Between thought and expression

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?

52 replies
  1. 1
    James Gary says:

    “Some kinds of policy,” Marguerita told Tom, “like a dirty French novel, combine the absurd with the vulgar.”

  2. 2
    Samara Morgan says:

    Bush was a WEC in policy and practice. He honestly believed that muslims would welcome missionary democracy with freedom of speech.
    He was incurious and intellectually impoverished.
    His religious faith allowed him to be manipulated by Cheney (for a wartime economy) and Rove (for a wartime electorate).
    He was a bible thumper.
    Rummy capped his briefing slides with Bible quotes.
    Bush believed in Gog and Magog.
    he was a religious president.

  3. 3
    Hunter Gathers says:

    in 2020 the Reasonoids will say that eight years of near-recession made our economy stronger in the long term

    By that time, no one’s going to give a shit what a bunch of pasty white glibertarians have to think about anything. By 2020, conservatives are going to be spending most of their time figuring out how to increase their share of the minority vote above the 35% they’ve been receiving lately. By that time, the white vote will be approaching 60% of the electorate, rendering it inconsequential. Until conservatives can figure out a way to get the bigots that occupy a large segment of the rank and file to shut the fuck up, even a ‘moderate’ ‘savior’ like Jon Huntsman is going to get his ass handed to him in a general election.

  4. 4
    Xecky Gilchrist says:

    Will that be incompetence or a skillful expression of their ideology?

    Those may be synonymous.

  5. 5
    arguingwithsignposts says:

    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.

    Lolwut? They had John Woo write a fucking legal opinion on it! The entire White House was ate up with ideological hacks of the highest order, from Feith to Woo to Rove to Rumsfeld, etc., etc., ad infinitum.

    If you want to say it was incompetence in service to rigid ideology, that’s fine, but it wasn’t “far more” incompetent than ideological.

  6. 6
    redshirt says:

    It’s Ideology trumping competence. Witness “Brownie” – he had no idea what he was doing, no background, but he was a supporter, and a Believer, and that’s all that mattered.

    I think this can explain much about Republicans these days, and over the past 30 years.

  7. 7
    Observer says:

    Doug, we’re sitting on 2+ years of 9% unemployment and if anything the needle is going in the wrong direction. And you’re worried about Bush incompetency. Been there, done that. Let’s all agree, Bush was incompetent as was Cheney.

    Now, about today’s problems and the lack of solutions from the current inhabitant of the White House…incompetence or slavish adherence to unworkable ideology? As you write, at what point does it matter? 24 months and counting…

  8. 8
    Big Baby DougJ says:

    @James Gary:

    Put jelly on your shoulder.

  9. 9
    Svensker says:

    Apples and oranges.

    They were excellent at catapulting the propaganda. They were excellent at filling positions with ideologues. They were excellent at pushing certain memes and getting people excited about going to war, torturing Mooslims, etc.

    They were terrible at actually running stuff in the real world.

  10. 10
    Litlebritdifrnt says:

    Not to mention the fact that electing the dude once was considered perhaps a youthful mistake but reelecting the dude for a second term made the USA the absolute laughing stock of the entire civilized world. I mean Kerry was an absolute and utterly worthless candidate (and I know we could have come up with someone better), but the rest of the world were looking at Kerry v. Bush and asking WTF?

  11. 11
    danimal says:

    @Samara Morgan: I doubt that Bush really took much of the bible-thumping to heart. He could speak the language, as a good politician learns to do, but there wasn’t much in the way of passion or policy beyond giving lip service to fundamentalists.

  12. 12
    Big Baby DougJ says:

    @Svensker:

    They were excellent at catapulting the propaganda.

    It doesn’t take a genius to trick Tim Russert and Judy Miller into believing your lies. If they had been more competent, they could have lied us into war more subtly.

  13. 13
    Zifnab says:

    What made Bush such a bad president? I lay awake at night wondering about this sometimes.

    See, I’m of the opinion that it wasn’t so much Bush and Cheney being unable to adequately cope with their administration’s crises. It was their complete refusal to acknowledge public sentiment.

