Politicians, like generals, suffer from a tendency to fight the last war. Having studied meticulously the mistakes of their predecessors, they take care to avoid repeating them—and make the opposite ones. They fortify Maginot lines. They overcompensate for past errors. They swing too far in the other direction.
It is difficult to think of a contemporary president who has not fallen prey to this temptation. Jimmy Carter reacted against Richard Nixon’s ruthlessness and Lyndon B. Johnson’s horse-trading by becoming both too nice and too disdainful of congressional politics. Carter’s micromanagement encouraged Ronald Reagan’s propensity for detachment. Bill Clinton came to Washington intent on reversing George H.W. Bush’s excessive focus on foreign policy—and proceeded to neglect foreign policy for his first few years. George W. Bush compensated for his father’s lack of vision and Clinton’s indiscipline with his own excesses of grandiosity and punctuality. First ladies do it: Hillary Clinton tried to be the anti-Barbara Bush, while Laura Bush tried to be the anti-Hillary. Even vice presidents do it: Blathering, peripheral Joe Biden is the excessive response to the silent, all-powerful Dick Cheney.