The Politics of a Failed Presidency
How John McCain and the Republican party should deal with the Bush record.
Mar 17, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 26 • By JEFFREY BELL
As president, Reagan ordered a massive military buildup that he hoped and believed the Soviet Union could not match. He dropped the realist-Strangelovian doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) in favor of mobilizing American technology to shoot down Soviet missiles, and via the Reagan Doctrine of aid to anti-Communist insurgencies called a halt to the realist-backed policy of "containment"--which in practice had come to mean that the West was permitted to resist the Soviets in countries that had not yet become Communist, while leaving alone (in the interest of "stability") countries that had Communist or far-left rulers. Execution of the Reagan Doctrine, which was spearheaded by CIA director William Casey, inexorably led to the shipping of helicopter-killing Stinger missiles to anti-Communist Afghan rebels, which proved to be the military and psychological turning point of the 45-year-long Cold War. In 1988, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev ordered a unilateral Soviet military withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the following year the Warsaw Pact collapsed.
Those moves by Reagan, successful and transformative as they turned out to be, were only the real-time consequences of a deeper moral commitment. Reagan believed the United States must play the role of a "shining city on a hill" to the rest of humanity. He took literally the most famous phrases of the Declaration of Independence. He believed that all men are created equal and that this entitles them to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And he echoed the Declaration in its reliance on "Nature and Nature's God" as the moral basis--as it happens, the only authority cited by the Founders--of our right to separate ourselves from Great Britain, and therefore of our national existence.
Believing these features of our founding to be "self-evident," Reagan felt, and frequently articulated, the moral imperative of spreading these core American truths to everyone on earth. After 9/11, George W. Bush swiftly adopted Reagan's moral imperative as his own. He frequently repeated his belief that democratic values are "not America's gift to the world, but God's gift to humanity." He built his entire second inaugural address on, and implied his second term would be about, this belief. Bush's 2000 allegiance to Reaganism on social issues and economics was thus joined after 9/11 by a Reaganite foreign policy.
This wartime conversion had immediate consequences, as Bush and his team sought to apply a more Reaganite approach to the specifics of the terrorist assault on America. First and most essential, the days of treating Islamic terrorism as criminal activity, to be solved mainly by the efforts of policemen, prosecutors, judges, and juries, were over. The president served notice that foreign governments providing safe haven for terrorist enemies of the United States would be treated as if those governments were mounting terrorist operations themselves, as enemies of the United States in a global war. And he announced that rogue states would not be allowed to acquire weapons of mass destruction.
To achieve these war aims, Bush proclaimed two new doctrines. The new military doctrine, a marked departure from the Cold War doctrine of deterrence, was that of preemption: We would no longer wait for a military mobilization or attack before striking against a growing terrorist or rogue-state threat. Preemption would involve a series of diplomatic, economic, and military options up to and including invasion, occupation, and regime change.
The new geopolitical doctrine was the promotion of democratic reform not as part of a wish list but as a central U.S. policy goal around the world, with particular focus on the Arab and Islamic cultures. Without fundamental reform in the Islamic world, Bush argued, eliminating one set of terrorists would achieve only a respite before the next wave of terrorism.
In little more than three months, Bush had successfully carried out the logical first step of his new policy, the ouster of the al Qaeda-backed Taliban regime in Afghanistan, to nearly universal bipartisan applause. His January 2002 State of the Union speech singled out an "axis of evil"--Iraq, Iran, and North Korea--as the most dangerous of the world's surviving rogue states. It was widely agreed that Bush had clearly spelled out his response to 9/11, with coherent military and geopolitical dimensions, to deal with the protracted world war he believed us to be in. You could disagree with the strategy, or even reject the idea that what was happening amounted to a world war, and more than a few people did. But no one could deny that a clear strategy had been laid out.
Through mid-2003, Bush's tripartite conservative presidency--social issues, economics, and foreign policy--appeared well on the way to a measure of political success. In the 2002 elections, Republicans gained seats in the House, Senate (regaining narrow control), and even state legislatures. The gains were not huge, but it was the first time a newly elected second-year president had achieved such across-the-board gains for his party since Franklin Roosevelt in 1934. It was widely agreed that congressional Democrats had mishandled the closing days of the election by blocking legislation to create a Department of Homeland Security over the issue of whether newly hired airport inspectors were to be unionized. This came across to many voters as petty politicization of an issue relating to the safety of Americans little more than a year after murderous attacks on American soil. Democrats quickly capitulated on the issue after the election, and Bush's first-term mastery over Congress continued with passage of his ambitious tax cut/tax reform package in mid-2003. On the war front, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld joined the president as a conservative hero for his bold, low-casualty drive to Baghdad and surprisingly rapid overthrow of the long-ruling Baathist dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.
