Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Just How Bad Was the Bush Administration?

Seriously.  What got me thinking about it is (via Sullivan) this George Packer post about another impending disaster: this time, it's the fate of Iraqis who worked with Americans during the occupation.  Packer notes the problem:
A lot of these Iraqis will be in danger, and some of them will probably be targeted, during the long period of waiting for their applications to be reviewed. Iraqis who work with Americans are at the top of the death list of jihadi groups, whose umbrella organization, the Islamic State of Iraq, recently declared its intent to settle scores as the Americans leave...The U.S. government has no idea of the identities and whereabouts of all the Iraqis who work for Americans there, or of which ones feel so insecure that they will want to be resettled here.
Packer has been writing about this disaster in the making for some time now.   Good journalism...but a disgrace.  I think it's a mistake to see it in isolation, however.  It reminds me immediately of another disgrace, which was the condition of basic record-keeping at Guantanamo; recall that part of the reason that the Obama Administration was unable to keep its promises was that they realized (at least according to published reports) that no one had any idea who most of the people were down there. 

What's striking to me about both of these stories is that if there was any part of the government that the Bush Administration, including George W. Bush himself, cared about getting right, one would have thought it was detention of terrorist suspects and prosecution of the war in Iraq.  Of course, we've also seen reports of the president's passive indifference in the cases of New Orleans and the financial crisis.  It does raise the question of just how many more of these types of stories have not yet been uncovered, or at least publicized.  There are a lot of federal agencies, and a lot of them aren't exactly going to be in the news unless something terrible happens on their watch.  Just how much disarray was there?  I can't emphasize enough that I'm not talking here about ideology, or even positions on issues of public policy.  This is about basic competence in managing the government, and strong signs that it was sorely lacking for eight years.

A couple things...first, about Dick Cheney.  I was talking to a staunch Republican former student a couple of weeks ago, and mentioned that one of the biggest surprises to me during the Bush years was that Cheney had turned out to be a lot less capable than I had expected.  My student was utterly shocked that anyone could think that.  This depressed me no end.  He's an open-minded guy, and certainly not prone to believing that whatever Republicans do is always correct.  But it was clear that within his information bubble, the possibility that Cheney just wasn't very good at his job had never been raised.  Bush, too.  He did recognize that things had gone wrong, but saw it more as policy choices and, to some extent, ideology.  In my view?  Even something such as torture, which I think was a (outside of the morality of it) disastrous policy, was far more a case of incompetence than it was ideology.  What scares me about that is that if my former student represents the view of establishment Republicans, it's possible that they don't quite realize how damaging it was to them to have had a president not up to the job, and how dangerous it is to nominate another one.

The second thing is about information and the president.  I'm hardly the first one to raise this, but: remember the infamous interview George W. Bush gave in which he explained that he didn't bother with newspapers because he got the real truth in his intelligence and other briefings?  Does anyone believe that "we've lost track of the Iraqis helping us and they'll probably all die unless we do something" was included in any of those briefings?  Here's the thing: most of you reading this post, reading this far down in this post, remember Packer's original reporting...maybe you read it in the New Yorker, maybe you read blog discussion of it, maybe you were talking politics with someone who read it.  Now, I have no way of knowing whether Bush knew about it or not; for all I know, someone flagged it for him, and he took (ineffective, apparently) action.  By his own testimony, however, there's a good chance that Bush never knew about it. 

Being president is hard.  People don't tell you what you need to know.  They don't tell you enough that you even know which questions to ask.  And you really can't be an expert on very much of what's going to come across your desk.  Really -- what does Barack Obama or George W. Bush know about how to stop an insurgency, or how to help locals who assisted your occupying army, or how to respond to an earthquake in Haiti, or how to cap an offshore oil leak, or how to properly regulate complex financial products, or whether it's a good idea to put a permanent settlement on the moon, or whether anti-missile systems actually work, or what's the best way to fight drugs, or to drive down hospital costs, or to use federal incentives to get local schools to work better...can I stop now?  They can't; there's still agriculture and trade and climate and inflation and AIDS/HIV (here and abroad) and housing and transportation and just go down the list.  The brutal reality is that our presidents have very little expertise in almost everything they deal with.  Take Obama: he knows Constitutional law, and worked on non-proliferation and some other issues in the Senate, but that's about it.  Bush?  Even worse; maybe some education policy, and perhaps a bit about business...that's about it.  So presidents are constantly dealing with and relying on people who know far more than they do, even if they're quick studies (as Obama and Clinton are said to be) or incredibly hard workers (as Nixon was).  And those people cannot, whatever Bush thought, be counted on to tell you things that reflect badly on them or the things that they're trying to get you to do.

