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Saturday, March 08, 2008

A peculiar and ostensibly conservative assessment of the Bush-43 Administration as a "failed presidency"

Having just praised a short article in the Weekly Standard's online version by Ed Whelan, I find myself reluctantly obliged to pan a very long one also published there by Jeffrey Bell, who's a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center (of which Mr. Whelan is president) and a principal at Capital City Partners (a Washington political consulting firm). Other blogospheric reactions to Mr. Bell's article that I've come across so far range from generally approving to skeptical to outraged to insulting.

Having entitled his article "The Politics of a Failed Presidency," Mr. Bell has certainly written ambitiously and comprehensively, albeit without subject headings or much else by way of obvious organizational structure. The individual sentences and paragraphs track nicely and the prose is serviceable, but this article badly needed a better or more aggressive editor. To his credit, though, Mr. Bell's premise is simple, and it's clearly stated in his article's very first sentence: "The failure of the Bush presidency is the dominant fact of American politics today."

But other than by repeated references to the most ephemeral standard — current public opinion poll ratings of the President — I think that Mr. Bell fails to make a persuasive factual case to support that premise. In a sentence: Mr. Bell sweats the small stuff to death, but he badly misses the big picture.

Thank goodness Dubya himself has mostly done the opposite.


To thoroughly Fisk this article, I'd need to duplicate, or exceed, Mr. Bell's article's own 9200-word length, which would get me down below a "forest/trees/twigs" level of detail to the microscopic level Mr. Bell sometimes embraces. With my customary brevity, however, I've managed to keep this down to a svelte 1800 words or so.

Not many Americans, present or future, would consider judging the basic success or failure of the Bush-43 Administration on such minutia, for instance, as its failure to stand up against gay rights advocacy groups to preserve the Ministerial Exemption to the CARE Act, and the allegedly consequent failure of the full Congress to pass Bush's faith-based initiatives program in full. Mr. Bell gives that argument eight terribly detailed (and, frankly, tedious) paragraphs running more than 700 words. (I'm still not quite sure I understand it, after three re-readings.) Okay, then, maybe that's a darned shame. But do you think anyone will remember it in 2020, much less 2050, in assessing the overall success or failure of the first American presidency of the 21st Century?

Perhaps it's no surprise that many of the Bush "failures" identified by Mr. Bell — a self-described conservative, Vietnam vet, one-time Senate opponent of Bill Bradley in New Jersey, former president of the Manhattan Institute, and senior consultant to the Gary Bauer campaign in 2000 — would nowhere appear on a list compiled by Democratic opponents of the Administration. Nor, for the same reason, are very many of Bush's "failures"  as perceived by Democrats included on Mr. Bell's list. But it is perhaps a surprise that some things which many other conservatives would assess as very conspicuous "failures" on the part of this president — his first-term embrace of protectionist steel tariffs, for example, or his nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court — utterly escape Mr. Bell's attention.

Even when Mr. Bell gives Dubya due credit for accomplishments that most conservatives, and even Bush opponents, would acknowledge, however, it's terse credit. A conspicuous example, dear to my own (and I'll wager to Mr. Whelan's) heart: "The nomination and confirmation of John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 accomplished what Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush all tried and failed to do: move the Supreme Court toward judicial restraint on social issues." Well, yeah! Mr. Bell throws in another couple of sentences on this subject, but maybe it's worth more than one paragraph in the "big picture," d'ya think?

And this is unfortunately typical through-out: Leading multinational coalitions in the rapid and low-casualty toppling of two of the world's regimes most hostile to the United States gets George W. Bush a couple or three passing references in Mr. Bell's analysis. Persuading Libya to drop its nuclear weapons program gets precisely one sentence, as does persuading Pakistan to shut down A.Q. Khan's nuclear proliferation ring.

In fact, were I to compile from Mr. Bell's article a bullet-point list of things he at least casually mentions that I, by contrast, consider to be significant achievements from the first seven years of the Bush-43 Administration, it would turn out to be a very long list indeed. He and I agree on many of the individual pieces of relevant evidence, in other words, but we definitely disagree about the weight to which those pieces, individually and especially cumulatively, should be accorded by the jury.