Everyone remembers how the wheels began to come off the Bush juggernaut in the second half of 2003. The administration severely underestimated the post-Saddam Iraq insurgency, and the failure to discover weapons of mass destruction was sealed early in 2004 by chief U.S. weapons inspector David Kay's announcement that, much to his surprise, the weapons were nowhere to be found. These developments coincided with a shift in the president's standing from solid favorite for reelection to no more than a 50-50 proposition against Democratic front-runner John Kerry. But before analyzing the challenges and setbacks to Bush's standing as a war leader, I want to take a look at what happened to the administration on the other two issue clusters, social issues and economics.
Of the three areas, it is social issues on which the administration has perhaps its greatest claim to overall success. The nomination and confirmation of John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 accomplished what Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush all tried and failed to do: move the Supreme Court toward judicial restraint on social issues. Social conservatives can see at most four solid votes for judicial restraint on the Court, but these justices are considerably younger than their liberal counterparts, and the judicial conservatives occasionally win a fifth vote from Anthony Kennedy, who, though usually liberal-leaning on social issues, provided a fifth vote to uphold the Bush-backed federal ban on partial-birth abortion.
Social conservatives are also satisfied with the president's resistance to the clamor for federal funding of embryo-destructive biomedical research. He gave his first nationally televised policy speech and cast his only first-term veto on this issue in August 2001. Since then, breakthroughs in the field of pluripotent nonembryonic stem cell research are looking increasingly like a vindication of Bush's position.
By far the most explosive social issue of the Bush years has been the nationwide drive by social liberals for recognition of same-sex marriage. At a time when the no-exceptions pro-abortion advocacy of many non-southern Democrats has become far less confident and vocal, social liberals have successfully brought most of American elite opinion behind a redefinition of marriage law to include same-sex couples, either in marriage or in its legal near-equivalent, domestic partnership or civil union. It would be hard to find more than a very few editorial pages in the country that argue the institution of marriage should remain exactly as it is in most states today.
The acceptance of the idea of gay marriage among elites most certainly includes the legal profession. This became clear in 2003, when a 6-3 majority of the U.S. Supreme Court in Lawrence v. Texas overturned state anti-sodomy laws as unconstitutional and when later that year, in Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health, a 4-3 majority of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled that the two-century-old state constitution mandated marriage equality for gay partners. The court then ordered the Massachusetts legislature to pass a same-sex marriage law, which it did. The state court cited Lawrence--just five months old at the time--as a key precedent.
As has frequently been true of social issues since the 1960s, the devotion of elite opinion to same-sex marriage was not shared by American popular opinion, even in states regarded as socially liberal. Within one year of Goodridge, voters in 12 states passed referenda adding a two-sex definition of marriage to their state constitutions, foreclosing the possibility of a Massachusetts-style judicial ruling in these states. The voters' preference for traditional marriage was overwhelming, ranging from the high 50s in socially liberal Oregon to the high 70s in southern states like Louisiana.
But social conservative leaders recognized that if the courts continued on their 2003 trajectory, all the referenda in the world would not stop judges from overturning the will of Congress as defined in the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) of 1996: Judges could mandate national recognition of same-sex marriages (solemnized in Massachusetts or gay-marriage states yet to come) on the grounds of the Constitution's full faith and credit provision requiring states to recognize each other's laws. To forestall this widely anticipated move by judicial elites, a Federal Marriage Amendment to the Constitution would have to be passed, or at least come into play as an active option for opponents of same-sex marriage. For this to happen, at a minimum President Bush would need to endorse the Federal Marriage Amendment and make it a Republican position in Congress.
In February 2004, a reluctant Bush did so, and later that year votes were held in the House and Senate. The amendment was backed 227-186 in the House, a solid majority but far short of the two-thirds needed to send a constitutional amendment to the states for ratification. Opponents of the amendment in the more liberal Senate resorted to a filibuster, producing 50 votes in opposition to ending debate to 48 for bringing the amendment to a vote. But a secondary goal of social conservatives was achieved when most House and Senate Republicans voted for the amendment and most Democrats voted against it. These developments ensured it would become a live issue in the presidential battle between George W. Bush and John Kerry because Kerry, while a lukewarm opponent of same-sex marriage, had voted against DOMA in 1996 and opposed the Federal Marriage Amendment in 2004.
In the third and final presidential debate on October 13, 2004, Bush effectively drove home his support for the amendment as necessary to preserving the institution of marriage as between a man and a woman, but also as necessary to preserving popular rule: "I'm deeply concerned that judges are making those decisions and not the citizenry of the United States. You know, Congress passed a law called DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act. My opponent was against it. It basically protected states from the action of one state to another. It also defined marriage as between a man and a woman. But I'm concerned that will get overturned. And if it gets overturned, then we'll end up with marriage being defined by the courts, and I don't think that's in our nation's interest."
