GEORGE W. BUSH:
What Went Wrong?
In January 2003, I published one of the very first memoirs of the Bush administration, The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush
Over the years since, the Bush administration has been hammered by difficulties and disappointments. And I have often found myself fighting against the administration I once served: against the prescription drug plan, against the Harriet Miers nomination to the Supreme Court, against amnesty for illegal aliens. During those fights, it was usually only a matter of time before I was sarcastically asked, “So–is George Bush still ‘the right man’?”
On the credit side: George Bush led the U.S. economy through its longest-ever expansion. He correctly identified the tyranny and misgovernment of the Middle East as the crucial cause of Islamic terrorism. He enhanced the security of the whole world by removing Saddam Hussein from control of the second most important Arab oil state. Bush showed courage on stem cells, and (Miers aside) he nominated excellent conservative judges.
On the debit side: So many mistakes! And such stubborn refusal to correct them when there was still time! So many lives needlessly sacrificed, so much money wasted, so many friends alienated, so many enemies strengthened. No American president since Harry Truman has been so unpopular so long as George W. Bush. Bush’s Republicans suffered one fearful defeat in 2006 and seem poised to suffer another in 2008. A generation of young Americans has been lost to our party.
What went wrong? Many will want to load the blame for all the disappointments of the Bush presidency on the president himself. He surely deserves much of the blame. Why did he appoint such consistently mediocre people to such important jobs? Where was he in the summer of 2003, as Iraq began to go wrong? Why did he keep saying one thing and then doing the opposite on issues from Middle Eastern democracy to the North Korean nuclear bomb? Why did he make so little effort to persuade the American public? Why defy the nation and the party and adopt immigration amnesty as a supreme priority? Why did he spend so lavishly–while improving government so little?
I warned in 2003 of George Bush’s stubbornness, his hastiness, and his inattention to detail. I believed then that his sheer determination to prevail in the war on terror would elevate him above such limitations. In that belief I was mistaken. Bush’s eagerness for bold action was again and again frustrated by his disinclination to acknowledge unwelcome realities. He persuaded himself that the regimes most responsible for the growth of radicalism–Saudi Arabia and Pakistan–could nonetheless be relied upon as allies. He publicly declared that he would prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, without any strategy to make his word good. In his eagerness to avoid condemning all Muslims as terrorists, he deceived himself about the prevalence of extremism among Muslims worldwide. George W. Bush had the right instincts, but the wrong methods. He identified the right path, but stumbled when he tried to walk it.
Yet we conservatives and Republicans must face some truths about ourselves as well. In important ways, Bush saw more clearly than we. He recognized that the conservatism of the 1980s and 1990s had exhausted itself.
After the triumph of 1994, we lost the battle over the government shutdown in 1995. Running as a Reagan conservative, Bob Dole lost the presidential election of 1996. In the court of public opinion, we lost the impeachment fight. We lost the congressional elections of 1998–the first time since 1822 that a non—presidential party had failed to gain seats in the sixth year of a presidential term.
Bush had won the biggest Republican victory of that otherwise frustrating year. He was reelected governor of Texas in 1998 by the highest margin of any reelected governor in the country, almost 70 percent of the vote, due in large measure to his breakthrough success among women and minorities.
Republicans turned to George Bush because he seemed to offer an escape from a dead end into which we had steered ourselves. Had we nominated a Reagan-style conservative in 2000, we would certainly have lost again. Bill Clinton left offi ce tainted by scandal–but protected by a 65 percent end-of-presidency approval rating, higher than Reagan’s, higher than Eisenhower’s.
The 2000 election could easily have proven itself a 1988 in reverse. Al Gore could have won a third Clinton term just as George H. W. Bush won a third Reagan term. If the Republicans had nominated a principled small-government conservative in 2000, Gore surely would
have won that third term. Instead, it was George W. Bush who cunningly presented himself as Clinton’s true heir. Like Clinton, Bush vowed to protect Medicare and Medicaid from all proposals to retrench or reform them. Like Clinton, Bush claimed a record as an “education governor.” Like Clinton, Bush promised a small tax cut only after he had met all his spending priorities. Like Clinton, Bush deftly maneuvered his opponents away from the political center. By Election Day 2000, it was Gore who was running as the candidate of change (“the people versus the powerful”); it was George W. Bush who was promising to continue the Clinton prosperity without the Clinton scandals.
