What made Bush such a bad president? I lay awake at night wondering about this sometimes. Today, Jonathan Bernstein revisits the question with a link back to an interesting piece he wrote last year. I think this is right:
We’re still early in the building of the history of the Bush years, but here’s my guess. We’ll find that what we saw was pretty much what was happening. He didn’t act aggressively when faced with potential policy disaster — whether we’re talking about the summer of 2001 and terrorism, or 2003-2005 in Iraq, or 2004-2008 and Afghanistan, or 2007-2008 and the economy, or Katrina, or anything else. We’re going to find that he strutted around a good deal, but was otherwise passive and indifferent, and easily manipulated by those around him. And my guess is we’re going to find the big things that went wrong (terror, Iraq, Afghanistan, torture, the economy) joined by dozens of smaller things that slipped through the cracks for eight years.
I think this is at least partly wrong:
A couple things…first, about Dick Cheney. I was talking to a staunch Republican former student a couple of weeks ago, and mentioned that one of the biggest surprises to me during the Bush years was that Cheney had turned out to be a lot less capable than I had expected. My student was utterly shocked that anyone could think that. This depressed me no end. He’s an open-minded guy, and certainly not prone to believing that whatever Republicans do is always correct. But it was clear that within his information bubble, the possibility that Cheney just wasn’t very good at his job had never been raised. Bush, too. He did recognize that things had gone wrong, but saw it more as policy choices and, to some extent, ideology. In my view? Even something such as torture, which I think was a (outside of the morality of it) disastrous policy, was far more a case of incompetence than it was ideology.
At a certain point, what’s the difference between incompetence and slavish adherence to an unworkable ideology? Maybe torture isn’t the best example here, let’s take the decision to go to war in Iraq. Cheney wanted to go into Iraq for ideological reasons. Most likely, there was no way to do the invasion in a way that wouldn’t lead to chaos, since sending in 500K+ troops (not saying that wouldn’t have led to chaos, but I’ve seen it written that maybe it wouldn’t have) was not politically viable, but Cheney believed (for reasons I would describe as ideological) that even a deeply flawed invasion of Iraq was preferable to not invading Iraq.
So it is with economic policy. A highly competent implementation of Hooverist/Hayekian economic policies during a recession will likely exacerbate the recession. But if you’ve drunk enough of the Austrian Kool-Aid (Gruner Veltliner?), that doesn’t matter, because you believe that in the long run the economy will be stronger for it. Similarly, a well-designed, competent move toward government default would ravage the economy, but if you’re Michele Bachmann, you believe that would be good, in the long term.
If you’re a pundit and your foundational beliefs are that (a) both sides are wrong and (b) the American middle-class has it too good, then no matter how well you write and reason from these principles, you will likely also endorse Hooverism and revel in the “shared pain” that it causes everyone.
In the end, it’s all mostly unfalsifiable anyway, now neocons can say that Saddam would have nuked us if we hadn’t gone into Iraq, in 2020 the Reasonoids will say that eight years of near-recession made our economy stronger in the long term, at some point Jacob Weisberg and Andrew Sullivan will write that Ryan’s vouchercare proposal really did “advance the debate”. Moreover, all of these people believe what they’re saying and writing is true.
Will that be incompetence or a skillful expression of their ideology?