It was at this moment that Kerry, looking more than a little irked, had his most memorable, and by most accounts his worst, moment in any of the debates. He told moderator Bob Schieffer, "We're all God's children, Bob. And I think if you were to talk to Dick Cheney's daughter, who is a lesbian, she would tell you that she's being who she was, she's being who she was born as."
In the National Election Pool exit poll on Election Day that November, a surprising 22 percent of all voters picked "Moral Values" as the factor in the campaign that influenced them the most. Among these voters, Bush overwhelmed Kerry 80 percent to 18 percent. Bush's huge lead among these "values voters" more than made up for a deficit vis-à-vis Kerry on all other issues combined, enabling Bush to defeat Kerry in the national popular vote by 50.7 to 48.3 percent.
Yet on one level, Kerry's gibe at Mary Cheney, the vice president's younger daughter who is in a long-term same-sex relationship, was a shrewd, well-aimed thrust at the discomfort Bush felt with the marriage issue as a whole. As soon as the election was over, Bush announced he would no longer actively pursue the Federal Marriage Amendment, because the needed two-thirds congressional majority would not be achievable until and unless the Supreme Court overturned DOMA.
This left a sour taste in the mouths of social conservatives. Bush's reelection had for the moment brought a pause in the headlong federal and state judicial drive toward same-sex marriage, but his decision to largely drop the issue in his second term was close to an engraved invitation to social liberals to keep the pressure on at the state and local level, which they proceeded to do. Although in political terms Bush clearly won the 2004 marriage debate against Kerry, his subsequent willingness to retire the issue meant there were no decisive consequences for the losing side.
An even more inconclusive result marked the president's pursuit of his signature social issue, the faith-based initiative. After a turbulent and at times partisan debate, ambitious legislation facilitating greater participation by local faith-based groups in federal social programs won solid passage in the House in mid-2001. But by the time the debate moved to the Senate, Democrats had persuaded a just-reelected liberal Republican from Vermont, James Jeffords, to leave the Republican party and caucus with the Democrats. As a result, liberal Democrat Tom Daschle had replaced conservative Republican Trent Lott as majority leader, and Democrats had control of the Senate calendar for the first time in seven years.
Even had Jeffords not defected, however, only a much less sweeping version of the faith-based legislation would have stood a good chance of passage in the Senate, where social liberals had far greater strength than in the House. Administration officials and Senate Republicans showed considerable flexibility and came to agreement on a less sweeping bill, the CARE Act. Majority Leader Daschle endorsed the legislation and committed in writing to bringing it to the Senate floor for an up-or-down vote.
The legislation, which had a number of innovative tax incentives to increase charitable giving to locally based faith-based ministries, cleared the Senate Finance Committee in 2002 with only one dissenting vote. But it didn't come to a floor vote that year. Time after time, it failed to receive the unanimous consent needed to allow it to go to the floor in the course of normal business, and Daschle, though still a nominal supporter of the bill, effectively broke his written commitment to overcome the procedural barriers and hold a vote.
Why? Quite late in the process, Senate Democrats with close ties to the gay-rights movement demanded repeal of the Ministerial Exemption as a condition for allowing the CARE Act to come to a vote. The Ministerial Exemption is a narrow exception written into the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that protects churches and other faith-based organizations from being forced to hire opponents of their beliefs under the rubric of civil rights. One of its implications is to allow traditional-minded faith-centered groups to refrain from hiring workers living an openly gay lifestyle.
Until the rise of the gay-rights movement a decade or so ago, the Ministerial Exemption was never terribly controversial. It had survived a number of challenges in the courts, and the landmark welfare reform signed into law by President Clinton in 1996 had reaffirmed it with little or no opposition. Repealing such a widely backed religious-freedom provision in the name of nondiscrimination against gays was a complete nonstarter in the Senate of 2002, much less the House, as both Daschle and the recalcitrant Democrats with whom he was dealing undoubtedly knew. So the legislative embodiment of Bush's faith-based initiative, though passed by the House and virtually without open opposition in its Senate -version, died in the first Congress of the Bush years without ever coming to a Senate vote.
President Bush publicly excoriated Daschle for breaking his commitment to permit a floor vote, but he never said a word about the gay-rights forces' assault on the Ministerial Exemption. Rather than defend a role for locally based, urban ministries (almost all of which, most definitely including inner-city black ministries, are traditional in morals) and forthrightly respond to the accusation of gay-bashing, the administration all but decided to stop fighting for its own legislation.
