Monday, September 21, 2009

Rehabilitating Bush

Boy, Ross Douthat must have a serious man crush to take on this task. "The Self-Correcting Presidency"? Douthat opens with a litany of Bush's failures - let's see which of them were corrected by Bush:
On every indicator, Americans lost ground during the Bush era. The median income slumped. The poverty rate increased. The percentage of Americans without health insurance rose.
That would be... none of the above. So where does Douthat find evidence of "self-correction"?
America has had its share of disastrous chief executives. But few have gone as far as Bush did in trying to repair their worst mistakes. Those mistakes were the Iraq war — both the decision to invade and the conduct of the occupation — and the irrational exuberance that stoked the housing bubble. The repairs were the surge, undertaken at a time when the political class was ready to abandon Iraq to the furies, and last fall’s unprecedented economic bailout.
Let's take those one at a time.

The Iraq war.... I know Dothat took Bill Kristol's spot at the Times, so maybe this column recycles a draft Kristol threw away before his contract expired? Or maybe one of Kristol's old columns, barely starting to yellow at the corners, that somehow ended up under a printer or left in a forgotten file folder? ("Never mind the facts you see before you - Bush will be vindicated!") Before you ask, "But isn't that the sort of analysis that makes you wonder why the Times hired Kristol in the first place, let alone why it took them so long to send him packing," well... it's now a pattern, isn't it.

When we say "the surge worked", we mean that the the deaths of members of the U.S. military have declined, that an escalating civil war has been pushed back, and that there's room for political progress. It's undisputed, save perhaps on right-wing radio, that the surge is not a solution and its benefits cannot be sustained indefinitely in the absence of political progress.

Douthat's providing a less complete version of what Peter Beinart attempted in January, attempting to recast the surge (and history) as a vindication of Bush. (I responded to Beinart's arguments here.) Revisiting Bush's own standards for when we'll know the surge to be a success, as stated almost three years ago:
A successful strategy for Iraq goes beyond military operations. Ordinary Iraqi citizens must see that military operations are accompanied by visible improvements in their neighborhoods and communities. So America will hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced.

To establish its authority, the Iraqi government plans to take responsibility for security in all of Iraq's provinces by November. To give every Iraqi citizen a stake in the country's economy, Iraq will pass legislation to share oil revenues among all Iraqis. To show that it is committed to delivering a better life, the Iraqi government will spend $10 billion of its own money on reconstruction and infrastructure projects that will create new jobs. To empower local leaders, Iraqis plan to hold provincial elections later this year. And to allow more Iraqis to re-enter their nation's political life, the government will reform de-Baathification laws, and establish a fair process for considering amendments to Iraq's constitution.
Well, they did eventually hold provincial elections, and have made progress on taking responsibility for their own security, but the rest? The surge can only be defined as a success if we throw out Bush's own standards by which its success was to be measured.

Douthat also suggests that Bush had a choice between action and inaction - as if the Congress would have sat idly by while the conditions in Iraq continued to deteriorate. Bush's options were to fold or go "all in", and he chose the latter. That served to stabilize the situation in Iraq, at further detriment to the mission in Afghanistan, but has not resulted in anything that can reasonably be described as "success". The surge, and the related strategic changes that preceded it, have been crucial to opening a window of opportunity, but Bush when it came to taking advantage of that window Bush again proved himself a failure. The hard part was left to his successor. Contrary to Douthat's thesis, this was not Bush repairing his mistakes - the surge was a patch job that has, fortunately, held up longer than expected but can't hold forever. Also, we're well past the point where we can deny that "the surge" was anything short of an escalation. So when Douthat elaborates,
On foreign policy, Bush looks a lot like Lyndon Johnson - but only if Johnson, after years of unsuccessful escalation, had bequeathed Richard Nixon a new strategy that enabled U.S. troops to withdraw from Vietnam with their honor largely intact.
A distinction without a difference, as ironically highlighted by Douthat's choice of words - should we call the Iraq withdrawal "Peace with Honor"?

