I think Ross Douthat gets something rather right in his column today – though I can’t quite endorse his thesis wholeheartedly. One glaring omission from Douthat’s analysis of the Bush presidency is the overall War on Terror – and especially the extraordinary legal measures Bush took in the aftermath of September 11, from instituting a policy of torture to various executive power grabs to the twin wars in the Middle East.
But what Douthat gets right is that Bush’s presidency was truly radical and ideological in the first term and caused significant damage to America’s power, both its base at home and in its influence abroad. And then, Bush spent most of his last term moderating these excesses and trying to undo the damage he had caused. In Douthat’s words:
America has had its share of disastrous chief executives. But few have gone as far as Bush did in trying to repair their worst mistakes. Those mistakes were the Iraq war — both the decision to invade and the conduct of the occupation — and the irrational exuberance that stoked the housing bubble. The repairs were the surge, undertaken at a time when the political class was ready to abandon Iraq to the furies, and last fall’s unprecedented economic bailout.
Both fixes remain controversial. But for the moment, both look like the sort of disaster-averting interventions for which presidents get canonized. It’s just that in Bush’s case, the disasters he averted were created on his watch.
This capacity to turn around and change (always while avoiding manning up and taking the blame) is one of the core components of Bush’s presidency. But one must also look to the damage Bush did to our civil institutions in the name of the War on Terror; one must look to the effects of avoiding taking any serious action on climate change; one must look at the fiscal shape he left America in heading into a time when we needed greater government spending.
I once wrote a post defending George W. Bush’s legacy – arguing that he had been just bad enough to exacerbate our longstanding problems without escalating them beyond the point of no return – and that he had created a unique moment where the next president who I believed would be Obama would be able to take advantage of the situation. But given the the financial crisis and the continuing domestic polarization over War on Terror policies, I’m not sure how true this still is.
[Image not subject to copyright.]