Republican senators tried to revive the CARE Act in four subsequent sessions of Congress, from 2003 to 2006, but it never reached the Senate floor, always for the same reason--even after Republicans regained their majority in 2002, then ousted Daschle from his South Dakota seat in 2004 and attained a 55-seat majority in the Senate of 2005 and 2006. According to GOP senators trying to revive the bill, the Bush administration never seriously joined the effort.
The president has continued to emphasize the importance of involving faith-based groups in tackling social problems and has lauded administrative actions in the executive branch that facilitated greater faith-based participation. But the vision of a faith-based "third wave" of social welfare policy elaborated in the president's Notre Dame speech of 2001 is all but forgotten in the Bush administration of 2008.
In domestic policy as a whole, conservatives have felt frustrated by the administration's reluctance to make spending control a priority, particularly in Bush's first term. But many similar complaints were heard 20 years earlier about Reagan, whose record on reducing or controlling the size of government by means of domestic spending cuts was mixed at best.
Both presidents faced the same challenging context: the need to increase defense spending rapidly and restrain domestic spending at the same time. After Reagan's 1981 honeymoon year, when he got a measure of each, tensions between the two goals became acute. Reagan's forward global strategy dictated giving preference to the military buildup, which eventually would break the will of the Soviet Union to continue the arms race and thus help end the Cold War. Facing a Democratic House throughout his tenure, Reagan needed Democratic swing votes to sustain his military spending surge. As a result, he and his team had to give way more than they liked to Democratic spending demands on the domestic side.
Reagan broke from all previous hawks and war leaders--Lincoln, Wilson, and FDR in this country and -virtually every democratic war leader abroad--in refusing to finance his increased military spending with stiff tax increases. Taking over the presidency from the hapless Jimmy Carter, Reagan inherited an economic as well as a foreign-policy crisis, and he decided he had no choice but to address both at once. He allowed the Federal Reserve under Paul Volcker to sharply raise interest rates to break the back of inflation, while he cut the top rate on income taxes from 70 percent to 28 percent, reviving the economy from the stagflation of the 1970s and successfully sustaining his defense buildup.
As in much else, Bush after 9/11 deserves credit for attempting to emulate Reagan's double achievement rather than reverting to earlier, high-tax Democratic models. Bush had the advantage of a tax-cutting Republican House for his first six years. But that same House had been badly burned by Bill Clinton in the spending showdown of 1995-96, and had developed its own domestic spending habits as a kind of compensatory adjustment.
Moreover, Bush unlike Reagan had to deal with the most effective military attack on the American mainland since the War of 1812 and the sudden, sharp economic contraction that accompanied it. His 2001 tax cut, though designed in peacetime, proved a well-timed stimulant that helped keep that year's recession brief. The bold 2003 tax cut, with its immediate effective dates and the stunning breakthrough on ending most of the double taxation of dividends, left Reaganite supply-siders powerfully impressed.
Because it was wartime, the politics of all this tended to follow Bush's ups and downs as war leader. In 2002, with the economy sluggish and the war on terror going well, Bush's economic rating in the polls was high. In 2004, when Bush was looking less impressive as a war leader but the economy was strong, his economic rating was actually lower.
But to supply-siders, the policy substance was superb. In the 2004 campaign, Bush argued that his tax cuts needed to be made permanent, while John Kerry made clear he would let a large portion of them expire, partly in pursuit of "fairness" but also to gain new revenue for his domestic spending plans.
So coming out of his reelection, the clearest forward-looking mandate Bush had on the economy--the action item where he most starkly differed from Kerry--was the pledge to make his 2001 and 2003 tax cuts permanent. It would have been virtually impossible for a new Congress with 55 Republicans in the Senate and 232 Republicans in the House to deny such a request.
Instead, Bush decided not to make the permanence of his tax cuts a legislative priority. Nominally, he asked Congress for this. In reality, he put his emphasis on a newly unveiled proposal to reform Social Security by means of personal retirement accounts combined with "means testing"--severely cutting benefits for future retirees among the top half of wage earners.
It was a roll of the dice, and it came up snake eyes. Bush campaigned for Social Security reform for six solid months in 2005, yet his plan never even came to a vote in so much as a subcommittee of either house of Congress. After a first term in which a less Republican Congress repeatedly gave him much of what he demanded, it was a failure so complete that it invited comparison with Hillary Clinton's health care reform catastrophe of 1994.
Moreover, with Bush's performance rating having declined sharply in the first half of 2005, the window for asking that the tax cuts be made permanent had slammed shut as thoroughly as the chances for Social Security reform. Bush and congressional Republicans had to settle for extending those tax cuts scheduled to expire in his second term to the most distant expiration date, December 31, 2010.
