Or, how George W. Bush has been just awful enough
[Photo by schani licensed under the Creative Commons and found here.]
Many liberals argue that George W. Bush’s presidency has been an unmitigated disaster; most libertarians see George W. Bush as the worst thing to happen to America since our government interned hundreds of thousands of Americans purely based on race and expanded government involvement in the economy at the same time. Even many conservatives now see George Bush’s tenure as a series of betrayals. The past eight years have been a dark time – with the specter of terrorism hanging over our lives – with an economy that has only benefited the elites – with America’s standing and influence in the world dropping precipitously – and with a government flailing about in attempts to prevent the next attack, attempts that have primarily succeeded in undermining our inherent liberties.
There is clearly a broad consensus that the Bush presidency has been a failure. A recent poll of historians recently ranked George W. Bush’s presidency as the worst in history; late last year, The Atlantic ran a cover story asking what lessons we can learn from Bush’s failed presidency; the American people have given George W. Bush the lowest approval ratings for a president since polls have been taken; and recent news reports have shown that over three quarters of Americans believe our country is on the wrong track. The consensus clearly is that Bush’s presidency has failed. It’s true that a number of conservatives have tried to defend Bush – Ross Douthat for example pointed out that Bush’s disasters do not rival the catastrophes of Civil War or Great Depression yet. But even the group considered the architect of many of Bush’s policies – the neo-conservatives, have begun to argue – as have failed ideologues again and again throughout history – that it was not that their ideas that failed – rather their ideas were never truly tried. Bush must know he is in trouble when even the neoconservatives are attacking him as weak and ineffective – or to use the term they use, “liberal”.
Having a somewhat contrary nature, I’m not so sure this almost universal consensus is true.
While I do see Bush’s presidency as a disaster, I believe a kind of redemption can be found in this disaster because Bush’s presidency: (a) could have been much worse; and (b) has created a unique historical opportunity.
My postulate is that George W. Bush’s presidency has been just bad enough to avoid destroying the core institutions that form the backbone of our society while creating a virtuous backlash that will strengthen these institutions in the long term. Bush has abused his power just enough, and aggravated festering issues just enough, and presided over a decline that was so sudden that he has created near ideal conditions to move the country in a positive direction.
Throughout history, the price of radicalism has been steep and the chances of reversing deep-seated trends has been long. Conservatives who opposed the social welfare programs of the New Deal tried and failed for a generation to rollback the programs that Franklin Delano Rooselvelt instituted in the wake of a Republican-abetted disaster. Unsuccessful and marginalized, these conservatives finally settled on a strategy of indirection. They called this strategy “starve-the-beast.” Seeing that they could not win by attacking the institutions of the New Deal directly, they decided to deliberately increase government spending to irresponsible levels while cutting taxes – which would leave no choice for a hypothetical future administration but to raise taxes massively or to reduce the size of government. These conservatives realized that the only way to achieve the ends they sought was to create a set of circumstances that proved their opponents wrong, to discredit, through their actions, the basis of liberalism and create a virtuous backlash against excessive governance. They had seen that effective change throughout history had only occurred when the reigning ideology was proved bankrupt by circumstances. These conservatives believed that if they could undermine the credibility of government enough, their ideology would be the only alternative.
Unfortunately for these conservatives, whatever George W. Bush’s intentions were, his administration has been the most effective proponent of liberalism in modern times – as it demonstrated the bankruptcy of contemporary conservatism, undermined the credibility of the Republican Party, and created precisely opposite virtuous backlash than which they intended.
Bush’s effectiveness in advancing the goals he stood against comes has taken several interrelated forms:
- Theoretical extremism: Although Bush has asserted virtually unlimited power – to torture, to detain anyone without charges, to engage in military action and wiretap without congressional approval – he has been relatively modest in his use of what he asserts are near unlimited powers. This has allowed significant forces to grow in opposition to this power grab without the widespread societal chaos that would have arisen out of a president fully exerting the powers he has claimed. (If Bush used the powers he asserts are his on a greater scale in America, our society would clearly be a totalitarian one. Instead, we remain a fragile liberal democracy until either Bush’s assertions of power are repudiated or are fully asserted.)
- Overuse of a single method: Karl Rove directed three national campaigns – using national security, patriotism, and September 11 as partisan tools to bludgeon the Democrats. In each successive election dominated by these themes though, they lost effectiveness until 2006 when finally, they ceased being the controlling factor as the people – fooled for some of the time – handed an historic loss to the Republican Party. (If Karl Rove hadn’t used these themes so promiscously and shamelessly, more people might have put stock in the current smear campaign and fear-mongering being used against Obama and the Democrats.)
- Exacerbating existing conditions: Bush has accelerated a number of longstanding trends: towards domestic inequality and the stratification of Americans into a class-like system; towards the decline in America’s power in the world; towards the government’s fiscal insolvency; towards the expansion of executive power; and towards the increase in the price of oil. This acceleration has exacerbated these issues so as to make them more noticeable.
A lobster will not realize it is being cooked if it placed in a pot of water at room temperature and gradually boiled to death. In the same way, many Americans did not realize the dangers and the extent of the changes to American society that have been ongoing since at least the 1970s. The Bush administration – in a number of areas – raised the temperature fast enough and carelessly enough that many people have begun to notice. (If the price of oil had increased more regularly, people would be less worried about how it would be affecting them – and less attention would be paid to the largest transfer of wealth in human history that is currently taking place. If Iraq hadn’t demonstrated the limits to American power, it might have taken much longer for policy-makers to realize that we no longer live in a unipolar world.)
- Suddenness: The suddenness of America’s decline in relevancy has led to a widespread desire for America to re-assume some leadership role with the next president – a desire reflected most significantly in the worldwide and domestic support for Barack Obama.