    Bush played the “decider” card entirely too often. He bucked the public on Shavio. He bucked the public on spending and deficits. He bucked the public on his wars and clung to them long after they lost their popularity. He bucked the public on Social Security. He bucked the public on immigration. At the end of the day, the man’s administration was absolutely tone-deaf.

    That translated to a host of policy defeats and a mounting pressure to remove him from office. Had Bush embraced policies that the public genuinely supported, I think the country would have been willing to write Bush off as merely an unlucky President. What made him a truly bad President was his unbridled arrogance. This was a man who – from the day he was elected to the day he left office – did not represent the people.

  14. 14
    M31 says:

    Jeez, man, Bush was a great president who accomplished a lot, exactly how he and Cheney set out to.

    Money funneled to cronies, taxes reduced on the ultra-wealthy, oil companies, banks, and the likes of Halliburton making off with trillions of dollars, rampant law-breaking by the elite. Where’s the ‘bad president’ and ‘incapable’ Cheney? Only if you care about the lesser people, (by which I mean the lesser than the 0.5% at the top).

    And they got Obama to continue most of these policies. Pretty brilliant, I say.

  15. 15
    Svensker says:

    @Big Baby DougJ:

    If they had been more competent, they could have lied us into war more subtly.

    Wasn’t necessary.

    Also, too, didn’t some 50% of Americans still believe Saddam was connected to 9/11 five years later?

    Mission accomplished, baby.

  16. 16
    Josie says:

    @redshirt: This is a good point. When I read the books on the Irag reconstruction, that was the message I got from them. The people in charge were picked for ideology rather than competence in their fields. It is what screwed things up so badly over there after the military had done its job.

  17. 17
    Cat Lady says:

    @Big Baby DougJ:

    Whatever the reason the Bushies were so incompetently ideological or ideologically incompetent, they were who they were. The real question to me is why the press so massively failed (except for McClatchy) to criticize it and in many instances to participate in it? The biggest story of the Bush years was the media collapse. They were supposed to be the last brake on the most egregious behavior, and the media not only didn’t pump the brakes, they climbed into the back seat.

  18. 18
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @redshirt:

    Yup, that’s an excellent point.

    Ideology trumps competence with them, and besides, government can’t do anything, so why look for someone competent to run a government agency in the first place?

    As for Iraq, they ignored professional military advice about it from the first planning stages, showing GEN Shineski the door when he pointed out that you’re going to need a bigger boat for this, and there was no bigger boat handy, so we’re going to do this anyway. After all, they’re sitting back on the beach knocking back some Blue Ribbon while Quint, Brody, and Hooper are dealing with the shark.

  19. 19
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @Cat Lady:

    The Villagers are courtiers, and they behaved as such vis a vis the Bushies.

    Which is why they need to ride tumbrels every bit as much as the deserting coward and the Dark Lord do.

  20. 20

    “…Austrian Kool-Aid (Gruner Veltliner?)…”

    Effing hilarious.

  21. 21
    Samara Morgan says:

    @danimal: Bush was a total believer. Just ask Sarkozy.

  22. 22
    Cat Lady says:

    @Villago Delenda Est:

    They became courtiers during the Bush years, but my question is why? They were all over Clinton. Why did they stop doing their jobs? Media consolidation explains some of it, but it was like mass hypnosis.

  23. 23
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @Cat Lady:

    They were courtiers for Reagan and Bush I as well…see Mark Hertzgaard’s On Bended Knee. It has to do with the Republicans being the party of money, and the Village is very well paid. They don’t identify with average Americans…they identify with the overclass. Also, there’s the usurper meme that marks both Clinton and Obama. Somehow during the 80’s the White House became the exclusive property of the GOP, and any Democrat who occupies it is by definition illegitimate, no matter what the election results might have been.

  24. 24
    geg6 says:

    Are you trolling us here, Doug? They were incompetent? Seriously? I might accept that as a partial excuse for W, but Cheney? Incompetent? Fuck, I wish I could be so incompetent as to accomplish my wildest dreams like Cheney did. They were all evil and destructive things, but he sure did accomplish them. Spectacularly. So much so, that they are still conventional wisdom today. Witness John McCain and Lindsay Graham’s shitty press release re: Libya. They’re still pissed Obama didn’t go the Naked Cowboy in Iraq route. Neo-conism never dies.

