Thursday, April 25, 2013

Bush, Principles, and Presidenting

The discussion of George W. Bush's intelligence, or lack thereof, continues. My position on this, as I've said many times, is that I've heard him speak on baseball and he sounded sharp enough; I attributed the evidence of his presidency not as a lack of innate intelligence, but as a consequence of his lack of interest in the world of public affairs and policy.

Two new contributions worth looking at. Kevin Drum looks at Keith Hennessey's anecdotes intended to show Bush's smarts and sees, instead, impatience and lack of interest in details. And Ed Kilgore wants to blame GOP orthodoxy, and not Bush at all, for the policies Bush adopted and urged.

I think it's probably correct to say that Bush arrived at the policies he supported because they conformed to conservative ideology, or at least GOP orthodoxy, of the time. However, that's not good enough. All presidents are driven by what their party wants, and part of being a good president is finding ways to keep party actors happy. Even if it means supporting unpopular policies, in some cases.

But presidents also need to know when to resist the party when the party wants something that won't work -- for the sake of the party, among other reasons, even though many party actors won't accept that.

And even more critically, presidents have to resist the temptation to accept party ideas as invariably correct -- and then the temptation to try to do the right thing. Generally, presidents are asking for trouble when they try to do whatever they believe is, in the abstract, the "right thing." That's true if it's "right" for ideological reasons, as with (perhaps) Bush; it's true if it's "right" based on the president's moral intuition, as was the case with Jimmy Carter or Woodrow Wilson.

Presidents do not have any special claim to superior moral intuition, no matter what Carter or George W. Bush seem to believe. Nor do they have any special ability to channel the beliefs of "the people," as Wilson believed. When they attempt to do so -- when they attempt to base policy choices on their principles -- they are apt to get it all wrong, because there's no institutional reason that they should get it right. We might as well select our presidents by lot.

What presidents do have -- and all elected officials have it, but presidents have more of it than anyone else in the system -- is access to the very best clues about what policies will be "viable" (in Neustadt's term). They have access to more, and more varied, information sources than anyone else. What's more, because their constituency is so large, they have access to the reactions of more, and more varied, organized groups than anyone else.Those reactions are often even better sources of information than the raw policy data that experts might give them (although to be sure the reactions of experts are an excellent source of information.

Good presidenting, perhaps more than anything else, is the art of extracting information from political action and actors. What does it mean when this general says that an occupation will take more troops than his bosses at the Defense Department say it will take? What does it mean when this DoD official (representing what faction? How?) disagrees? What does it mean when this ally objects to the course the United States is taking; what does it man when that ally goes along? How much weight to give private statements, and how much to give public? When is the support or opposition being given for a policy pro forma, and when is it sincere and intense? And what is that intense support or opposition really saying about the policy?

There are no magic formulas to answer those questions. It takes excellent governing skills: the ability to assess people and situations, deep knowledge of the political system and groups within it, a full sense of representational relationships. Some detailed policy knowledge can't hurt, although no president will have enough to substitute for those more general skills, and policy knowledge can even get in the way -- a determination to always do what's "right" can be just (almost?) as much of a problem if it's based on the president's personal policy expertise as it is if it's based on ideological principles or gut feelings.

So, yes, I do think it's true of all presidents that they are heavily influence by their party's positions, and that's as it should be. But presidents also must know when to push back against their party's positions (or ignore them, or give lip service support to them).

The difference, really, between Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush is that Reagan -- who surely was as much of an ideologue in some ways as Bush -- was at his best pretty good at seeing danger and avoiding it. George W. Bush? Spectacularly bad about seeing danger coming and avoiding it. That's not because Reagan (or other, even better presidents) had better "principles" or ideology or guts -- it's because they were excellent politicians. George W. Bush, alas, was a terrible politician, and a terrible president.


  1. Is your skepticism about "the right thing" perhaps at odds with your conviction that, ultimately, getting the policy right is the likeliest means of political success? For example, Obama may have stuck to a conviction that pushing healthcare reform in 2009 was 'the right thing' because Americans needed it and it was a linchpin of the country's long-term economic health. Should he have let that perception be trumped by the ever-mounting political danger signs clustering around the effort? I well remember my own congressman getting on TV (I think after Scott Brown won) and saying that Dems should "listen to what voters are telling us" & pass a couple of scraps of healthcare reform while pivoting to jobs. May not have been bad political advice..would it have redounded to his ultimate political success if Obama had acted on the same perceptions? Do we wish he did?

    1. No, definitely not. Part of listening to the clues the system is giving you is knowing which ones to totally ignore.

      I was convinced then, and remain convinced now, that Obama would have been worse off pulling the plug on ACA in January 2010 than moving ahead -- and the same with fall 2009, and the same with getting started on it in spring 2009.

      Bush in 2002 was getting and ignoring clues that the policy wouldn't work. Obama in 2009 was getting clues that Republicans would attack the policy and that they would get mileage out of it in that political context...but also that Republicans would attack anything he did, and that lots of things would get mileage in that context.


    2. But short-term can clash with long-term, and the long term may be longer than 4 years. To balance long term w/ more narrowly defined political interest may not pay off.

    3. Yes - for dong the right thing and long vs short term, look at the civil rights acts of 1964-5. LBJ knew he'd lose the [up to that point solid democratic] south for a generation. Surely, it was morally right, but 50 years later the south is still lost, and Nixon and Reagan institutionalized a racist southern strategy that still polarizes the country now.