Mr. Bell is also a bit too willing to presume presidential power beyond that which practically exists. For example, there's a long segment which begins: "In retrospect, a fateful turning point for Bush's credibility was the elevation of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency of Iran in June 2005." This is Dubya's fault? A turning point in Dubya's credibility? Nobody's happy that Iran is still a nuclear threat, not even France. But if one's going to point to that as evidence that the Bush-43 Administration is a "failed presidency," one's obliged to lay out a plausible scenario as to precisely what ought to have been done better and differently, and how it was in fact doable. Mr. Bell is merely grumpy on this topic, not constructive in his criticisms.

And despite his somewhat vague grumbling about it, I don't think Mr. Bell quite intended to lay responsibility for the SCOTUS' 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas at Dubya's feet — and that position would be rather hard to argue explicitly, since it predated either the Roberts or Alito nominations, and they both replaced Justices who declined to join in Justice Kennedy's opinion for the majority anyway. But Mr. Bell certainly faults the Bush-43 Administration for failing to exact more "decisive consequences" against the pro-gay marriage side after the 2004 election victory. Both Democratic candidates for 2008 purport to oppose gay marriage, and based on the just-finished oral arguments, many, and perhaps most, knowledgeable observers predict that the California Supreme Court — California, for pete's sake! — is about to refuse to follow the Massachusetts lead by ruling that the spate of gay marriages attempted by San Francisco city authorities in 2004 were invalid. The Bush-43 Administration made a reasoned decision that given the lack of extreme urgency and the other demands on its diminishing political capital, accomplishing more by way of federal action just wasn't in the cards, and therefore wasn't a top priority for the second term. I gather that Mr. Bell disagrees with that call — but in the big picture, is that a serious reason to describe the Administration as an overall failure?

In other parts of his article, for someone with his impressive track record in government service, political campaigning, and conservative policy circles, Mr. Bell is strikingly naïve. He writes, for example, of Bush having failed to make his highly significant and extraordinarily successful tax cuts "permanent" as being a major failure — exactly as if one Congress and president had the constitutional power to bind the taxation policies of a later Congress and president. Here's a clue: There's no such thing as a "permanent" tax cut, nor "permanent" tax increase for that matter. Using that word, just like scheduling the "expiration" of tax cuts, is at least 90% spin rather than substance. And even if a Republican majority Congress and Bush had successfully insisted on calling the Bush tax cuts "permanent" as of their initial passage, the next Democratic majority Congress and Democratic president would have been certain to try to roll them back anyway. (John McCain, to his credit, recognizes that it's silly to go along with the Democrats' talk of the "expiration" of the Bush tax cuts. What they promise, and what he's promising to oppose, is in sum and substance a Democratic tax increase, period.)


Finally: I don't know if this is a "bi-coastal conservative" problem, or if it's mere coincidence that Mr. Bell, Peggy Noonan, George Will, and the most anti-Dubya contributors to the National Review all just happen to live somewhere on either the east or west coasts (rather than on the Gulf coast or in the "heartland"). But some things that are absolutely colossal on my list of Bush accomplishments, Mr. Bell and those others tend to either short-shrift or else altogether ignore.

The voters who supported George W. Bush in 2000 desperately wanted a president who would, through his conduct over his entire term, repudiate and erase the sleazy sexual and ethical stains, metaphorical and unfortunately quite literal, that Bill Clinton had generated in the Oval Office. They wanted a president who made and stuck to decisions based on his own principled judgments, not focus groups and polls, and who would continue to do so even at the risk of extreme political unpopularity. They would accept a president who might not be a slick talker, so long as he knew what the meaning of "is" is. Those are all intangibles, but they're big issues on which George W. Bush has kept his promises. While delving deep into individual domestic policy programs, Mr. Bell seems largely oblivious to this very big picture, or at least to its due weight in a balanced consideration of the Administration's overall success or failure.

And altogether missing from Mr. Bell's article is an adequate recognition that notwithstanding the closeness of the 2000 election, nor everything subsequent to it (including the 9/11 attacks coming on "his watch" and then the failure to find WMD stockpiles in Iraq), Dubya won re-election in 2004 with the largest number of popular votes in American history — keeping John Kerry and his minions out of the White House. By most historians' measure, and by the public's too, getting re-elected is the single most significant indicator of a president's overall success or failure. Failing to get re-elected was easily the most significant aspect in which Bush-41's administration can be deemed to have been a "failure," precisely because it let the randy, slick-talking, dirty-dealing Democratic governor of a small southern state into 1600 Pennsylvania. The voters threw Poppy out, but they kept both Dubya and Reagan. And that's the bottom bottom-line.

