Sunday, August 29, 2004

A Historian Who Needs a History Lesson


Niall Ferguson, professor of history at Harvard and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford, writes in OpinionJournal at that Bush's defeat would be good for the GOP. He supports this bold thesis by dredging one (just one) example from history:
Many [British] Conservatives today would now agree that it would have been far better for their party if [Prime Minister John] Major had lost the election of 1992. For one thing, the government deserved to lose. The decision to take the United Kingdom into the European Exchange Rate Mechanism had plunged the British economy into a severe recession, characterized by a painful housing market bust. For another, the Labour candidate for the premiership, Neil Kinnock, had all the hallmarks of a one-term prime minister. It was Mr. Kinnock's weakness as a candidate that enabled Mr. Major to scrape home with a tiny majority of 21 out of 651 seats in the Commons. Had Mr. Kinnock won, the exchange rate crisis of September 1992 would have engulfed an inexperienced Labour government, and the Conservatives, having replaced Mr. Major with a more credible leader, could have looked forward to an early return to office.
I won't go into the parallels Ferguson draws between Major's next five years in office and what he expects of a second Bush term. Let's just say that his assessment is about as good as that of the average anti-Bush protester who's blocking traffic in Manhattan.

Ferguson -- a Glaswegian by birth -- must have a weak grasp of American political history. Parties in this country hold onto power by holding onto it, not by abdicating it. Thus the Jeffersonian Republican dynasty of 1801-25, the new Republican dynasty of 1861-85, the Democrat hegemony of 1933-69 (broken only by Ike's winning popularity), and the Republican hegemony of 1969-2005 (interrupted only by Carter's one-term debacle and Clinton's Perot-assisted two terms).

I'm being a bit unfair to Ferguson, because he isn't suggesting that Bush throw the election. He simply thinks that Republicans might be better off, in the long run, if Bush loses. But regaining power once it's lost can be a hard thing to do. Losing tends to breed losing, here as well as in Britain. If Republicans are, at bottom, different than Democrats -- and if they are likely to stay different -- there's a good reason many of us fear a Democrat dynasty. And, given the way of American politics, a Democrat dynasty might flow from a Kerry victory. Look how far down the road to socialism we marched during the Democrat hegemony of 1933-69.

Are such bad things bound to happen in a second Bush term that Republicanism will vanish into the same black hole as the British Conservative Party? I look at it this way: If Bush has made mistakes he has undoubtedly learned from them. Kerry, on the other hand, is a bundle of mistakes waiting to be opened.

Here's to the continuation of Republican control of the White House -- and Congress.

Ramesh Ponnuru of The Corner at NRO agrees with me (though I don't think he's read this post):
Ferguson says that a second term of hawkishness, big spending, and social conservatism will further divide the party rather than unify it. He also makes a comparison to 1956. Eisenhower had pursued regime change in the Middle East in his first term; he won re-election and had a disastrous second term; that led to the Democrats' owning the 1960s.

We are supposed to believe that the party will be more unified if it has no leader. Maybe, but it's not the way to bet. The Eisenhower comparison is a total failure. Ferguson's own recitation of Eisenhower's foreign-policy record undermines his claim that "President Bush can be relied upon to press on with a foreign policy based on pre-emptive military force"--on his telling, Eisenhower had switched gears by the end of his first term. (Ferguson blasts him for "incoherence," without noticing he's making his own argument incoherent.)

And Eisenhower's second term wasn't the prelude to a Democratic majority--it was an interruption of a Democratic majority. The Democrats had won the five presidential elections before Eisenhower, and won the two following him. Eisenhower's massive popularity allowed the Republicans to hold on to national power during a time of Democratic ascendancy. Cutting the Eisenhower interregnum short would not have improved Republicans' prospects in the following decade. It's bad enough when predictions about the future are far-fetched; predictions about the past should be more solid.