Tom Friedman's Wacky Idea
The trouble with Tom Friedman's brilliant suggestion in this past week's NYT that President Bush join with China to create a Manhattan Project for alternative energy is that it is breathtakingly ahistorical. Friedman suggests Bush do a Nixon, reversing course on energy the way Nixon reversed course on China. But Nixon's change was more than a bold stroke of imagination. It was a product of his personality and era.
First, Nixon's move was an act of hope. The world was tired of Vietnam, tired of the Cold War, and ready to move on from the shibboleths of the 1950s. Nixon during his presidency consistently offered people hope (liberals may find this hard to believe, but it's true). He campaigned in 1968 on the promise that he would end Vietnam, bring the country together and heal the wounds of the Civil Rights Movement. While he found it convenient, as Garry Wills ably noted in Nixon Agonistes, to appeal to blue collar resentments, he also managed to put together a winning coalition of Silent Majority Americans who sincerely wanted peace in Vietnam and at home. Nixon convincingly argued that he was better able to achieve these goals than opponent Hubert "Happy Warrior" Humphrey. By 1968 the Democrats could no longer offer a real possibility of hope. Like Herbert Hoover in 1933, they all but confessed that they were at the end of their string.
Now look at Bush. His only prayer for re-election is to exploit the fears of Americans. If the election is about hope he loses. If it's about fear he wins. He does fear better than any politician of his generation. You have to go back to the days of the 50s to find a politician who played on people's fears the way President Bush does. Were he to offer a bold plan along the lines that Friedman suggests the steam would go out of his campaign.
Besides, Nixon's plan grew out of years of hard thinking about the ways in which he could redraw the map of world alliances. It didn't emerge from a focus group or a 15 minute policy review at the White House. He had carefully thought through the consequences and put in place a series of chess moves that gave him maneuvering room on Vietnam and a chance to invigorate the relationship with the USSR. Unlike this administration, Nixon's thought through policy initiatives.
Can you imagine what this administration would do if it really tried to reinvent the way Americans use energy? We are talking about oil and cars--one sixth of the American economy. The FBI can't even figure out how to do a Google-like search of its own data bases.
Nation-building in Iraq would be a cakewalk compared with redesigning the American economy to accommodate alternative energy. And would you really trust an oilman to make the changes that would be needed? Even Republicans would figure that somehow Bush would take care of his oil buddies.
Then there's the little problem of the Constitution. In foreign affairs the president is given wide latitude; Nixon was able to spring the change on China on the country because he didn't have to ask the permission of the Congress. But on domestic issues, presidents have to work with Congress and the opposition. Any president attempting to restructure the American economy as Friedman envisions would first have to win a landslide to gain the popular backing for such a revolutionary approach. In a divided country like ours that ain't going to happen just now.
And do we really want Bush trying nation-building again? And yet isn't that what restructuring the American economy would be all about? First thing any realistic plan would have to take into account would be SUV's. Is Bush really going to say to Americans that they should drive little cars to save fuel? Forget it.
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Jonathan Dresner - 6/30/2004
The Nixon shift on China was a much less drastic thing than an international cooperative endeavor would be. All he really did was acknowledge reality (which policy up to that point did not) and then do pretty normal diplomatic things to affect that reality.
We could argue that a massive alternative energy project would be "acknowleding reality" but the strategic and economic implications of success are too obvious and too large for any but the closest allies to actually share this job.