Bush has – in almost every respect – pointed America in the direction it needs to go. He has demonstrated what not to do. It is hard to imagine the libertarian or the progressive movements achieving their widespread support and strength if not for Bush’s presidency.
This election cycle has already demonstrated the strength of two responses to the Bush administration’s legacy – the libertarian response as embodied in the unlikely success of Ron Paul and the progressive response as embodied in the progressive netroots which powered Obama’s campaign. As a card-carrying civil libertarian and a lifelong progressive, Barack Obama has an opportunity to synthesize these two competing movements – to create a rough political consensus of the next steps we need to take. (I’ve written before both about how the libertarian movement and liberalism seem to be converging and about how Obama represents some part of this.) However, Obama’s vote for the FISA Amendments Act was a poor start to the creation of this alliance – as he took a position in defiance of both of these movements.
In a very real sense George W. Bush’s legacy depends on how well the next president is able to capitalize on the opportunity given to him – in this campaign and in his potential presidency. The final judgment on Bush will not be knowable when he leaves office. Rather, some years later we will be able to make a definitive judgment – after we see how intractable the problems he leaves for his successor are and when we see what precedents the next president will reject and which he will build upon. Bush may be forgiven for his disrespect for the Constitution if the next president repudiates these precedents. (After all, Washington was forgiven for Hamilton’s army; Lincoln was forgiven for becoming a tyrant for several weeks; and FDR was forgiven for trying to pack the Supreme Court.)
But while I argue that Bush’s primary legacy is that of a uniter-not-a-divider whose presidency set America on a better path, this rosy evaluation of Bush’s legacy still leaves three areas uncovered – areas in which Bush created unique problems rather than exacerbating existing ones: Iraq, the War on Terror, and global climate change.
It is hard to imagine another president invading Iraq under the circumstances that George W. Bush did. The many American and the far more Iraqi dead that resulted from this foolish gamble, this dumb war, will surely burden his soul and must undermine any positive legacy he leaves behind. Even assuming the best of intentions, the Iraq war has proved to be a strategic blunder that has empowered Iran, destabilized the region, inspired more extremism, degraded our military, and only achieved the removal of minor antagonist. Making this strategic error worse was the hubris and idiocy that dogged every step of the occupation. Although our alliance of convenience with the Sunni extremists who were fighting us just a few months ago has helped to stabilize Iraq and even given the recent show of independence by the Iraqi president in his call for us to set a firm date of withdrawl, Iraq still has a long way to go before we can get out of this quagmire. Until we get out, the Iraq war will continue to eat our resources, undermine our global position, and strengthen our enemies.
The War on Terror
Domestically, the Bush administration has done virtually nothing to harden potential targets of terrorism – allowing the use of the funds appropriated for this purpose to be pissed away on pork barrel spending. The main steps it has taken within America seem designed primarily to expand executive power rather than to achieve any particular goals related to terrorism – asserting the power to crush the testicles of a potential terrorist’s child, to detain individuals without charges for indefinite periods of time, to torture, and to ignore any laws that limit the president’s power. Abroad, the Bush administration squandered our best opportunity to destroy Al Qaeda when it began to shift resources to Iraq and away from those who attacked us. The nexus of world terrorism shifted as a result of the War on Terror from the center of Afghanistan to the lawless areas of the Afghani-Pakistani border – where Chechnyan islamists, the remants of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, veterans of the Zaraqawi’s Iraqi campaign, and other terrorists from around the world are now working together and with greater freedom than at any time since the attacks on September 11. The successes we have had in the War on Terror seem largely to be the fruits of our failures – as the islamist ideology has proven to be an unattractive one once it begins to rule any territory.
Global Climate Change
It is hard to imagine another president ignoring the growing signs and consensus of global climate change so steadfastly. The eight years the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gases has wasted ignoring the problem – despite the near universal consensus of the scientific community – have made more drastic steps necessary to correct the problem before it is too late. What other president – with a legacy on climate change such as this – would have bragged at a recent G8 summit about being the “world’s biggest polluter“?
Lincoln Chafee, the Republican Senator from Rhode Island, observed upon first meeting Bush that Bush did not seem up to the job of being president. The past several years have proved this observation prescient. I cannot argue that Bush’s actions have been wise, although I do generally think that they have been well-intentioned. But while George W. Bush and his administration have committed petty crimes, war crimes, and constitutional violations, attacked liberties, advocated the preemptive surrender of American values, usurped independent branches of the government for partisan ends, and caused the injury and death of thousands of Americans citizens and citizens of the world – it is Bush who created this moment – this moment for renewal that has traditionally been what sets America apart.
While Ron Paul believed we needed a revoliution to begin to reverse the growing encroachment of government (even if that required the exploitation of poisonous racial resentments) – all we really needed was George W. Bush.
If America truly is a great nation – and in order to redeem the vision of the Constitution of the Founding Fathers, of that great address of Abraham Lincoln, of the square deal of Teddy Roosevelt and the four freedoms of his cousin, of the city on the hill that an old Hollywood actor once invoked – we must take advantage of this opportunity. The American moment is now – as all of us, feeling the fierce urgency of now, must work to restore the America that we grew up believing in – to restore the ideal and to form a more perfect union. Throughout the dark times in American history, Americans have believed and fought for this idea of America – to make this idea a reality and to protect this idea from the encroachments of tyranny and totalitarianism.
Change doesn’t come easy – but the greatest legacy of George W. Bush is that he has made it easier – and given us this opportunity to create a more perfect union. There will be obstacles and compomises in the days ahead – but (yes) we can achieve real change. Bush, more than anyone, deserves responsibility for that.