Information is the weapon that presidents must use to compensate for their expertise deficit: information, and political skills and instincts.  Information allows presidents to know which questions to ask, which questions his experts need to be asked.   A president who believes that he gets the real scoop from his staff and the bureaucracy while the media is just a bunch of biased nonsense is one that is going to wind up with failure on the battlefield, war crimes and chaos in the detention camps, and a drowned city and drowned economy. 

Of course, that doesn't mean that reported stories are always true.  They are, however, almost always useful clues about something: either policy problems, or interest group stirrings, or bureaucratic clashes.  And that gets to how information must be deployed by a president.  George W. Bush should have -- a competent president would have -- known about Packer's reporting, confronted this generals about it, and followed up to make sure that if it was a real problem that it was solved.  To do so effectively, to know when to confront and when to have someone ask around about it and when to find yourself another expert...well, that takes political skills.  Most of what I've said here is from Richard Neustadt; I'll just quote him here on
the one sphere of expertise where "experts" were laymen: the shere of personal power for the President himself...When it comes to power, nobody is expert but the President; if he, too, acts as layman, it goes hard with him.  
Expertise in power terms is not a substitute for expertise in policy; it offers some protection, though, from errors and from bafflements in policy appraisal.  From those a President needs all the guarding he can get...And he, himself, the layman in most areas of policy, has no better protecter than concern for his own power. (Neustadt, Presidential Power, 124-125).*
What Neustadt means here is that presidents can aggressively use the information available to them, both inside information (such as staff briefings) and outside information (such as press reports) to sense and avoid policy disasters.  They'll do so, he believes, because policy disasters for the nation are political disasters for its president, and what presidents are really experts in is avoiding political disaster -- and the same thing goes, of course, about policy and political triumphs.  Presidents, and not generals or economists or other wonks, are likely to be good at sensing threats to their electoral coalitions or to their governing coalitions on the Hill and on K Street.  They're supposed to be able to read a newspaper story and realize which interest groups it threatens, and whether it's likely to be a major or a minor problem for those groups, and figure out what to do to avoid the problem, whether it's changing the policy or working with the group.  They're suppose to have excellent political antennae.  Presumably, they wouldn't have made it to the White House without them. 

Unless, that is, the president isn't an expert.  And so back to George W. Bush. 

We're still early in the building of the history of the Bush years, but here's my guess.  We'll find that what we saw was pretty much what was happening.  He didn't act aggressively when faced with potential policy disaster -- whether we're talking about the summer of 2001 and terrorism, or 2003-2005 in Iraq, or 2004-2008 and Afghanistan, or 2007-2008 and the economy, or Katrina, or anything else.  We're going to find that he strutted around a good deal, but was otherwise passive and indifferent, and easily manipulated by those around him.  And my guess is we're going to find the big things that went wrong (terror, Iraq, Afghanistan, torture, the economy) joined by dozens of smaller things that slipped through the cracks for eight years.  One last time: I'm not talking about ideology or policy, just the basic skills of the presidency.  Frankly, I think Republicans and conservatives should be more angry about it than Democrats and liberals.  Not because he deviated from pure conservative thought, but because his poor management of the office threatens to discredit their ideas just as Jimmy Carter's poor management of the office tended to discredit liberals and Democrats.  Even more than they should be angry with Bush, they should be angry with the Republican governors and others who handed him the nomination in 1999-2000.  They should take as their lesson from this never again to hand the nomination to someone who hasn't demonstrated the political skills, including the governing skills, needed to succeed in the White House.

Just how bad was the Bush Administration?  As bad, alas, as its president, and I'm afraid that all evidence to date points to him being one of the very worst.

