Sunday, July 31, 2011

Missing Bob Taft

There's an article up at the Atlantic right now that purports to list the five best and five worst foreign policy presidents of the last 100 years. In general I think the list is  kind of incoherent. I'm not sure I can really tell what the author thinks "good" foreign policy is.

The interesting part, however, is that he pretty severely dings Harry Truman for his very partisan approach to foreign policy, and then lauds Eisenhower for being so very reasonable and bipartisan. The funny thing is, one of the main reasons that Truman was partisan and Eisenhower was bipartisan was that Robert Taft (son of the former president) was a Republican. Bob Taft was the last and most prominent of the Republican isolationists...a branch of the party that thought WWI was a mistake, WWII was a mistake, the Marshall Plan was a mistake, and Korea was an even bigger mistake. When Eisenhower beat him out for the Republican nomination in 1952, that represented a huge shift in the Republican party platform. When Eisenhower took office, many of the Republican senators (under the leadership of Bob Taft) were essentially unwilling to work with him, so Lyndon Johnson on the Democratic side became Eisenhower's best hope of getting anything passed. Bipartisanship wasn't some magnanimous choice on his part, it was the only option available to him. Just as fighting Bob Taft tooth and nail to maintain American involvement overseas was the only option available to Truman.

But I lied...that's not actually the interesting part. The interesting part is the question of why exactly we think that a bipartisan foreign policy is better than a partisan one. The way I see it, when the 1968 election didn't produce a presidential nominee in either party that represented the level of skepticism towards the Vietnam War that much of the country was feeling, that was a pretty profound breakdown of the American political system. The 2008 election was better, but then again...somehow even after voting for the more anti-war primary candidate from the more anti-war party, we're still in Iraq and Afghanistan three years later, and getting involved in other countries on top of that. Partisanship is the vehicle by which American voters get to pick the direction this country goes in. The idea that foreign policy should be bipartisan is the idea that there's only one right way to do things, and discovering that right way should be left to the experts, not the voters.

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