Curiously, Mr. Bell acknowledges near the beginning of his article that candidates "for the Republican presidential nomination had to deal with the fact that in our polarized politics, Republican primary voters are still predominantly pro-Bush." But Mr. Bell doesn't mention the self-inflicted torpedo that did more than any other to sink the surge of the Huckabee campaign — Huckabee's description (taken directly from the DNC playbook and the pages of dKos) of the Bush-43 Administration's "arrogant" foreign policy and "bunker mentality." He should have; indeed, Gov. Huckabee's screed has more than a little in common with Mr. Bell's own. Mr. Bell is obviously a thoughtful man, and one with whom I agree on a great many important things. Perhaps, though, he ought to have given further thought, before committing himself to the notion of the utter "wreckage" of the Bush-43 presidency, to whether those Republican primary voters' grasp of the big picture might indeed be substantially better than his own.

And to the extent that this article might be read as a recommendation that Republican candidates in 2008, including but not limited to McCain, should aggressively characterize Dubya as a "wreck" or his administration as a "failed presidency," that's just awful advice for the general election too. In fairness, that's not the gist of Mr. Bell's actual advice to them, despite the title and premise of his article. (Instead, he cautions them to avoid getting trapped into a binary choice of embracing or repudiating the Bush legacy by trying to "break down such questions into specifics," after which they should "pivot as quickly as possible toward the future" while also blaming Democrats whenever possible.) But Mr. Bell might have gone farther to point out that aggressively trashing Dubya — as he'd just concluded doing! — won't be sufficient to win over any part of the Democratic base. They're already entirely committed, with all of the momentum of their Bush Derangement Syndrome, to the proposition that McCain is McSame. Nor is trashing Bush necessary to attract those independents who may indeed have voted for Bush but have since become impatient or disillusioned with him. Being "not-Bush" is enough for most of them, without McCain or other Republicans having to become the "anti-Bush."

Posted by Beldar at 11:43 PM in 2008 Election, Global War on Terror, Law (2008), Politics (2008), SCOTUS & federal courts | Permalink


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(1) stan made the following comment | Mar 9, 2008 1:41:15 PM | Permalink

I too was appalled at this article by Bell.

On your point about conservatives on the coasts (e.g. Noonan, Will, National Review, et al), I have described the split differently -- those conservatives who get their "news" from the MSM and those who do not. Usually, when Noonan, Will, or even Bill Buckley penned something I found objectionable, their starting point was some "fact" that the MSM had established that the blogosphere had refuted.

Given Noonan's background with CBS News it is understandable that she relies on MSM news. I would imagine that people of a certain age with certain ingrained habits of reading newspapers and viewing television cannot help but absorb certain "facts" despite their policy preferences.

Obviously, this has to be exacerbated by living in Manhattan (like Noonan) or some other place where liberals dominate every aspect of daily life. In the end, however, I think it is a function of where they get their news.

(2) boris made the following comment | Mar 9, 2008 3:41:49 PM | Permalink

Good article. Another point is that Bush 43 has not acted as a partisan president. He has not pushed divisive issues or engaged in the kind of blame the other side for everything like another recent administration.

(3) Milhouse made the following comment | Mar 16, 2008 4:14:16 AM | Permalink

On the tax cuts, I think your argument is disingenuous. Had the cuts been made permanent by one of the Republican-controlled Congresses in Bush's first six years, then even if the Democrats somehow managed to get a tax increase through both houses, the President could simply veto it. But because the Republicans and the President allowed the Democrats to put a sunset clause into the cuts, and never acted to remove it, the Democrats now need do nothing but sit on their bums and wait for them to run out, and taxes will automatically increase.

(4) Beldar made the following comment | Mar 16, 2008 5:24:10 AM | Permalink

Milhouse: Your point is why I said "90%" instead of "100% spin rather than substance." In point of fact, when the Bush tax cuts were passed, there were some small but useful number of legislators who wanted to be able to say to their lefter-leaning constituents, "Well, they're only temporary cuts, and they'll expire if not renewed." The Administration accommodated them, rather than risk seeing the tax cuts founder altogether. I remain confident in my main point, which is this: Passage of the tax cuts was monumental; all legislation is temporary, never permanent, because any new Congressional majority (or in the Senate, 60+ vote majority) and new president can change legislation; and the failure to insist on quote-unquote (and fictitious) "permanence" is an exceptionally lightweight argument from which to conclude that the Bush-43 Administration is a "failed presidency."

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