"The problem with diplomacy is that it takes a long time to get something done. If you're acting alone, you can move more quickly. " — — George...
“The problem with diplomacy is that it takes a long time to get something done. If you’re acting alone, you can move more quickly.”
— George W. Bush
“If you think you are right, you just stand by your guns.”
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— George W. Bush
George W. Bush narrowly won two presidential elections but has just lost the 2006 midterm elections. Moreover, he has lost 66 percent of his post-9/11 public approval ratings. He has also suffered significant defections from his once stable, if eclectic, Republican base.
The sun is beginning to set on this Bush presidency. What helps us understand why this brisk, confident, consequential, uncompromising and generally optimistic president has lost his way?
Bush is no shrinking violet. He likes taking strong stands — deep tax cuts, No Child Left Behind, preemptive war, Social Security reform, North Korean sanctions, immigration reform, expansive interpretation of presidential powers and much more.
We rallied behind him in late 2001 as America confronted tragedy, terrorism and uncertainty.
Americans are tough on presidents and we most assuredly have been tough on George Bush. Bush exaggerated what he could do in the White House, yet he also came to the job at a time of enormous partisan and cultural polarization in this country.
But he underestimated the paradoxes that come with being president. He has mismanaged many of those paradoxes and he also personally contributed to yet additional paradoxes.
What follows are several ironies, contradictions or paradoxes that increasingly define this troubled presidency.
An initial Bush paradox is that he became president in large part because of his father’s name, reputation and network of well-connected advisers and donors (not to mention his dad’s nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, whose decisive vote helped “elect” the son). Yet, he has done everything possible to become unlike his father.
But George II so strenuously sought to succeed where his father failed that he seldom acknowledged or even mentioned his father. Ronald Reagan, Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln and Harry Truman served as his role models. Jesus and the Bible were his moral authority. He was once asked if he often sought out his father’s advice, to which he famously replied that “there is a higher Father I appeal to.”
The son would get Saddam Hussein, something the father did not do. The son would get re-elected, something the father did not do. The son would not wimp out on tax cuts, something his father did. And the son would strengthen the presidency and the party — or so the son hoped he would do.
Why a son’s distancing from the father? One theory is that the son was rebelling not so much against the father as against the clubby, secular Washington establishment. But his father and grandfather ironically were central players in that establishment — for two generations, no less. It’s sometimes as if he wanted to best his father yet also even the score for him.
Whatever the reasons, the son’s unilateralism, and unitarian policies — and apparent contempt for the U.N., international law and even our old allies — were a marked departure from his father’s legacy.
The father was criticized for lacking vision. The son, in trying to be so unlike his father, gets faulted for having an overly ambitious, stubborn vision. Too little, too much; it’s an exacting job.
A second paradox is that George W. Bush campaigned in 2000 as “a uniter and not a divider.” Yet, he has been divisive — at home and abroad. He has gone out of his way to blame the Democrats and many of our older allies. He has needlessly equated dissent with being unpatriotic. He has too often been a bridge burner and not a bridge builder.
Furthermore, he pledged to restore civility and bipartisanship in Washington, yet these efforts have been notably ineffective and sometimes contradictory. The administration’s effort to go after Vietnam War hero and amputee Max Cleland in a U.S. Senate race in Georgia was especially hypocritical. Bush and his chief political operatives were relentlessly partisan attacking Sens. Tom Daschle and John Kerry, and Reps. John Murtha and Nancy Pelosi, as well as dissenters in their own party.
The political strategy of celebrating battlefield soldiers while denigrating the reputation of veterans who differ on the conduct of the Iraq war has backfired and embarrassed the administration (and was one of the reasons Jim Webb was elected U.S. senator in Virginia).
The decidedly partisan and go-it-alone style of this administration has not served it well. Politics, both at home and abroad, requires deliberation, patience and diplomacy.
Bush ran as a fiscal conservative, calling for more efficiency, more focus and more discipline in government. He also, ironically, called for less military interventionism and nation-building abroad.
But this has been a credit-card-borrowing presidency, with much of the borrowing put on the “Chinese Express” card for our grandchildren to pay — if they can.
Tragedies such as Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina explain some of these reversals. Yet, massive tax cuts and vast defense spending play a major role here. President Clinton, ironically, was more effective as a budget-balancer and deficit reducer.
And Bush, of course, has become an internationalist with an attitude.
