Thursday, March 7, 2013

Curious George

James Fallows has been writing great stuff about the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War and you should really check it out. He argued that Bush was such a terrible president, especially in the 18 months between 9/11 and the start of the Iraq War because:
I believe that the temperamental combination he brought to the presidency was lethal. I think of the big three elements of this mix as ignorance, incuriosity, and decisiveness.

-Ignorance was his low level of pre-existing knowledge of the complexities of the world.
-"Incuriosity" was his apparent lack of passion about learning what he didn't know.
-Decisiveness was his desire, nonetheless, to make big, sweeping choices quickly -- for instance, ten years ago that it made sense to invade Iraq.

In these matters of temperament, completely apart from political beliefs, you can see Bush as the opposite of Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, and also of Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson. I argued nine years ago that even if George W. Bush served only one term as president, his legacy would be large and disastrous.
I like this analysis, especially the idea that Bush was bad because of a combination of traits made him completely unsuited for the modern Presidency. So much criticism of Bush seems based on the idea that he is "stupid," or "evil" and this is pretty shallow. However, I'd argue that the curiosity or lack there of is the wrong way to think about these sorts of things.

A while ago political scientist Johnathan Bernstein (sorry I couldn't find the link) made a comment on his blog to the effect that one of Bush's worst flaws was that he didn't care about politics or policy outside of a narrow contest of "winning." Usually it took the form of winning the next election, hence the introduction of the Iraq War Resolution in the lead up to the 2002 elections to put Democrats on the defensive and try and shift the issues to Bush's "toughness" rather than the poor economy. As Frank Rich pointed out in his 2006 book "The Greatest Story Ever Sold:
To track [Karl] Rove's role, it's necessary to flash back to January 2002. By then the post 9/11 war in Afghanistan had succeeded in its mission to overthrow the Taliban and had done so with a death toll that the American public could accept. In a triumphalist speech to the Republican National Committee, Rover for the first time openly advanced the idea that the war on terror was the path to victory for that November's midterm elections. Candidates "can go to the country on this issue," he said, because voters "trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America's military might and thereby protecting America.
Any student of history, hell any baby boomer, should know that a long protracted occupation and war in a foreign country can destroy a Presidency, but Bush seemed to not even consider this concept. He wanted to "win" in November just like "winning" in Iraq seemed to be composed of getting to Baghdad with no plan for what comes next.

The "winning" factor explains a lot. Bush pushed massive unpaid expansion of Medicare through Congress to make a "permanent majority;" he saw his Attorney General try and base US Attorney positions on ideological loyalty to "win" the Justice Department; he tried to respond to Katina with photo ops and congratulating the reliably conservative idiot who oversaw the carnage with "you're doing a heck of a job Brownie" and seemed to think for much of his time in office that since Cheney was on "Team Bush" he must be right and by supporting him they could "win" together. This list could go on for pages.

Curiosity can be a helpful trait in office, whats in this bill I'm about to sign is a good question for a president to ask. Nor does a president doesn't need to be motivated by altruism to be effective, Johnson supported Civil Rights because he thought doing so would make his reputation that of a second Lincoln for as much as anything else. What a President does need to care about is if policies will work and if their political strategy will be sustainable. If they just care about winning the next election, disaster looms.

No comments:

Post a Comment