I think Douthat's actually a bit hard on Bush, blaming the housing bubble on him. Sure, he encouraged it. Sure, Bush's claimed "economic successes" were predicated upon spending enabled by the housing bubble, and claimed economic growth and growth in productivity were predicated upon the excesses of the financial industry. But the foundation for that bubble was already in place. Sure, a better President might have declared that a time of war is not a time for tax cuts and profligate spending, imposing fiscal discipline and trying to keep the budget deficit under control - and those steps likely would have arrested the bubble even with continued disregard of the economic Cassandras who saw it coming.

And yes, the response to the collapse of the financial industry - a response that likely did prevent a much worse global economic catastrophe or depression - was started in Bush's watch. So we should be looking for Douthat to write an editorial defending this year's massive deficits as the inevitable result of Bush's policy, not something that should be blamed on the Obama Administration, right? And castigating those who criticize Obama for being too soft on the financial industry, or too fast and loose with bailout funds, right?

But seriously, Douthat shouldn't elide Bush's eight years of fiscal imprudence - financial recklessness - from the picture. We probably would still be hearing the same critiques had Bush followed a more sensible budgetary policy and had we nonetheless ended up with a similar financial crisis, but the cry, "we can't afford it", has a lot more resonance in the wake of Bush's multi-trillion dollar run-up of the deficit.

As Douthat admits, neither the surge nor the financial industry bailout were formulated by Bush. As with the surge, the financial industry bailout seems born of desperation, not careful policy considerations. Going to Henry Paulson and Ben Bernanke and saying, "Here's a blank check - fix this" isn't something that's particularly worthy of praise. Like the surge, it was a Hail Mary.

But maybe it makes sense that Douthat is most impressed by Bush's Hail Mary's. After all, Douthat's arguing that those are the moves for which another president might "get canonized".

Douthat next tries to rationalize away some of Bush's other remarkable failures:
In reality, many of the Bush-era ventures that look worst in hindsight were either popular with the public at the time or blessed by the elite consensus. Voters liked the budget-busting tax cuts and entitlement expansions. The Iraq war’s cheering section included prominent Democrats and scores of liberal pundits. And save for a few prescient souls, everybody - right and left, on Wall Street and Main Street - was happy to board the real-estate express and ride it off an economic cliff.
Blessed by an "elite consensus"? Does Douthat mean Bush, Cheney, and the elites of the "Club for Growth"?

Passing legislation that's popular with voters generally doesn't make you a good President. As Bush demonstrates, sometimes its part and parcel of why you're a bad President. Had he passed a literal "chicken in every pot, car in every garage" bill, it likely would have been popular with voters - that doesn't mean it's good policy, even if its popular and thus difficult for politicians to vote against.

Further, Bush wasn't honest in his policy formation. The arguments he made in favor of his tax cuts were situational and self-serving. "The economy's strong - tax cuts will sustain this!" "The economy's faltering - tax cuts will restore it!" "We're in a recession - tax cuts will fix this!" On top of that he shrouded his true intention - massive tax cuts for the wealthy - in a modest tax cut for the middle class. Anybody who pointed out the irresponsibility and top-heavy nature of the tax cuts risked being branded as engaging in "class warfare" or fighting against the American value that people should be able to keep the fruits of their successes.

Douthat also pulls a bait-and-switch, conflating the argument that, "This policy is not entirely wrong, and may even be a good idea, but it's implementation is horrible," with full-throated support. The Medicare prescription drug benefit, for example, was a poorly executed piece of legislation. (To its credit, though,Max Baucus might have come up with something even worse.) It was unnecessarily expensive, unnecessarily confusing, unnecessarily involved private health insurers, stupidly prevented government negotiation over drug prices, and imposed a "donut hole" in its coverage likely to prevent the seniors who most needed the bill from being able to fully benefit from it. Liking or understanding the need for the concept is different from supporting the actual legislation.