  25. 25
    Mike in NC says:

    What made Bush such a bad president?

    A sense of entitlement run amok. He was a guy who went through life thinking he should have anything he wanted, any time, without anybody asking any questions. He coasted along on the family money and connections. Legacy admission to exclusive prep schools and Ivy League universities, where he knew he didn’t have to study and couldn’t flunk out. Admission to the Air National Guard ahead of hundreds of other guys sweating out the draft, and he went AWOL as soon as he thought he could walk away. Never did an honest day’s work, but always knew when he screwed up Poppy and Babs would bail him out. A complete narcissist and sociopath.

  26. 26
    Cat Lady says:

    @Villago Delenda Est:

    They sat by and let the Bushies lie us into a catastrophic war knowing it was bullshit, which is a magnitude of culpability beyond abetting right wing framing of economic issues that benefit themselves. I’m more cynical than most, but it was shocking to witness the lack of skepticism of such an obvious imminent clusterfuck. History will not be kind to them, and may your nym become flesh. I will never understand their lack of self-awareness.

  27. 27
    bleh says:

    @geg6

    And yet, and yet, I think there is something important to the notion that Dick Cheney “rose to his level of incompetence.”

    Yes, they funneled a LOT of money to their constituents — wealthy individuals and big business — and that is the Prime Directive for Republicans. But that’s hardly new, and hardly requires more than appointing other Republicans to policymaking positions. That was easy.

    And yes there was PNAC, and a lot of oil, and there is still China, and these probably were all good reasons for Iraq in his mind. Morally reprehensible, and probably a losing strategy in the long run, but rational given certain premises, eg, the dead would have died anyway, but now the oil has American boots on it.

    But torture? The “1% doctrine”? The systematic dismantling of constitutional privacy and liberty provisions? To me, this says “panic.”

    I think Cheney, who was used to a well-ordered environment, where he could command and others would obey, got to a level where the messy world just wasn’t entirely clear, and his orders weren’t necessarily obeyed, and he panicked. He went overboard.

    In this, at least, Obama is clearly his superior. And it’s likewise clear that the supposed expertise imparted by “business experience” is actually a weakness when it comes to political leadership, compared to a lifetime’s experience in (say) community organizing and politics.

  28. 28
    Steve says:

    There’s an anecdote I read somewhere about how the battle plan for Iraq was being drawn up, and Cheney jumped in with some crazy idea about parachuting in troops to surround Baghdad from the west, or somesuch, something that the military commanders hadn’t even dreamed of but was like a movie plot or something. I don’t even recall if this was the first war or the second, but I sure wish I could remember where I saw this anecdote.

  29. 29
    Mike G says:

    he strutted around a good deal, but was otherwise passive and indifferent, and easily manipulated by those around him.

    Bingo. And he let the mask slip on the morning of 9/11, when after being informed that the country was “under attack” (his Chief of Staff’s exact words), he sat like a deer in the headlights for seven whole minutes continuing his PR photo-op. Not a leader, getting on the phone to take charge or find out what is going on; just a pathetic, pants-pissing sock puppet waiting for someone to tell him what to do.

  30. 30
    Danny says:

    Adherence to unworkable ideologically informed ideas makes you incompetent.

  31. 31
    Derf says:

    I think you think too much. Bush was an idiot (and still is), Cheney was an evil idiot (and still is). Full stop.

    And since when is it surprising that Republicans can’t govern?

  32. 32
    WereBear says:

    he sat like a deer in the headlights for seven whole minutes continuing his PR photo-op

    And instead of runnng this on an endless loop, we didn’t see it until Michael Moore put it in his documentary.

    The Press are co-conspirators.

  33. 33
    Kyle says:

    Imagine if we saw on the news the Bush shitting-his-pants inaction at a moment of national emergency, as many times as we saw the obviously much more important Dean Scream.

    The media are as shallow and stupid as Bush, which is possibly why they kissed his ass so much.

  34. 34
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @WereBear:

    The Press are co-conspirators.

    Hence my nym.

  35. 35
    patrick II says:

    @danimal:

    George Bush:

    I am driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, ‘George go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan’. And I did. And then God would tell me ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq’. And I did. And now, again, I feel God’s words coming to me, ‘Go get the Palestinians their state and get the Israelis their security, and get peace in the Middle East’. And, by God, I’m gonna do it.” — Sharm el-Sheikh August 2003.

