated with Republicans whenever possible, especially in foreign policy. Bush pretends to be “above party,” while in practice (with the sole exception of the No Child Left Behind legislation) treating Democrats who don’t simply surrender to him as nonentities to be ignored if not destroyed.I would have to guess that this campaign to make Bush “the new Truman” is based on the superficial identification of the two presidents as simple, resolute and non-reflective men who never worried much about criticism.Truman, of course, was a man from a very humble background, who did not attend college. Yet his administration built virtually the entire complex superstructure of multilateral organizations and policies, economic as well as diplomatic and military, that guided the West throughout the Cold War and beyond.Bush, the ultimate child of privilege, with a presidential father, a prep school education, and degrees from two Ivy League universities, has actively cultivated a non-reflexive attitude, and is “visionary” only in the imagination of his speechwriters.I obviously don’t expect the Bushies to advertise their boss as the reincarnation of some more likely figure such as Warren G. Harding, but still, this Truman Show does not pass the laugh or smell tests.

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