Bush often told aides that his top political priority was to “change the party,” that is, to move it away from the Reagan-style conservatism of the 1980s toward a new, softer centrism. His party, however, believed that he was leading the nation back toward Reagan-style conservatism. This obvious contradiction placed Bush in a terrible bind from the very start. His failure to win a popular-vote mandate in November 2000 tightened the bind. Bush sought to escape his dilemma through a careful balancing of policies, sometimes leaning left, sometimes right–again mimicking the Clinton model.
Triangulation worked for Clinton because he ceased after 1994 to try to do anything big. Clinton ran his presidency in survival mode, avoiding risks, minimizing his political vulnerabilities. Bush, however, hated “small ball.” He took big risks, but he took those risks for the sake of policies radically at odds with one another.
In the war on terror, Bush triangulated between promoting democracy to defeat Islamism and supporting authoritarian allies against Islamism. He sought to defeat radical Islam with the support of radical Islam’s principal backers: the Saudi monarchy and the Pakistani military. He ended up running two contradictory foreign policies, and unsurprisingly, both ended badly.
At home, Bush triangulated between radical free-market reforms in Social Security and Medicare on the one hand and a huge expansion in government’s grip upon prescription drugs, farming, and energy on the other. He cut taxes and increased spending. He sought to protect the nation from foreign terrorists while propping open the doors to huge new waves of foreign immigration. Unsurprisingly, these contradictory policies ended badly too.
Presidential reputations fluctuate over time. Harry Truman left office reviled as a cheap, small-time huckster, a man of intemperate language who had stumbled into a vicious, costly, and inconclusive war in Korea, while presiding over inflation and corruption scandals at home. Dwight Eisenhower was ridiculed as an inarticulate dunce manipulated by an all-powerful secretary of state. Not until the 1960s did Truman get credit for his achievements; not until the 1980s did historians obtain access to the presidential papers that demonstrated that Ike always gave the orders. By contrast, the reputation of President Kennedy has tended to decline since his assassination, and Richard Nixon’s has never recovered from his resignation.
What judgment will future generations render upon George W. Bush? I hope and believe it will be a positive one, but I will predict only that neither the country nor the party can or will revert to the policies that prevailed before Bush. Not to Clintonism, because Clinton’s passivity and complacency in the 1990s left the country vulnerable to the catastrophe of 9/11. And not to Reaganism, because Reagan Republicanism offers solutions to the problems of forty years before, not to those of the twenty-first century. Both the country and the party have to work their way forward from the Bush experience, not back to some mythical golden past.
I began work on this book at the apogee of George Bush’s success, in the weeks after the 2004 election. Those were days of Republican triumphalism and Democratic dismay. “Republican hegemony in America is now expected to last for years, maybe decades,” the conservative journalist Fred Barnes exulted soon after the 2004 vote. (1) Al From of the Democratic Leadership Council lamented that his party had suffered “a 40-year slide which we interrupted a little bit during the ’90s, but it has resumed with the 2000 and 2002, 2004 election. . . . This slide is not going to stop on its own.” (2)
That all looks absurd now. But evidence abounded that it was wrong even in 2004. Bush won reelection that year by just two percentage points of the popular vote: a narrower margin of victory than that of any reelected president in U.S. history. The campaign itself had been a terrifying and terrible experience, with Bush delivering in the first presidential debate one of the worst performances of his entire political career. (Early in the debate, Bush boasted that bin Laden had been “isolated.” I fl inched when I heard this, awaiting the “You’re no Jack Kennedy” killer comeback: “Isolated? Isolated?
Why isn’t the son of a bitch dead
?!” Fortunately, John Kerry never used language like that–too judgmental.)
The American public had been trending leftward on economic and cultural issues since the middle 1990s. The shock of 9/11 halted the drift in 2002 and again in 2004. But if Republicans looked beyond the headlines, they had every reason to worry that the drift would resume as soon as the memory of 9/11 faded.
• The American economy grew handsomely between 2001 and 2006. But over those five years, the income of the median American–the worker right in the middle of the pay scale–did not rise at all. The number of people in poverty rose by 5.4 million between 2000 and 2004.
• The 9/11 attacks exposed terrifying unreadiness throughout the U.S. government. In response, the Bush administration launched the most radical overhaul of the U.S. government since the beginning of the Cold War–only to be caught almost equally unprepared by Hurricane Katrina.