  36. 36
    bobby c says:

    I have thought about Bush’s presidency a lot over the past few months and what I take from it is this: In the GOP mind it was actually very successful. I don’t know if Bush should be credited or not, but certainly Cheney. He knew that fundemental changes in the areas of the social safety net: social security, medicare, medicaid could not be made legislativly through Congress. The American people would not stand for it. But, spend us into oblivian and the country would have no choice but cut these programs to save itself and also have the added benefit of shrinking the size of the Federal Government. Us progressives seem to forget that true believers often take the long view of how to get what they want.

  37. 37
    Thymezone says:

    Bush was a bad president because he was a complete asshole with little respect for history, for other people, for technical and structural policy realities, for anything outside of his own ego bubble.

    He treated the job of being president the same way he treated everything else in his life, just like all alcoholics do.

    Not exactly rocket science.

  38. 38
    Big Baby DougJ says:

    @bleh:

    I think Cheney, who was used to a well-ordered environment, where he could command and others would obey, got to a level where the messy world just wasn’t entirely clear, and his orders weren’t necessarily obeyed, and he panicked. He went overboard.

    This is a very interesting take, I like it a lot and will have to think about it some more.

  39. 39

    @Cat Lady:

    They became courtiers during the Bush years, but my question is why? They were all over Clinton. Why did they stop doing their jobs? Media consolidation explains some of it, but it was like mass hypnosis.

    The corporate press/media stood by Nixon till he was fatally wounded. They mocked and scorned Ford, then savaged Carter at every opportunity. With Reagan, it was a personality cult.

    Although it is not often talked about, I think a great deal of that came about because of the assassination attempt. It was only a couple of months after he was inaugurated. But as he recovered, all the news people would speak well of him, as if he were a saint, or the local team’s beloved star player, or Santa Claus. Criticism of him virtually disappeared from the airwaves. And this was all pre-cable shows.

    Since then, our corporate masters have made it policy that they give every consideration to the right-wing and almost none to the Democrats, who are often mistaken for a left wing.

    Also too, the corporate press/media almost never notes or permits criticism of the right-wing fringe.

  40. 40
    Ruckus says:

    slavish adherence to an unworkable ideology is incompetence. As a human being. Especially if that ideology has been shown not to work time and time again or is blatantly false on it’s face.

  41. 41

    When I read the books on the Irag reconstruction, that was the message I got from them. The people in charge were picked for ideology rather than competence in their fields.

    Try to imagine the reaction of the corporate press/media, the Republican Party, and the whole of America if President Obama only hired minorities and lefties to staff the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

  42. 42
    Nathan says:

    Bush’s presidency offered a series of lazy, half hearted measures with delusions of grandeur, often aborted after or even before the first press conference to announce them. There was a planned trip to Mars, a national service initiative asking people to volunteer two weeks a year, the scrapping of Clinton’s North Korea policy without replacing it with one of his own and of course his planned overhaul of Social Security. Big, Earth shattering ideas all of them, and all of them pursued with the vigor of a couch load of stoners in front of an X Box. At his best, Bush was incompetent. At his worst, he wasn’t even there.

  43. 43
    marginalized for stating documented facts says:

    Good point. What’s the dividing line between sociopathy and gross incompetence?

    Sociopaths lie and bully and intimidate and manipulate everyone around them because, in the end, they can’t get the job done. If they could, the sociopaths would be able to stand on their record — but they never can.

    Sociopaths are fundamentally lazy and stupid. Their only real skill-set involves brutalizing and intimidating and terrorizing and manipulating unsuspecting victims. Even that doesn’t work when the potential victim recognizes the sociopath and stands up for hi/rself.

    Cheney was a classic socoipath. Dubya, more of a LOMBARD — Lots Of Money But A Real Dickhead.

  44. 44
    Jack says:

    Bush was the front man, hand-picked by Cheney and the Old Guard (and Cheney of course then picked himself) precisely because he was shallow and easily manipulated. He wasn’t anything but incompetent. The real question is how the old boys were so inept.

  45. 45
    The Raven says:

    Will that be incompetence or a skillful expression of their ideology?

