Monday, January 19, 2009

Evaluating Bush in His Final Minutes

A few days ago I received an e-mail from the Republican National Committee titled, and I am not making this up, “Grateful Gratitude to Our President”, asking recipients to sign a card of appreciation to the president…and also to send a donation of $25, $50 or larger to the RNC.
The last part isn’t going to happen until Mike Duncan is gone as chairman and even then I would want assurances that the $25 I send them won’t go to finance $45 worth of junk mail begging me to send more.
As for the former, my communication to the soon to be former president would not involve a blanket thank you but “thanks for this, this and this, but you really screwed up on that…and that…and most definitely that”.
While partisan self-criticism might be rare in this day and age, I think I’ve established enough credibility to not be confused with the moderate rats that the president unwisely chose to surround himself with and who repaid his loyalty by cutting out and running to the best trash book deal when they saw their opportunity to cash out.
You could say I invested a lot of time and effort on behalf of George W. Bush. I went to New Hampshire at my own expense in 2000 to help with this campaign for the nomination. Later that year I hustled in blogosphere and on the ground to move Louisiana back into the GOP’s column after Bill Clinton’s two straight victories in the Bayou State.
Despite being very sick with bronchitis, I traveled to Austin as part of a Young Republican contingent to protest the protestors outside the governor’s mansion in some of the most miserable weather I have ever experienced while Florida’s results were still being sorted out.
In 2004, I served as one of Louisiana’s 9 presidential electors and dutifully cast my ballot his re-election.
Bush’s presidency could be best summed up by what transpired in the 9th month of each of his two terms. In the first, there were the September 11th terrorist attacks, in the second, the haphazard federal response to Hurricane Katrina.
These two events serve as the bookends of his presidency as Bush proved to be determined and forceful concerning the former though appeared aloof and detached in the latter.
Only the likes of Michael Moore could possibly condemn the president’s actions in taking the fight to al-Qaeda and their Taliban allies in Afghanistan. I still remember hearing the international cries for patience and a multilateral approach to dealing with the most horrific attack on American civilians in our country’s history, and perhaps another president, maybe the man who finished second in Florida, would’ve heeded such global advice.
Thankfully, America had a stubborn leader who had a simple approach to warfare: you hit us, we’ll hit you back exponentially harder to cripple you and serve as an example to other hostile governments and networks even thinking about doing something similar. No economic sanctions. No dropping out of sporting events. Just painful consequences.
On the other hand, only the likes of a professional apologist could in any way defend the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina. The federal government did not have a single person on the ground in St. Bernard Parish, the worst hit community in Katrina, until a full week after the storm. It took days to get water to evacuees huddled together at the Superdome. The bureaucratic nightmare Katrina victims went through dealing with FEMA was inexcusable.
Failure to anticipate the damage that Katrina would cause in addition to not prepositioning badly needed supplies in locations where they could get into devastated areas quickly was squarely on FEMA.
Sure state and local officials did not help, with ex-Governor Kathleen Blanco deserving the bulk of the blame for obstructing military assistance with quelling the chaos that emerged as the waters receded. But on the federal end, Brownie had not done a heckuva job and President Bush looked deservedly foolish for saying it.
Iraq is unique in that unlike the first two events, its role in defining Bush’s legacy is still up in the air. The president was golden in the eyes of his countrymen after the quick seizure of Baghdad but the glow began to fade after Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction were never found and as irregular fighters and al-Qaeda proved to be more determined and formidable opponents than the Iraqi army.
The war that was once so popular even Hillary Clinton and John Kerry voted for it started to wear thin on the public as the death toll of American servicemen from roadside bombs climbed and a definitive end to the occupation seemed elusive.
But Hussein’s execution signaled to his loyalists that he was never coming back to power, the increase in civilian casualties by al-Qaeda in Iraq and the troop surge contributed to establishing stability.
If a democratic Iraq endures and proves to be an effective bulwark to Iran, then Bush will one day be considered a visionary for his bold Mideast gambit; if however, the government collapses and Iran installs a puppet regime that exacts bloody reprisals against the once ruling Sunnis then Iraq will have finally merited comparison to Viet Nam.
Bush will either enjoy later appreciation through Trumanesque revisionism or continued Johnsonesque vilification on the direction of Iraq.

Other areas:
Social Conservative: Just as his predecessor proved to be at least faithful to his party’s social liberal base, Bush consistently backed a conservative social agenda. Bush has the distinction of having appointed two solid conservative justices to the Supreme Court, even though it required an uprising by members of his own party. Some of the most liberal high court jurists were appointed by Republicans and it can at least be said that the 43rd president got it right where Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan and his father had bungled.
Economics: Tax cuts: good; bailouts: bad. Economic conservatives have even longer memories than social conservatives though Bush’s steadfast support for tax cuts will at least endear him to some degree with what is increasingly becoming the GOP’s most assertive wing. Though the president did warn Congress about the dangers of people receiving home loans they could not afford, Bush should have been more vocal in his opposition and not relegate himself to “I told you so” status.
Social Security Reform: Anyone that can do simple math should realize that the system is running out of rail and the train is not slowing down. In this area, Bush was courageous for touching the political third-rail though he also backed away from the matter when he ran into roadblocks early in his second term.
Party Leader: Bush did for the GOP what Bernie Madoff did for his investors, taking the party faithful for a ride that to stratospheric heights and then a quick crash down to terra firma.
When times were good in 2002 and 2004, even Tom Daschle was trying to hug Bush in public; when the bottom fell out after Katrina, most candidates for Congress in competitive districts were removing pictures with the president from their websites.
Bush’s tone-deafness with public opinion and the media served him badly in his second term, particularly in 2006 when he arrogantly predicted victory for the GOP on the eve of an election that would be a political massacre. The president stood by Denny Hastert when it was obvious that in the wake of the Mark Foley scandal the speaker needed to go and that the GOP leadership in Congress either needed to change on their own or let the voters do it for them. Polls and the historic trend that the 6th year of virtually every two-term administration is greeted with very unfavorable mid-term congressional results should’ve served as omens but were haughtily dismissed.
Bush’s failure on the public relations end seriously handicapped John McCain’s presidential bid, since the presidential race at the end of a two-term administration is largely considered a referendum of the outgoing administration. Luckily for Bush the man who humiliated him in New Hampshire in Michigan back in 2000 had to pay that price in 2008. He also probably wrecked whatever aspirations Jeb had harbored of being president.
Bush fell victim to the Sun King mentality of that he was the party and the party was him and it served neither well.

When he left office in 1953, Harry Truman had an approval rating that was barely over 30%. But the obtuse Missourian benefited from later a re-evaluation and the plain-speaking former haberdasher is now considered one of the 20th century’s great presidents.
As he exits the Oval Office, Bush’s approval rating ranges from 22-34%, and even that’s mostly due to die-hard Republicans and social conservatives. Unlike Truman, Bush’s legacy won’t be treated much kinder as it goes from being critiqued by the liberal media to being judged by liberal academia with Iraq being the tiebreaker.It is ironic that Barack Obama, whose election was in no small part due to Bush’s low poll numbers, will have a big role on determining Bush’s legacy through the new president’s handling of Iraq.

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