*For those who have not read Neustadt, it might seem odd to think that the problem with George W. Bush is that he was insufficiently interested in building his own power.  To fully explain that would take another long post, one that I suppose I'll get to at some point, but the short version is: Neustadt wanted presidents, working within the Constitutional system, to amass as great an ability as possible to influence the government.  Cheneyism, and the variants practiced by Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, especially, but all presidents are prone to it, is about working around the Constitution to amass great authority for the government to do all sorts of things...but not necessarily about personal influence for the president.  The former (I would argue) is what gets good government; the latter yields Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-Contra, and Gitmo.  But as I said, that's the conclusion, not the argument, which I'll have to save for later.


  1. Wow, Jonathan, this is fascinating. That Bush was too passive, impervious to impending disaster, and in a sense too *a*-political -- you win the Counterintuitive Thesis of the Year award even as you reinforce familiar memes about Bush: incurious, staffed government with incompetents.

  2. I really hope you do get to the argument sometime soon. I've not read Neustadt, but the division between the Cheney/Johnson/Nixonism, and successful constitutional amassing of presidential power (e.g. Lincoln suspending habeas corpus) seems less likely to be split along the lines of working inside/outside the constitution, and more likely split based upon results.

    I'd like you to give an example of a president working to amass his power to influence government that resulted in negative outcomes.

    But if it's the case that working inside the system always (or almost always) produces good results, and working around our system bad, then it would cause me to think that the classification of actions as inside or outside is somewhat ad hoc, developed historically as a result of the effects the actions caused, and our constitution as a living document.

  3. Will Ferrell NAILED it in 2000:

    "Daddy help me. I never thought I'd win this thing and I want out."

  4. Even more than they should be angry with Bush, they should be angry with the Republican governors and others who handed him the nomination in 1999-2000.

    This is a salient point. Bush had been a failure at everything he had ever done. His lone achievement as Texas Governor was in executions. I saw this in 1999, and I was scarcely paying attention. The worst thing about the Republican party is their cynicism towards politics and America's political institutions and processes. I don't think this was true, even under Reagan, and trace it to Gingrich's contract on America.

    W's administration was the intellectual equivalent of Grover Norquist's idea to shrink Govt. until it could be drowned in a bathtub. But in every other respect, he failed at that too.

    The key to understanding the Bush II administration is realizing they were lousy at governance because of their basic contempt for government.

    They simply had no use for the Constitution, no concern for the country - they were corporate internationalists - and deep contempt for the American people.

    The results of the disasters caused by this administration will haunt my great-grandchildren.


  5. I have always thought his biggest flaw was one I have - the 35,000 foot view at all times. The "President as CEO" model does not work -- you cannot just "hire good people and let them do their thing" because too many people in government do not feel incentive to perform well. At least in a corporation, you are incentivized through stock options and bonus to perform (unless of course your company incentivizes bad behavior). The only incentive many political appointees have is to hang around long enough for a private sector offer quadrupling or more an executive service salary. Combine that with the contempt for government many conservatives have, and it is a toxic brew. W was a big government conservative surrounded by a bunch of Grovers...

  6. "I can't emphasize enough that I'm not talking here about ideology, or even positions on issues of public policy." Well, but you ARE talking about ideology, I think. Obviously federal agencies became dysfunctional to the extend that they were put in the hands of people who were ideologically opposed to their missions. The "ideology" was the belief that, for instance, government measures merely interfere with what would otherwise be the magic of the market, which presumably would see to it that levees get built where they're needed and/or would instantly throw resources into a flood zone if that's what consumers there wanted. The ability to value an agency like FEMA, and to imagine circumstances in which you'll need it to be working well, requires not being blinded by -- wait for it -- ideology.

    Similarly on Iraq and Guantanamo. Here, the ideology was a messianic belief in the goodness of American power. Since that power sweeps all before it, you don't need to plan for eventual circumstances in which your Iraqi collaborators might need your help, because it's not as if American action could wind up just making a mess of things, right? And you don't need to know details about detainees at Guantanamo if you already know, as an article of faith, that people who happen to be in CIA or US military custody must deserve to be, and ergo must be "the worst of the worst." It's ideology driving all this every step of the way.