    There’s a sort of incompetence that does not know itself and lacks compassion. It is terribly dangerous because even when people are dying because of its failings, it will press on. This is of a piece with climate change denialism and what I am coming to think of as econo-denialism.

    Also, it appears that Bush II was a religious fanatic, and this contributed to his failings.

  46. 46
    Kat says:

    DougJ, instead of lying awake thinking about this, you should just read up on the characteristics and behaviors of sociopaths.

    Like they said, they believe their reality IS reality. Whatever they want to do is the right thing to do. And whoever and whatever they don’t care about, they consider irrelevant or nonexistent, and thus something to be ignored. They’re heavily into a very selfish form of irrational delusion.

  47. 47
    Janus Daniels says:

    Republicans: stupid, ignorant, crazy, or evil?
    What difference does it make?
    For the news media, the difference matters even less. The US news media get paid for lying.

  48. 48
    Batocchio says:

    Doug, as you suggest, it’s not always either/or. As Digby’s observed, the corruption and incompetence are features, not bugs. I won’t link all of my (or emptywheel’s faaaar more extensive) torture archives here, but: The more you study the actual facts and history of torture, the more likely you are to oppose it, and the more you study what the Bush administration actually said and did on torture, the less likely you are to accept the “good faith” defense. They were warned countless times. They tortured because they wanted to torture.

    The same goes for most of their actions. Cheney infamously said, “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter. This is our due.” In other words, he deliberately chose policies that were horrible for the country as a whole to benefit the wealthy elite Bush called his “base” (and who were already making out like bandits). The Bush administration was so disastrous on multiple fronts it’s staggering. The attitude is “fuck you, I got mine… and I’m going to take more, from you.” Cleaning up the mess is somebody else’s problem… like that socialist black guy who suddenly snapped his fingers in January 2009 and created the national debt and deficit.

  49. 49
    Chris says:

    @Batocchio:

    They tortured because they wanted to torture.

    Central to the point.

    Torture, like the invasion of Iraq, was accepted by the public not because there was any logic or strategy behind it, but because Fucking Sand People attacked us on 9/11, and we had to get even with them – full stop. Hence why anyone who objects to torture immediately gets assailed with “what do you think our boys are going through?” and “why are you being sympathetic to those terrorist bastards?” It’s not about getting information. It’s about making people suffer that you believe deserve to suffer.

    Don’t know what the administration was thinking, but that’s what most of their supporters on those issues were thinking.

  50. 50
    Chris says:

    @bleh:

    I think Cheney, who was used to a well-ordered environment, where he could command and others would obey, got to a level where the messy world just wasn’t entirely clear, and his orders weren’t necessarily obeyed, and he panicked. He went overboard.

    I’m not sure he and his cronies panicked. I think they just didn’t know what to do and couldn’t believe it was happening, hence why it took such a long time to react to all that the messy world was throwing at them. Like when you press the same button on the remote over and over and over before you finally realize the battery’s dead.

    The first few years of the Bush gang were of them absolutely sitting on top of the world – first winning an election by Supreme Court fiat, then a 90% approval rating for a tragedy they might have prevented, then a docile, obedient country that gave them victory in 2002 and 2004. All that adds up to a huge invincibility complex.

    Which is why when the world didn’t do as expected – when the Iraq pumpkin didn’t turn into a carriage overnight, when the people didn’t follow their lead on Social Security, when the people flipped out at them over Katrina and eventually Iraq, etc – they just didn’t know what to do. I don’t think it was panic, just confusion and bewilderment.

  51. 51
    Paul in KY says:

    Haven’t read any comments. I think Cheney was very successful in things he cared about. Tax cuts for rich was his baby. So was going in & removing Iraq as an impediment to Likud Israel (all while ginning up huge payouts to the Republican defense industry). Katrina & the following inaction has probably removed New Orleans as the reason Louisianna would ever end up in the D column during a Presidential race. The civil rights rollbacks were his doing as well.

  52. 52
    Paul in KY says:

    @Cat Lady: Because all the top villagers are millionaires now (and back in 2000). Rove probably made presentations to them showing the concrete & many thousands of dollars reductions in their taxes & they got on board (IMO).

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