In 2006, that may have seemed a long time away. It doesn't today. Even if John McCain keeps the White House in Republican hands, neither house of Congress seems likely to swing back to the GOP. And it is the Congress elected this November that will determine the future of the Bush tax cuts.
The markets are well aware of this. From a supply-side perspective, it is no surprise that the dollar is weak and equity markets both volatile and bearish. The top tax rate on estates, under current law, is scheduled to go from zero to 55 percent on January 1, 2011. The personal tax rate on dividends, now 15 percent, is slated to shoot back up to 39.6 percent, capital gains from 15 percent back to 20 percent, the top rate on personal income from 35 percent today back up to 39.6 percent. And Democrats, both presidential and congressional, count most or all of these reversions as relatively limited tax increases on "the rich."
The final nail in the coffin of the Bush supply-side program came in January, when the president outlined to Congress his conditions for a stimulus package. One of them was that any new tax cuts be "temporary." In saying this, Bush was telling the markets that his efforts to make his own tax cuts permanent had come to an unspoken but effective end. And there was another message: A Bush economic program that as recently as 2004 looked like an impressive application of successful Reaganite tax policy to a new but analogous era has now been retrofitted to a completely pre-Reagan, Keynesian, demand-side framework.
None of this is meant to say that Bush himself is ending as a Keynesian. His personal supply-side beliefs seem more or less intact. What does seem clear is that defective policy judgments and bad political decisions, particularly in the immediate aftermath of his reelection, show every sign of undoing one of the president's more impressive policy achievements. Once again, the pattern is excellent initial judgment, strong will, fair to decent early execution, culminating in distraction and in an ultimate failure to finish.
For more than six and a half of his seven-plus years in office, President Bush has been a wartime president, and it is in the context of a war presidency that historians will ultimately judge him. Voters in this greatest of democracies do not have the luxury of waiting till all the files have been opened and all the memoirs read. For them the conduct of war is, potentially or actually, a matter of life and death. They must decide in the present, and vote accordingly.
Their verdict on the president has been sequential. For the first two years of the war, they saw Bush as an effective war president. For the next two, they were ambivalent, which is the main reason the president won reelection so narrowly. For the last two and a half, since mid-2005, they have been negative. Perhaps surprisingly, today, halfway through his seventh wartime year--a year that overlaps with General David Petraeus's stunning turnaround of a near-terminal Iraq campaign--voters show no sign of raising the failing grade they have been giving Bush. Why this is so is the single most important thing for John McCain and his advisers, and indeed for Republican House and Senate candidates all over the country, to try to understand.
American voters have been polled about General Petraeus. Most of them know exactly who he is. A very strong majority have a favorable opinion of him. When they are asked whether they agree or disagree with General Petraeus's recommendations as to the timing of American redeployments from Iraq, a strong majority are in agreement. It seems safe to say that should changed conditions in Iraq cause General Petraeus to alter his recommendations as to the timing of U.S. redeployments, most voters would alter theirs accordingly. American voters, in other words, are not stupid. And, all else being equal, they would prefer not to lose this or any other war.
To most American voters, then, Petraeus is an 800-pound gorilla. These include supporters of McCain, but also of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. And they include many voters who disapprove as much as ever of President Bush, the man who had the courage and good sense to send Petraeus to Iraq after firing or kicking upstairs the people who had his responsibilities before him.
Why? That is, why hasn't sending the right man to Iraq redounded to Bush's benefit in public opinion?
One thing that hasn't changed much in the last year is people's view of whether going into Iraq was worthwhile in the first place. In March 2003, when we and our allies invaded Iraq, most voters thought it was the right thing to do. Now most of them don't. The success of Petraeus and his troops in defeating the local branch of al Qaeda and turning around the war makes them think highly of him, and has done wonders for the presidential prospects of John McCain, but doesn't significantly change their disapproval of the invasion itself, or make them think any more highly of Bush as a wartime commander in chief.
One can posit all sorts of reasons why and at what stage voters lost their regard for Bush as a war leader, and one could very likely find polling evidence for many if not all of those plausible reasons and retrospectively embarrassing moments. Bush in his flight jacket underneath the sign reading "Mission Accomplished." David Kay announcing that no weapons of mass destruction could be found. Bush saying of terrorists filtering into Iraq, "Bring 'em on." Secretary Rumsfeld saying of widespread post-invasion looting, "Stuff happens." Vice President Cheney saying some time ago that the insurgency was in its "last throes." The back-and-forth indecision in 2004 over whether to let the Marines clean out Falluja. Take your pick, and likely as not you have some evidence on your side.
