George W. Bush – the worst president in American history? Incompetent bungler, befuddled ideologue, bird-brained fool, ... Perhaps the picture is even worsened by the sorry spectacle of the culprits recently appearing on television pointing fingers at everyone below them and refusing to acknowledge any mistakes.
As we get closer to Inauguration Day, a certain oral history seems to be spreading to every corner of the land, a history that goes something like this:
Once upon a time, a village idiot from Texas ran for President. The election outcome was debatable, but once in the White House, he surrounded himself with a bad crowd, declared himself to be "the Decider" and proceeded, blinders on and with a mulish resistance to acknowledging any problems, to drive our beloved country off a cliff. The man just wasn’t up to the job. The lunatics had the keys to the asylum. And the rest, as they say, is history. So we’re sitting here now with two wars, both going badly, a greatly diminished reputation at home and abroad, an economic crisis that may end up being as bad as the Great Depression and a host of other ills. Somehow, if only a like-minded but more competent person had been President, we might still be sailing along as smoothly as we were when Bill Clinton left office.
That’s a seductive story line, and it’s hard to resist giving a good, hard, jack-booted kick to Bush and Cheney on their way out the door. But there’s just one little problem I see with this otherwise-convincing narrative: it just plain ain’t true! I’d like to suggest that all the myriad plagues visited upon our great nation during the Bush years AREN’T the result of one incompetent Decider sitting in the Oval Office. And I further suggest that the same or similar disasters would have betaken us even with a George W. Bush who was somehow magically transformed into a capable executive (who could even speak English).
So let me tell you a different story, a story that sees history written more by larger political forces than by individuals, and see if you agree with me or not that it tells a truer tale of the Bush years. I claim that
the disasters wrought on our nation by the Bush presidency are NOT the result of one chief executive’s incompetence - rather, they directly emanate from the near-total structural failure of conservative political thought (when put to the actual test of governance).
Now, surely, we can all cite instances in which no amount of political ideology can ever explain away the bumbling miscalculations we witnessed (think "Hurricane Katrina"). But, on the whole, I think we can see that in case after case the series of major and minor mistakes that the Bush administration perpetrated can all be traced to the neoconservative "thought" that developed in the wake of the Goldwater defeat and built up steam (and hardened into dogma) through the Reagan years, the Gingrich "revolution" and on into the current era.
Let’s remember something. The 2000 election produced the first time in modern history that conservatives actually controlled the U.S. Government. During the Reagan years we had a Democratic Congress and a fairly moderate (though changing for-the-worse) Supreme Court. Congress went Republican in the 90s, but Bill Clinton was in the White House. When Bush and Cheney arrived, all that changed. They had a solid majority in congress (2000 – 2006), and Bush’s extremist judicial appointments soon turned the federal courts, including the Supreme Court, into a de facto Republican-leaning branch of government.
The 9/11 attacks had a profound political side effect: naturally enough, support swung behind the President, effectively giving Bush carte-blanche to respond. As fear gripped the land, neocons, supported even by compliant Democrats in Congress, got a green light to try any ideas they wanted to. And the results? While many books can, and no doubt will, be written on this, let’s just briefly glance at two areas, national security and economics. (Kossacks can undoubtedly fill in the blanks in other areas.)
Let’s start with foreign relations and national security, an arena which conservatives have claimed as their strong suit for years. What, really, is the basic conservative view of foreign policy and national security strategy? Regardless of how they characterize it, I think it can be summed up like this: conservatives have a triumphalist view of America and its place in the world. They see the U.S. as a near-perfect state which should serve as a model to be sought by all people everywhere, a super-nation standing for Truth, Justice and the American Way, which should impose its will around the globe in order to bring about a better world (an image carefully polished ever since Reagan’s invasion of Granada), an invincible power whose dictates should and must be obeyed by others, a "shining city on the hill" populated by a superior people. Because we’re superior (meaning by implication that others are inferior), institutions like the U.N. are to be ridiculed and ignored, allies can be safely alienated and, yes, a fence must rise along the Mexican border. For many conservatives, faith in this vision is rooted in or intertwined with their fundamentalist religious beliefs, so that not only are we a superior people, but God is on our side, so our mission must be divinely ordained. (Does that explain the misguided "my country right-or-wrong" attitude of so many rank-and-file conservatives?) And "W" no doubt saw himself as taking up God’s cause in his "crusade" against Islamic extremists.
And the final result of governing the country by these tenets? The "War on Terror", Afghanistan, Iraq, a thug state mentality that produced Abu Graib and Gitmo, extraordinary renditions, torture and other lawless actions, illegal spying on Americans at home, allies who don’t respect us any more and don’t wish to cooperate or help us, enemies emboldened and pursuing their agendas at the expense of our strategic interests, a constitution ignored and government divested of its checks and balances, etc., etc.
Do you believe that one lone moron, through ignorance and incompetence, is responsible for all this damage? Or are all these catastrophes merely the end result of our government putting conservative ideology into routine practice?
How about Bush’s stewardship of the economy? (Okay, I know you’re either laughing or crying, but let’s try to discuss this...) Again, we’ve been hearing the Bush story line from conservatives at least since Reagan got into office and launched "Reaganomics", or, as Papa Bush called it, "voodoo economics", the theory that we should give all breaks to the rich and let everything trickle down to the rest of us, that Wall Street fund managers should pay lower tax rates than their maids, that government should "get off the backs of industry" (which would "police itself"), that privatizing government functions was the way to improve services, that the Free Market was a magic force that would lift us all up to the Elysian Fields of economic prosperity.
I read somewhere once that Bush’s sycophants liked to flatter him when he was at his desk working. They knew Reagan was his hero, so when he talked about lowering taxes, deregulating an industry or negotiating a new free trade agreement, they said just loud enough for him to hear them, "Oh – just like Ronald Reagan", where upon the Decider would just slyly smile. But flattery aside, it’s clear that Bush’s policies weren’t of his own making – they were just a combination of recycled supply side economics and free enterprise wish list items (mostly dreamed up by trade association lobbyists).
And the end result of these policies? The only question we really have is how the resulting downturn is going to compare to the Great Depression – not as bad, about the same or, Heaven forbid, even worse.
Again, is this the legacy of one ignorant buffoon, or is it just the natural consequence of making conservative economic fantasies the modus operandi of the country? George W. may be a convenient straw man to knock over, but I think the real culprit needs to be identified and publicly humiliated.
Conservative pundits and think tankers would like us to believe that the problems of the Bush presidency are the result of flawed execution – that, somehow, if the "good" ideas of Bush & company had only been carried out better all would have been well. As progressives, we can’t let that view stand. We can’t afford to blame George W. Bush for what is demonstrably the fault of conservative thought. The truth needs to be laid bare, and people need to see that
the folly of the Bush years is no more nor less than the essential realization of the conservative hopes and dreams that had been developing for at least 35 years.
The central problem of conservatism has always been that it just isn’t connected to the reality of the world around us. Bush always seemed out of touch with reality because he "stood on principles", but the principles on which he stood were from another planet.
So to George W., I say an unfond "Good riddance!" – but to all progressives I say that next time you hear someone blaming Bush for our predicaments, make sure to point out to them that it wasn’t the boy-idiot who did it – it was his principles. Now is truly our golden opportunity to crush conservatism and promote progressive, reality-based policies.