[I]f Bush is destined to go down as a failed president, come what may, he looks increasingly like an unusual sort of failure.It's very cruel to laugh at children, so I can't mock Douthat for being so stupid, self-delusional and dishonest in the defense of his political party and personal credibility. I blame The New York Times, who kept him up past his bedtime and displayed him in public, to everyone's painful embarrassment. Bush obeyed conservative principles--give the rich whatever they want and ignore everything else--to the letter and conservatives have no one to blame but themselves for his failures. Declaring that he wasn't so bad after all is stupid and pointless. There is more bad news ahead in the economy and history will not be kind to Bush. Douthat will fare much better; ten minutes after he's dead nobody will remember a single word he ever said.
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. On economic matters, he resembles Herbert Hoover — but only if Hoover, after presiding over the stock market crash of 1929, had engineered an economic response that nipped the Great Depression in the bud.
It’s true that Bush didn’t personally formulate the surge, or craft the bailout. But he was, well, the decider, and if he takes the blame — rightly — for what Donald Rumsfeld wrought, then he should get credit for Gen. David Petraeus’s successes in Iraq, and for blessing the sweeping decisions that Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke made in last September’s desperate weeks.
And if we give Bush credit on these fronts, it’s worth reassessing one of the major critiques of his presidency — that it was fatally insulated, by ideology and personality, from both the wisdom of the Washington elite and the desires of the broader public.
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.
And perhaps his best decisions, on the surge and the bailout, were made from the bunker of a seemingly-ruined presidency — when his approval ratings had bottomed out, his credibility was exhausted and his allies had abandoned him.
This is not a blueprint that future presidents will want to follow. But the next time an Oval Office occupant sees his popularity dissolve and his ambitions turn to dust, he can take comfort from Bush’s example. It suggests that it’s possible to become a good president even — or especially — when you can no longer hope to be a great one.
Monday, September 21, 2009
The New York Times dresses up Ross Douthat in a sailor suit, straw boater with blue ribbon, and polished shoes, pulls him out from behind its skirt, pushes him in front of his audience, takes his finger out of his nose, and gives him a little shove. Little Master Douthat opens his mouth and begins to recite.