Bush had such overwhelming bipartisan support for the Iraq war that he did what? He went before Congress and the American people and said, "I know I have legislation that I think allows me to invade Iraq, but others say it's less clear. I want to be honest and direct, and to observe the separation of powers, and thus call upon Congress to explicitly authorize war on Iraq through a formal declaration of war." No, following a series of what can most charitably be called deceptions, he proceeded based upon the authority he claimed from the existing legislation. Hardly a profile in courage.

With his success and entry into the punditocracy, perhaps Douthat truly believes that everybody in the country bought more house than they could afford, mortgaged themselves to the hilt, and rode "the real-estate express ... off an economic cliff". But no. Some of us did not do that. And you know what? Those of us who didn't have been asked to pick up the pieces - pay for the pieces - of the battered, shattered economy. When Douthat tries to put me in the category apparently shared by himself and his peers, an expression comes to mind.... Oh, it's on the tip of my tongue. Two words, the second is "you", the first is.... Um, well, moving on.
Bush-era bipartisanship did produce some defensible legislation (No Child Left Behind, for instance). But more often, it produced travesties like the failed attempt at “comprehensive” immigration reform, lobbyist feeding frenzies like the 2005 energy bill, and boondoggles like the Department of Homeland Security.
Yeah, bipartisanship. It was Bush's own party that killed immigration reform. I don't personally see the Cheney-led energy industry free-for-all as being "bipartisan". The Department of Homeland Security? Bipartisan in the sense that you coopt a proposal from across the aisle that you originally rejected, implement it badly, and call it a day? "No Child Left Behind" is arguably bipartisan, but its deficiencies and funding shortfalls have been obvious from its inception. To the extent that it's only "defensible", its perhaps best attributed to Bush's satisfaction with an inadequate status quo or his failure of leadership.

Douthat manages to damn Bush with the faintest of praise:
By contrast, Bush’s best initiatives often lacked a constituency outside the White House: His AIDS-in-Africa program; his insistence, vindicated by subsequent scientific breakthroughs, on seeking alternatives to embryo-destroying research; his failed second-term proposals for Social Security and tax reform.
First, that's utter nonsense. There are huge factions outside of the White House that favor a wide array of tax reform and Social Security reform proposals. And it's hardly to Bush's credit that his propose Social Security "reform" was in fact a plan for its destruction. True reform, he could have passed. As for the "tax reform" to which Douthat links, its a set of proposals from a commission. I don't recall that Bush ever personally endorsed those recommendations, let alone pushed for their implementation. Looking at the report,
The Panel’s options use different designs that represent a range of policy choices to simplify the tax code, remove impediments to saving and investment, and broaden the tax base. The first option, the Simplified Income Tax Plan, is a streamlined version of our current tax system that would reduce the size and costs of the tax code. The second option, the Growth and Investment Tax Plan, would take our tax system in a new direction by reducing the tax burden on saving and investment to boost economic growth without fundamentally changing how the tax burden is distributed. It would move our tax system closer to a consumption tax and impose a reduced flat rate tax on capital income received by individuals.
Does Douthat manage to keep a straight face when he argues that this is one of Bush's "best initiatives"? (I recognize that the report contends that 60-70% of people earning more than $200,000 per year would face tax increases, but the two proposed tax schemes seem designed to be avoided by the wealthy - and moreso by the ultra-wealthy (for whom no projected tax revenues are described.) Or perhaps Douthat's arguing that Bush's best policies were the ones he never even tried to get off the ground, given his reverse Midas touch?

