Bush’s Legacy vs. the 2008 Election

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DURING the midterm elections, a question nagged at Republicans who agreed to follow the White House script on the Iraq war: Does the president care more about his legacy than the party’s in pushing his course?

By last week, many Republicans on Capitol Hill had come to believe that their interests and the president’s may be diverging even wider.

On one end of Pennsylvania Avenue is a president who argues that history will judge him favorably on the war; on the other are increasingly skeptical Republicans who blame the president’s stay-the-course strategy for the loss of majority status in Congress and fear that it may cost them again in 2008.

The unusual circumstances of the 2008 election may only aggravate the situation. Congressional Republicans face high stakes, particularly in the Senate, where 21 are up for re-election, compared with just 12 Democrats. And the Democrats have already put targets on senators in the Northeast and Midwest where antiwar sentiment helped Democrats sweep into office.

The president, on the other hand, cannot run again, and has no chosen successor, leaving him unbound to electoral concerns.

Like any president, however, he is concerned with how history will judge him. Mr. Bush has frequently likened himself to Harry Truman, an unpopular president when he left office, but one applauded by history.

“To coin a phrase, he’s no Harry Truman,” said Robert Dallek, a presidential historian. “Truman is now seen as a near great president because he put in place the containment doctrine boosted by the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan and NATO, which historians now see as having been at the center of American success in the cold war.”

“If you ask yourself, what is Bush’s legacy, what is there?” Mr. Dallek asked. “What’s his larger design to meet the dangers of Islamic terrorism?”

The parallels, some historians say, are more to Lyndon Johnson.

Robert A. Caro, the Johnson biographer, says that the similarities are striking if you look at newspapers from 1967 as the nation headed into the tumultuous election year of 1968.

“You see this pouring in of the national treasure, this rise in troops against the background of failure,” he said. “The opposition to this starts to be expressed more and more on the floor of Congress. You have a president who is unbending in each case.”

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