Friday, January 16, 2009

Where Bush went wrong, Part I

As I was saying earlier, I never wished ill for President Bush.
He should never have been president in the first place. He lost the 2000 election by more than half a million votes, but still took the oath of office thanks to some miscast votes in Florida (Elderly Jews for Buchanan!), the antiquated and anti-democratic Electoral College system, and a special assist from five partisan Repubicans on the Supreme Court.
At the time, I actually felt a little sorry for Bush having to take office with the stigma of being the popular-vote loser. I assumed that as a result he would try and govern in a mostly bi-partisan manner befitting the almost dead-even split among the American electorate.
But instead Bush chose to take the path of extreme partisanship and steered his presidency with an ideological compass.
As governor of Texas, Bush had been adequately successful. It’s not hard to do, since most of the power lies with the Lt. Gov. anyway and the governor is mostly a figurehead. Bush was in his element as governor and he struck up a good working relationship with conservative Democrats like House Speaker Pete Laney and Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock.
If he had continued down that path upon moving to Washington, Bush’s legacy might be quite different today. But once he got to the White House, Bush decided he didn’t need bipartisanship. Afterall, Democrats were in the minority in the House and Senate and Republicans were the trancendent power in Washington (even if they had lost the popular vote) and they weren’t about to moderate their goals after having waited this long to finally be in control of the whole shooting match.
So Bush left Bob Bullock in Texas and instead took Karl Rove to Washington. And from that point on, Rove’s harsh, bareknuckle partisanship set the tone for the Bush White House.
Had Bush been more willing to compromise and put aside ideological differences, he might have avoided or at least tempered some of the bigger mistakes during his administration. But by stubbornly sticking to his guns on everything from tax cuts to neo-con foreign policy fantasies, he ended up running the ship of state aground and we are still trying to assess and fix the damage today.
If, for example, after his first round of tax cuts wound up wiping out most of the Clinton-era surpluses without any tangible boost to the economy, Bush had reconsidered his position and perhaps tried a somewhat different course, then perhaps his economic legacy would not be on par with that of Herbert Hoover.
Or, if he had been a little less ideologically driven on health care and education, he might have kept Sen. Jim Jeffords in the Republican fold and avoided losing the Senate to the Democrats midway through his first term.
I don’t know that I believe 9/11 could have been avoided even if Bush had been meeting regularly with Richard Clarke and his anti-terrorist security team and even if he had taken that FBI memo seriously, so I’m apt to give him a pass as far as that goes. And his initial decision to go after al-Qaeda in Afghanistan is one that I and most other Americans supported.
Where things started to go seriously wrong was the buildup to the Iraq invasion based on bogus, manufactured evidence and guided by a neo-con fantasy that had been waiting for just this kind of opportunity to assert itself on the world stage.
Once again, Bush closed himself off to foreign policy realists like Colin Powell and Brent Scowcroft and instead took all of his council from radical rightwing neocons like Dick Cheney, Richard Perle, Doug Feith and Paul Wolfowitz. It was a pattern that would continue to repeat itself throughout Bush’s presidency.

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