Still another paradox is Bush’s embrace of a “culture of life” philosophy, yet support for the death penalty, preemptive war doctrines, and an apparent endorsement of inhumane practices such as torture in our antiterrorist prisons. The uses of torture, intimidation and explicit acts of sexual humiliation in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere by our troops and representatives all fly in the face of respect for life. It took John McCain, in Bush’s own party, to rebuke these strategies as unworthy as well as unproductive. Then Bush paradoxically announced he was not bound by the new rules even as he signed them into law.
Then there is the stem-cell controversy. Bush vetoed legislation that two-thirds of the country and leading Republicans such as McCain, Bill Frist and Nancy Reagan supported. Bush vetoed it presumably on religious or moral grounds, whereas his critics believe such research will ultimately save lives.
On a related issue, Bush supporter and friend, former U.S. senator and U.N. Ambassador John C. Danforth, has chided Bush and his allies for abusing the Terri Schiavo case (she was the irreversibly brain-damaged Florida woman). This was, Danforth wrote, an over-the-top misuse of partisanship on a sensitive human issue.
Yet another paradox: George W. Bush was hailed by some as our first MBA president, a Harvard Business School graduate. He would, some believed, bring managerial expertise to making government leaner, more manageable, more efficient and, presumably, more effective.
However, the mismanaged occupation of Iraq, the mismanaged response to Hurricane Katrina, the mismanaged CIA, the confusing (and over-budget) new drug-benefit plan, the flawed trade policies and the misguided No Child Left Behind policy that paradoxically punishes the schools most often in need of additional monies, to cite a few managerial mishaps, are giving this MBA less than a passing grade. These will be “how not to do it” case studies in business and public-policy schools.
Candidate Bush promised to restore respect and dignity for the office. Nothing subtle here. This ex-drinker and born-again Texan would not have affairs with interns and wouldn’t lie to the American people; integrity would be restored by Bush and the Republicans.
But Bush has shaded the truth on important issues. Weapons of mass destruction and “mission accomplished” are two notable examples. He has been disingenuous about domestic wire-tapping and spying, secret overseas prisons, prisoner mistreatment, prison rendition programs and the true cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bush, while apparently technically honest in his own dealings, has witnessed firsthand how power corrupts in high places. The idea of not reading a CIA briefing in order to maintain deniability strikes some as dishonest policy. The Jack Abramoff, Tom DeLay and government procurement scandals, as well as his administration’s leaking of Valerie Plame’s CIA status, have undercut Bush’s pledge. By late 2006, the American people had a much-diminished trust in Bush, Congress and the Republican Party.
Finally, George “I’m the Decider” Bush celebrates exporting freedom and democracy around the world, yet he has restricted precious constitutional principles at home.
Thus, Bush favors preemptive war, yet allows intelligence to be manipulated on which preemptive war is based. The readiness to label dissenters as being unpatriotic reminds some commentators of the 1950s House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, a chapter in our nation’s history we now view with remorse.
President Bush, as a candidate in October 2000, urged the U.S. to be more humble in dealing with other nations — and yet people at home and abroad believe arrogance and unilateralism have too often trumped humility in dealing with potential allies. A somewhat chastened Bush now belatedly acknowledges the liabilities of “cowboy” diplomacy: “I learned some lessons about expressing myself maybe in a little more sophisticated manner.”
Paradoxes and broken promises are inherent in the exercise of leadership. Successful presidents have to provide vision and convince the people and Congress that their plans will work. It sounds simple, but it is the toughest job in America.
We have to select presidents who understand the inevitably contrarian political forces that come with power. We cannot afford leaders who simply manipulate contradictions and paradoxes for short-term electoral or presidential approval-rating purposes.
Sure, this is a new age with unprecedented new challenges and threats. Yet, we deserve leaders who transcend hubris and hypocrisy, and learn to live with and even embrace the contradictions that come with leadership.
Presidents need to learn that a constitutionally vibrant democracy encourages strong citizenship, a strong Congress, and respect for the rule of law, and that without conflict and a lot of pulling and tugging, and transparency, there is no politics, no freedom, and no progress.
President Bush once suggested he understood all this when he noted in a speech after 9/11 that, “We are in a fight for our principles, and our first responsibility is to live by them.”
Thomas E. Cronin teaches at Colorado College and is president emeritus at Whitman College in Walla Walla. Michael A. Genovese teaches at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. They co-authored “The Paradoxes of the American Presidency” (Oxford University Press, 2004).