    I've read bits of Neustadt -- don't know him nearly as well as you do -- but I wonder if what we saw in Bush II is just the proof that presidents don't HAVE to maximize their personal power, that it's possible for a president to be an ideologue who mistakenly conflates his power with that of the ideology he adheres to and so thinks that he's being a good president by following that ideology more or less blindly. Which means he's going to do all kinds of things that are irrational in Neustadtian terms -- but Neustadt, it sounds like, was assuming that American presidents wouldn't be hard-core ideologues. It may just be that that assumption doesn't always hold.

  7. The key to understanding the Bush II administration is realizing they were lousy at governance because of their basic contempt for government.

    This has become basically the key difference between the two parties: Democrats think there's an important role for government in today's society, while Republicans have no respect for government. The GOP thinks that any old lazy slob can be a government bureaucrat, so why not put someone's college buddy in charge of FEMA? It's just government work! How hard could it be?

    The genius of this is that the incompetence of government is then borne out, and a new generation sees that government doesn't work, so they start voting for Republicans as well.

  8. For all of Bush's incompetence, he was successful at the one thing that might have actually mattered to him: he won election to a second term.

  9. Look, I agree he was a disaster, but he wasn't a total disaster. His stuck to the surge and it has, for the most part, worked (this is outside of the issue of the actual war, the surge was the best of a very bad situation). He handled China and India pretty well, his pepfar thing was pretty successful. He did make an honest effort at immigration reform (granted at the behest of the Chamber of Commerce who loves the cheap labor, but still...), so bottom third, maybe even bottom quarter, but not absolute bottom.

  10. Anon - The success of the surge is conflated with the simultaneous effects of literally buying the cooperation off the locals. And none of it would have been necessary if he hadn't destroyed Iraq in the first place. And I don;t how the surge can ultimately be successful in view of Packer's information.

    Having possibly done one or two other things right does not budge him far off the bottom.

  11. I'm always fascinated with Bush - Reagan comparisons. It seems to me that Bush copied the Reagan style, but something went wrong. I like the comment about relying on advice and how that leads to incomplete advice "And those people cannot, whatever Bush thought, be counted on to tell you things that reflect badly on them or the things that they're trying to get you to do."

    So, did Reagan have better instincts trusting people, trusting himself? He bucked the tide reaching out to Gorby.

    I suspect hands approach or not, a president needs good instincts. But I also absolutely agree that access to information is crucial - it allows for successful presidents (JFK, Reagan, Clinton) to grow.

    Bush copied the Reagan style but lacked his instincts.

  12. Don't worry. The GOP has learned its lesson. Next time they will back someone more competent: The pit bull with lipstick.

  13. What was remarkable about George W. Bush's Administration was how closely it reflected the man himself. The systemic problems had the common weakness at the top -- the President's swagger, and to some extent his on-again, off-again drift toward religiosity, was overcompensation for his lack of confidence in his own mind and character. His penchant for "good, crisp decision-making reflected a deep-seated fear that the longer debate and consideration went, the higher the likelihood that he'd be revealed as a skimming, shallow thinker. So things had to be set up and knocked over quickly.

    Most Presidents would never get near the Office without first cultivating an understanding of the country they would govern, but with Bush, this too was pared down to sound-bite sized, clipped clichés, which he could be counted on to crack off on cue. The Architect, Karl Rove, created the electoral Bush and the early evidence is Bush never weaned himself from Rove, even after it was evident that Rove was an idiot savant, brilliant at the dirty game of getting elected, less than clueless about policy and governing, except as it could be repackaged for resale in the reelection campaign. His other dependably wrong-wayed counsel was from Cheney, who has amassed a record for policy failure unrivaled in our history, dating all the way back to the Nixon Administration.

    When Bush bumped up against sound counsel, from people like Powell, the result seems to have been a kind of Presidential angst, as sound counsel inevitably reflected poorly on the counsels of Rove and Cheney, upon whom Bush depended for even his identity.

    It was excruciating to see the body language during public assemblages of the Bush with his Administration. The collective sense that Bush was over his head and out of his league was palpable, with the strain showing between what should have been supporting players. Real counsel conflicted with the careful construct of the Bush persona and the Fox-News Worldview, and by the time he was narrowly re-elected, the dissonance and strain was pronounced. Potentially valuable servants were marginalized and then discarded. The Rove-Cheney camp had easy pickings by playing on the President's vanity and insecurities, and were finally able to convince Bush the problem was a lack of commitment and toughness on the part of those who tried to counsel him in good faith. In the opening days of the Second Term, there was a subdued but insistent buzz from old hands in Republican circles that Bush's famous "accountability moment" would be his (and ours) undoing. But by then, Rove and Cheney were unassailable, having delivered re-election.