A somewhat bigger turning point, it seems to me, was the fall 2003 appointment of Patrick Fitzgerald as a special prosecutor to investigate the public disclosure of Valerie Plame Wilson's identity as an employee of the Central Intelligence Agency. Looking back on it, several elements of this episode appear truly absurd, indeed almost comical: the indictment and conviction of Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, Scooter Libby, for perjury and obstruction of justice, even though the prosecutor had concluded there was no underlying crime; the fact that the prosecutor seemingly pursued only people who were hawkish on Iraq and never people who were dovish on Iraq; the fact that from the beginning, even before Fitzgerald's appointment, all of the key players knew that the deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage, was the original source of the leak to columnist Robert Novak, rather than anyone in the White House. If nothing else, the criminal investigation cursed and complicated several years of the life of Karl Rove, the president's most gifted and most combative political adviser, who it turned out had nothing to do with disclosing the identity of Valerie Plame Wilson.
In part because the Plame affair succeeded in criminalizing or semi-criminalizing effective defenders of the Iraq invasion, in part because the weapons of mass destruction were missing--perhaps even in part because the partisan polarization that predated 9/11 was never destined to go away for long--the administration lost its voice. This affected not so much voters' support for Bush's handling of Iraq--that would have plummeted during the Iraq bungling of 2004-06 no matter what the administration had said about it--as the president's ability to persuade the country that U.S. involvement in Iraq is a difficult but indispensable part of battling jihadism worldwide.
The loss of voice that began to be apparent in the second half of 2003 opened a wide avenue for a liberal Democratic storyline, which quickly dovetailed with the realist storyline of Republican critics such as Brent Scowcroft, not to mention the storyline of members of the permanent government inside the national security apparatus in Washington: World war? What world war? What war at all, other than Afghanistan and the one blundered into by George W. Bush in Iraq? Yes, 9/11 was terrible, but the Bush "obsession" with Iraq, obvious to insiders long before the actual invasion, enabled the perpetrators of 9/11 to escape the clutches of allied forces in the Afghan mountains, and has resulted in inexcusable neglect of the war in Afghanistan ever since.
That it has been possible for critics to isolate Iraq as an issue--making it into a giant, stand-alone Bush blunder--accounts in large part for the failure of the president to get much benefit in public opinion from the turnaround achieved by his appointment of General Petraeus. Improved prospects for getting the United States out of a difficult situation with only limited damage doesn't change the "fact" that our being there at all is a mistake. Even a completely unpredicted Bush success--the lack of new terrorist attacks against the American mainland since September 2001--lends further plausibility to the Democratic storyline. In the words of the New Yorker's Seymour Hersh in a C-SPAN interview, after all, 9/11 was "not that big a deal." In the revealing words of John Edwards, the war on terrorism is nothing more than a bumper sticker.
But even losing most of his defenders, becoming isolated in his own government, isn't enough to explain Bush's failed presidency. More than a few times two decades earlier, Ronald Reagan found himself all alone with a counterintuitive position, and not only in foreign policy. No Reagan adviser advocated the firing of every single striking air traffic controller. None thought the president should walk out of the Reykjavik summit, passing up major Gorbachev concessions, rather than restrict U.S. research on missile defense to the laboratory. None thought leaving Richard Perle's "zero option" proposal for full removal of Soviet intermediate missiles from Europe on the table for five long years would lead to a U.S.-Soviet agreement on the zero option. Yet each time, Reagan was right.
Reagan had a remarkable ability to assess his options, trust his judgment, make a bet, and let it ride. He never scapegoated advisers for being proved wrong. He didn't demand phony agreement at times when he knew he was alone. He fired subordinates not for disagreeing with him or even for leaking to the press, but for refusing to give his judgment the benefit of the doubt, at least for a time. Alexander Haig as secretary of state was not willing to do that. Haig knew he was smarter and better informed than Reagan, and ignored Reagan's wishes for what he was certain were the highest and most patriotic of reasons. His successor, the at least equally smart George Shultz, did not ignore his boss's wishes, and time after time found himself pleasantly surprised.
Yes, Reagan made some unusually good calls. Speaking as a Reaganite, I believe Bush did too, particularly in his first three years in the White House. But too often, he didn't let his bet ride. At other times he was proven right, but became distracted or forgetful when it was time to get to completion, to bank his winnings. We've seen how this worked to undo or render negligible some of his bravest and most innovative domestic moves, such as the first-term tax cuts and the faith-based initiative. The same failure to follow through demoralized Bush's supporters and threatened his achievements in foreign policy as well.
In his first two years as a wartime president beginning on 9/11, Bush was both daring and right about nearly everything, and his policies were beginning to have positive impacts that went beyond even his own expectations. The one part of his strategy that was going badly was the post-invasion battle for Iraq, and Bush gave the -benefit of the doubt to Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and his favored generals for far too long. Yet despite this weakness, Bush's global strategy was starting to show significant results.