• Between 2001 and 2006, at a time of intense concern for national security, at least 4 million people entered the United States illegally, elevating the total illegal population to at least 12 million.
• For the first time in half a century, Republicans controlled the presidency, the House, and the Senate all at the same time. Instead of rolling back government, however, we hugely expanded it. Federal spending under George W. Bush rose faster than under any president since Lyndon Johnson.
• In his 2002 State of the Union speech, President Bush pledged to prevent the world’s most dangerous regimes–he named Iraq, Iran, and North Korea–from acquiring nuclear weapons. Five years later, North Korea had tested a nuclear bomb and Iran looked likely to follow soon.
• Republicans won in 1994 and 2000 due in large part to voter perceptions of them as the more honest and ethical party.3 This asset was squandered by Jack Abramoff, Duke Cunningham, Mark Foley, and Alberto Gonzalez.
More than most presidents, George W. Bush has left behind a mixed record: of work begun but left unfinished, of challenges confronted but ill articulated, of heroic aspirations marred by ineffective execution, of bold initiatives and tentative results.
Sometimes I ask myself: What would have happened if George W. Bush had lost the election of 2004? That, I still feel sure, would have been an unmitigated catastrophe for the United States. Here is how some of John Kerry’s staunchest supporters described the man who would have replaced George Bush in the Oval Office: “the least appealing candidate the Democrats have nominated for president in my lifetime…He’s pompous, he’s an opportunist, and he’s indecisive.”4 A Bush defeat in 2004 would have been interpreted worldwide as a collapse of American nerve, a repudiation of the very idea of a strong response to terrorism. Had Bush lost that year, the Republican Party would have been surprised, shocked, shattered, and might well have gone veering off into isolationism or recoiling backward to the country club politics of the elder George Bush.
At other times I wonder: What would have happened if Bush had failed to prevail in 2000? That is a harder question to answer. Had Al Gore won that year, he would have been constrained by a Republican Congress. No Supreme Court vacancies opened in the
2001—2005 term. Instead of John Kerry attacking Bush’s war on terror from the left, the 2004 election would probably have seen Republicans nominating Rudy Giuliani to critique Al Gore’s response to 9/11 from the right. Perhaps then 2004 would have been the year that the elusive majority Republicans have been seeking since 1990 would finally have consolidated itself. Who can say?
But we can say this: In 2000, Bush won a victory that probably no other Republican could have won. By 2008, he had led his party to the brink of disaster.
George Bush’s party now looks beyond George Bush. The contest to elect the next Republican president began astonishingly early. It may continue for a dismayingly long time. That next president will need wisdom, courage, patience, and principle. He will also need a new generation of ideas. This book represents one Bush veteran’s vision of what those ideas might be.
WHY WE’RE LOSING
By the final months of the Bush presidency, nearly two-thirds of Americans had concluded that the Iraq war was a mistake. Almost three-quarters believed that the country was on the “wrong track,” an astonishingly bad number for a nonrecession year.
Large majorities of Americans preferred Democrats to Republicans on virtually every public policy issue. Americans regarded Democrats as more competent by a margin of 5 to 3, more ethical by a margin of 2 to 1. They credited Democrats as caring more about “people like them.” Americans even preferred Democrats on taxes.
On the day they reelected President Bush in 2004, equal numbers of Americans identified themselves as Republicans and Democrats. By 2007, Democrats outnumbered Republicans 3 to 2. The generation of Americans that turned twenty between 2000 and 2005 identified with the Democrats by the largest majority recorded for any age cohort since modern polling began after World War II.
Since 2003, the once formidable Republican advantage in fundraising has collapsed. Democratic Internet sites draw more traffic and more enthusiasm than anything Republicans or conservatives can offer. Republicans are dispirited and demobilized; Democrats, united and galvanized.
Republicans offered Americans an array of capable and experienced candidates in the 2008 presidential cycle; Democrats, two neophytes and a former first lady. Yet as the 2008 election cycle commenced, almost every one of these miserably weak Democrats beat almost every one of these impressive Republicans in head-to-head poll matchups.
Conservatives were brought to power in the 1970s and 1980s by liberal failure. Now conservative failure threatens to inaugurate a new era of liberalism. Rather than take the measure of our troubles, however, we are denying them. Rather than adapting to new times, we are indulging ourselves in nostalgia for past successes.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Comeback by David Frum. Copyright © 2007 by David Frum. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.