    As much fun as it might be to engage in this kind of analysis, in the final analysis, the faults lie with Bush himself, who seemed incapable of thinking long and deeply enough to formulate real principles. For all the predictable fawning over him by his staff, I always had the unshakable sense that he was most valued by those that ran him for his emptiness, his hollow center, which could be filled by those around him, for their own agendas.

  14. Two points: I don't think it can be argued that Bush wasn't a good politician. The man won every election he ever entered. Which brings me to my second point, that as long as having Jesus as a personal buddy remains the element having the largest single correlation with electability, we're bound to have more Bushes in the future.

  15. Of course, there was a foundation of perfection laid down by his predecessor. Oh wait, the guy that eventually headed the Taliban in Afghanistan was handed to Clinton on a silver platter twice, but he was too busy in his own personal kerfuffles to extradite.

  16. "The man won every election he ever entered."

    Not that I want to argue that Bush was a BAD politician (he wasn't) but it's worth noting his opponents in those elections- an incumbent governor out-of-step with her state ideologically (And only won in the first place because HER opponent said something astonishingly stupid), and two wonky, Washington-insider Democrats with communications issues and poor campaign machinery.

    Of course, keeping strong opponents away IS a political skill, I'd argue, but few of Bush's wins are all that inspiring.

  17. Actually, W. did not win ever election he ever entered -- he ran for a House seat and lost, in 1978.

    It's hard to judge whether someone is a good pol, even just in electoral terms, only by wins and losses...candidates aren't always that important. That said, I think he deserves credit (as a good pol in a electoral terms) for the TX Gov nomination and election, and especially for the presidential nomination in 2000 -- that was an impressive achievement, and one for which he and Rove really do deserve credit.

    The two general elections? I'm a lot less impressed. I don't think he did better than a generic Republican would have done; I think he did worse. Don't have any data to back that up, though.

  18. The differences between Reagan and Bush are the differences between, I don't know, late-60s Beatles and McCartney's execrable "Freedom." (I'm not a fan of Reagan btw.) Reagan welded his comprehensive critique of the social net etc. with an adult attitude towards government and pragmatism.... argue if you like about that last stuff, the point is that the ideology was only a part of the mix, the times would not (yet) permit a politician as nihilistic and cynical as Bush/Rove/etc.

    Another way of stating this is that Reagan led a Revolution that had no place to go. Conservatism after Reagan consisted of little more than lowering taxes (which had already been substantially lowered), anti-government rhetoric, and puffery abroad. This may sound like Reagan's agenda, and maybe it was, but the puffery proved to be pretty pragmatic in the end, and the domestic stuff was operating in a context in which the conservative critique had a proper object. After conservatism had supplied its contribution, it could only devolve into idiotic beliefs like "FEMA doesn't serve any worthwhile purpose" and "it's very important that lower-middle-class people become outraged about the estate tax."

    Bush was a symptom of a few different things. His election in and of itself was a sign that the Republicans were interested in little beyond power for power's sake and putting a brake on the Dems. But beyond that, I do believe that if the ideology had been worth an eighth of a damn, Bush might have done something constructive with it. But the ideology couldn't even rise to that level.

  19. How could anyone ever propose that if the republicans had valued political ideology at the time when Bush became president that he would have undergone some kind of intellectual metamorphosis to become a thinking man with self-formed opinions on where the country ought to go? This is nothing more than wishful thinking, especially when you consider that Bush had failed at most everything in his adult life and thus came to rely on the most cynical kind of people (Rove) to get elected.
    And also, the evidence is quite compelling that Bush had to rely on what was basically a smear campaign to get elected as governor of Texas. That was also orchestrated by Rove and company. Which again, was probably just Bush's natural instinct, knowing that he alone had nothing of substance to offer.
    So go figure, was Bush ever anything more than the cheerleader from Andover?


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