On weapons of mass destruction: The nuclear proliferation ring of A.Q. Khan in Pakistan was closed down. So was the Libyan drive for nuclear weapons, immediately in the wake of the invasion of Iraq.
On democratization: Afghan and Iraqi elections were judged free and fair despite Taliban and al Qaeda efforts to intimidate voters and suppress turnout. Given a firm nudge by the United States and France, the Syrian army was forced to end its decades-long presence in Lebanon. In subsequent free elections, Lebanon elected a pro-Western majority to parliament headed by a moderate Sunni prime minister. In the recalcitrant world of Arab dictatorships, Egypt and several other regimes reluctantly permitted opposition parties to acquire legal status and file in national elections. Bush's global democracy strategy also was credited with helping inspire the Orange and Rose Revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia, over Russian protests.
What caused this kind of progress to peter out, to be de-emphasized or put aside? One factor, surprisingly, was that Bush's second-term secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, was more deferential to outside and internal opponents of Bush's policies than was her openly skeptical predecessor, Colin Powell. The Powell State Department allowed Bush Doctrine activists like John Bolton to serve in key areas like nonproliferation. On her succession, Secretary Rice asked Bolton to leave the department, which is how he came to be nominated as U.N. ambassador in the second Bush term as a kind of consolation prize. But when other moralists, hawks, and democratizers, officials like Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, and Richard Perle, left their first-term positions, Bush Doctrine sympathizers were almost never appointed to succeed them. In the White House, the two most effective advocates of Bush Doctrine foreign policies, Libby and Rove, were precisely the two officials criminalized or semi-criminalized by the Fitzgerald investigation.
Even more important, the tough going and setbacks in Iraq were allowed to cast a pall over the global strategy for no apparent reason. For example, tough initial stances against the weapons programs of Iran and North Korea were aborted or consigned to lowest-common-denominator multilateralism before they had much chance to bear fruit. Pressure to allow elections and legal opposition groups tailed off in Egypt and elsewhere. It was as if administration officials had internalized the mistakes and frustrations of Iraq so thoroughly that they assumed they would be repeated elsewhere if Bush Doctrine -initiatives were allowed to go forward undiluted. But the truth is that al Qaeda and its collaborators were pouring available resources into Iraq out of desperation because they were feeling beleaguered everywhere else. We know this because they said so in their own statements.
In retrospect, a fateful turning point for Bush's credibility was the elevation of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency of Iran in June 2005. Unlike his predecessors in the Iranian presidency, Ahmadinejad was not a cleric but a politician allied to radical, terror-sponsoring elements in the regime. From his first weeks in office, he was provocatively anti-American, publicly flaunting Iran's drive to acquire advanced nuclear and ballistic missile technology and making Holocaust-denying, genocidal threats against Israel with alarming regularity.
Ahmadinejad seemed so unafraid of military confrontation with the United States that his background as a believer in a Shiite apocalypse involving the 12th Imam was widely analyzed. He held rogue-state summits and encouraged Syria to resume its secret-police assassinations of pro-Western elected officials in Lebanon. He pushed Hezbollah into a phase of unprovoked kidnappings and attacks that led to a war with Israel. He crossed sectarian lines, arming the Sunni Palestinian terrorists of Hamas and sharply increasing Iran's export of road bombs to al Qaeda in Iraq as well as to antigovernment Shiite militias. It was almost as if he wanted to test whether such central Bush Doctrine features as preempting threats, denying nuclear weapons to rogue states, and holding rogue-state hosts of terror organizations accountable as enemy combatants had any further real existence.
Though never formally repudiated, to all intents and purposes it appears that they do not. Probably the final interment of the Bush Doctrine came from the recent National Intelligence Estimate, which pompously and absurdly informed Bush and the American people that Iran has not posed a threat of acquiring nuclear weapons since 2003. Ahmadinejad welcomed the report as the greatest triumph for Iran in the past hundred years and last week scoffed at a third round of U.N. sanctions as meaningless.
In terms of the political debate, all this leaves the president with just about the worst of all worlds. If you share the president's premise that Iraq is only one front, albeit an important one, of a much larger global conflict, an improved Bush grade on Iraq is dwarfed by failures and humiliating retreats virtually everywhere else, most visibly Iran and North Korea. If you share the mainstream Democratic storyline that Iraq was a blunder and diversion from capturing Osama bin Laden and annihilating al Qaeda, the survival and consolidation of al Qaeda's high command in western Pakistan and the continued strength of Taliban forces in Afghanistan are further confirmation of the blunder, modified not at all by the recent success of General Petraeus. If you agree with those a bit further left, that the global war on terror is nothing but a bumper sticker, seemingly contrary evidence in such widely disparate places as Gaza, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Somalia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan simply proves that most of the anti-American unrest in the Arab and Islamic world stems from our Iraq invasion, our partiality to Israel, or some combination of the two, in which case a quick retreat from Iraq is just as necessary as it was before the arrival of General Petraeus.