Bush's AIDS-in-Africa program and his stance against stem cell research please Douthat, who is a dogmatic adherent of Catholic doctrine on birth control and abortion. Even then, despite its huge flaws, Douthat might be right about the AIDS-in-Africa program - something that probably didn't actually lack a constituency, as such, but certainly didn't have a constituency in Bush's own party. It's a shame that Bush insisted upon limiting family planning counseling, and advanced a childish, counter-productive "abstinence only" education model in place of sound medical guidance, but you do have to give him credit for providing significant funding for treatment programs. But there has been no scientific vindication of Bush's myopic hamstringing of stem cell research, or the delays in research programs that resulted from his myopia. But these defects directly pandered to Douthat's constituency, hence Douthat's ear-to-ear smile.

Despite Douthat's gentle attempts to reinvent his record, it's unlikely that Bush will ever be viewed as having "become a good president" by virtue of his efforts to extricate the country from his own messes. Douthat does make one point that few will dispute:
This is not a blueprint that future presidents will want to follow.
Understatement of the year?


  1. Concur with the bulk of your comments.

    Having some trouble with, ". . .the response to the collapse of the financial industry - a response that likely did prevent a much worse global economic catastrophe or depression."

    First, I'm not sure that's true. Second, I'm "really" not sure that the long term impacts of paying for the bail out won't prove to be worse than the long term impacts of "not" doing the bail out.

    Right now we seem to still have the same idiots and criminals who caused the problem sitting in positions of power from which they can do it all again (and profit mightily by doing so . . . )


  2. It may be that there was an alternative approach to preventing a global economic collapse. But as somebody might say, you go into this type of thing with the President you have, not the President you want or might wish to have at a later time.

    Clearly there was room for alternative approaches, as evidenced by how quickly the original bailout bill was morphed into something completely different, something analogous to seeing fire everywhere and deciding that the best approach was to pour money on the flames until they were smothered out.

    But I am not sure anybody's arguing that the collapse would have been less severe, or that the recovery would have come sooner or been more profound, had the government done nothing. Pretty much everybody seems to be saying the opposite. (Glenn Beck, not so much right now, but he's somewhere between irrational and insane - and when it was Bush's "$700 billion" bailout he not only supported it but argued that it was probably too small.)

    As for having "the same idiots and criminals who caused the problem sitting in positions of power from which they can do it all again (and profit mightily by doing so . . . )", well... yes. And they've already started to "do it all again," and are already profiting mightily. And are buying off a bunch of Senators to prevent meaningful regulatory control.

  3. ". . . And are buying off a bunch of Senators to prevent meaningful regulatory control." - Not just Senators, I haven't really seen a whole lot of meaningful "push" from the administration . . . sound and fury signifying nothing, yes - but not anything meaningful.

    I'll grant you that the rhetoric is a little more pleasant to my ear then it was (or probably would have been if the election had gone differently) but I'm not seeing a whole heck of a lot of substantive difference . . . we'll see what (if anything) the proposed new regulatory agency amounts to . . .


  4. Obama seems reluctant to "push" on anything where he doesn't expect to get results. But in fairness to him, his administration has proposed some regulatory reforms that could improve things (particularly the regulatory voids that allow derivatives to get out of control), and seems to be trying to make some common sense reforms within the confines of what Congress will allow.

    For example, commodities trading is regulated by the Department of Agriculture, despite the fact that it has evolved way beyond a means of trading agricultural products. But the house and senate agricultural committee chairs go ballistic at the concept of ceding that regulatory authority to the fiance committees so that the regulation can occur under one roof. Obama has proposed a middle ground solution - bringing both regulatory offices under a common roof, so as to eliminate the regulatory void without triggering a Congressional turf war.

    It's silly that we have to work that way, but.....

  5. I was thinking more a long the lines of his administration could have picked someone "not" from inside the industry they are supposed to be regulating . . . for that matter they could have (and yes, I know its a "for show" issue) done something "real" about bonuses . . . and picking a guy to sit on the issue for a while and then quietly approve all existing bonuses doesn't count . . .


  6. I could come up with a lot of "reasons" to pick an insider but, cynical though it may be to think such a thing, this one somehow seems quite relevant.

  7. "Meet the new boss, . . . "