The one premise that is kinder to Bush is the belief of some that a viable democracy in Iraq is, if achieved, a big enough event to change the Middle East, particularly the Arab world, which has been the most prolific source of anti-American jihadists. This may ultimately prove to be true, and if it does may cause a Truman-like resurrection in Bush's standing. Certainly the president's courage in elevating Petraeus has breathed some life back into this hope among the dwindling band of pro-Bush democratizers. But this is at best a long-term possibility that has little weight in the politics of today--particularly against the backdrop of a Bush-Rice State Department that is seldom critical of massive human-rights crackdowns in Iran and has shown little interest in the Syrian-backed serial murder in recent months of Lebanon's democratically elected pro-Western members of parliament.
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In the presidential primaries, John McCain handled the Iraq issue brilliantly, making the most of the mounting success of the Petraeus troop surge. He commended the president for doing the right thing, but reminded voters that he, McCain, had called for a surge long before that policy had been adopted.
This combination provides an excellent model for Republican candidates who must deal with voters' feelings about the Bush presidency. Democratic opponents and reporters will press them for an overall assessment of Bush's performance or some aspect of it, knowing full well that either blanket support or rejection will cause problems for a Republican. If the candidate approves of Bush, voters will react negatively, picturing "more of the same." If the candidate disapproves, Republicans will see a turncoat and Democrats a rat leaving a sinking ship.
Rather than be trapped into this binary choice, Republicans will find it in their interest to break down such questions into specifics, then to pivot as quickly as possible toward the future. It is important to acknowledge Bush's failures rather than deny them, but also to cite the role of Democratic or congressional opposition whenever that can be legitimately claimed.
On the economy, for example, a Democrat may cite the superior performance of the Clinton years. A Republican candidate can counter by reminding voters that Bush had to deal with the sudden dislocations of 9/11. He can say he believes Bush was right to counter the 2001 recession with tax cuts, but lament the fact that Congress insisted on delaying the effective dates, which always delays a recovery. The Republican, who presumably voted for or supported the tax cuts, can note that Democrats insisted they all expire, a fact that is now causing uncertainty among workers and investors as stiff tax increases loom ever closer. Thus looking toward the future, the Republican can ask the Democrat to join him in supporting legislation to make the current and scheduled future tax cuts permanent, effective immediately. If the Democrat agrees, welcome the bipartisan spirit. If (more likely) he doesn't, demand that he explain how leaving the prospect of stiff tax increases in place will help today's economy and stock market. Why does he think raising the death tax from zero to a top rate of 55 percent two years from now, for instance, will be a good thing for American families?
On Bush's conduct of the war, a Republican can say he agrees with Bush's decision to order a swift military reaction to the mass murders of 9/11, but wishes Bush had sent more men to kill or capture Osama bin Laden before he could escape from Afghanistan. Like McCain, a GOP candidate can commend the appointment of Petraeus, while wishing it had happened three years earlier. And he can support Petraeus's recommendations on how soon to redeploy. Pivoting to the future, he can ask whether his Democratic opponent agrees with Petraeus's timetable or that of Harry Reid (or Nancy Pelosi or Barack Obama). Or does he agree with Hillary Clinton's statement at a Senate hearing last year that believing Petraeus requires "a willing suspension of disbelief"?
The temptation for Republicans trying to climb out of the wreckage of the Bush war presidency in 2008 will be to focus too intensely on Petraeus and his success in Iraq. It is true that the success of the surge is a precondition for GOP recovery in 2008; after being the greatest embarrassment, Iraq has emerged as the safest Republican talking point in all of foreign policy. But without a refocus of voters' attention on the larger global war against jihadism, the Democratic narrative will continue to have life: If invading Iraq was a mistake, even our improved prospects there can be seen as a lucky sideshow to overall Republican blundering.
It is thus essential for McCain and other Republican candidates to point out the violent activities of jihadists all over the world. If these activities are real, and they are, voters can be not so much convinced as reminded that the American response to 9/11 was right. Mistakes by Bush or Tony Blair or any other war leader do not make the threat of mass murder any less real.
The global war on terrorism is not a mirage or a bumper sticker, but a necessity. So is the promotion of democratic values around the world. That is the true alternative to jihadism, not American retreat, and not a rush to hold photo ops with rogue-state dictators who say it is America that causes the problems of the world.
This is the central argument that must be joined, and it is an argument not just about the past but about our future and the future of the world. It is an argument that, for all of our faults, Republicans were born to win.
Jeffrey Bell is a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.