      Narrow political interest would have been to ignore civil rights.


    4. ASP and JzB: But I'm not only talking, or even primarily talking, about electoral payoffs. Indeed, Neustadt sort of ignores electoral payoffs altogether.

      The Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act were amazingly successful public policy. That's what's important -- and that Iraq (and Vietnam!) were failed public policy.

      Also -- it's not actually true that the CRA and VRA cost the Democrats the south -- it's more complicated, and not only was much of that cooked in by then, but the alternative for Johnson and the Dems wasn't really better.

      There definitely can be short-term vs. long-term questions. Again, the best a president can do is to be very good at reading the clues that are out there as best he or she can. There's no better alternative.

    5. "Also -- it's not actually true that the CRA and VRA cost the Democrats the south -- it's more complicated, and not only was much of that cooked in by then, but the alternative for Johnson and the Dems wasn't really better."


      Can you elaborate on this statement, or provide reference material? I have to admit that until now I've never heard anything but the conventional wisdom that the conservative white Southern element of the Democratic party jumped ship in direct reaction to the civil rights laws.

    6. Coming to this late, but: basically, the south was already moving away, for a variety of reasons. Moreover, the Dems did fine in the South outside of presidential until the 1990s -- and it's hard to see 1964-65 as a presidential bright line.

  2. To Bush's credit, he did challenge the GOP orthodoxy (at that time) on two fairly major issues: education policy and immigration reform.

    On immigration, it was essentially "take your political medicine," to which the party responded "No! I hate you! You're not my real dad!"
    On education, since GOP orthodoxy was REALLY weak ("We need to get rid of the Dept of Ed and return control to local areas because that's small government--although our real agenda is just defunding teacher's unions so they stop backing Democrats!"), the party bent like a reed. (This was pretty much the exact same GOP that rejected almost the exact same proposals when made by Clinton in 1998-2000)

    In neither case do I agree with Bush's policy (though his immigration proposal was a step in the right direction, NCLB was and is a pure train wreck), but he did break with his party (and ideology, on education).

    I've always subscribed to the "intelligent but FANTASTICALLY NOT intellectually curious" theory (which, is like yours, except that it would extend somewhat beyond public policy/politics only).

  3. Regarding the question of intellect, I think Jonathan Chait in his article today had it right with: 'I suppose all this hinges on what we mean by “pretty smart.” Though he should have stopped there.

    I don't see how anyone can really believe Bush is stupid compared to your average person. Most people probably can't, for instance, think on their feet in a high-stakes televised debate, ranging across wide areas of policy, watched by millions of people. I don't mean Bush was a great debater, but he was capable of marshaling his talking points and sounding at least reasonably reasonable, so to speak, under intense pressure.

    Also, if you watch the documentary Journeys with George you can see he has considerable political nous, in the way he handles the journalists traveling with him, and plays them off against each other.

    Surely the relevant issue, though, is whether he's clever compared to very clever people. I'm not American, but surely you ideally want your President to be one of the sharpest people around? Perhaps not as intelligent as a mathematical genius, say, is in their narrow area, but with a high level of all-round acumen and the kind of judgment JB talks about above.

    Oddly, Chait goes on to say:

    How smart do you have to be to become a governor, or to make it onto a presidential ticket? That’s just one step away from becoming president, but I wouldn’t call Sarah Palin “pretty smart,” at least not by the standards that ought to apply to a job like president.

    Well, Sarah Palin probably won't become President, in large part because she's perceived as ignorant, if not a bit thick.

    Sorry, I should probably have posted this in Chait's comment section, but... have you seen Chait's comment section?


  4. Interesting take, and it helps round out Keith Hennessey's article. Reading Hennessey's article I was reminded of Martin Sheen's Jed Bartlett in "The West Wing" - that was the sense of portrayal I got.

    I do think that GWB's image is being rehabilitated to a degree, which I always thought it would. Given the way he left Texas after his governorship, and it's continued success even under an underwhelming successor like Rick Perry, gives an indication that there's something more than meets the eye with GWB.

    1. If this is your idea of success.

  5. It doesn't make sense that Bush could be a "terrible politician" and still be elected (sort of) to two terms as president. That would be like a terrible baseball team winning two World Series.

    My sense is that Bush was actually a very good electoral politician, although that didn't translate to using the levers of politics once in office, nor, aside from Iraq, winning any sort of public support for his initiatives. Maybe that's all you mean by "terrible politician."

    1. To the extent that there's an electoral skills/governing skills split, yeah, that's what I would go with.

      Still...the one real, and impressive, accomplishment I'd give him was winning the GOP nomination in 2000.

      The rest? The role of the candidate is just not that big a deal in general elections. The candidacy as a whole -- candidate, message, electioneering, the whole thing -- isn't all that large, and the candidate isn't especially that important within that. Sure, they can screw it up, either through poor public skills or poor management skills, but both of those can usually be papered over.

      Winning the '00 nomination was a real accomplishment, though.

    2. Winning the '00 nomination was a real accomplishment, though.

      But was it HIS accomplishment? That was Karl Rove was at his peak. Didn't he make the GWB candidacy? Or am I totally off base?

    3. Well, he chose Karl Rove, or at the very least allowed himself to be chosen by Rove. I count it as his accomplishment...but surely a lot of it was that GOP party actors, and again I always think here especially about those swing-state governors, who might not have trusted him if his name was Smith or Jones.

  6. I just want to say this about the man. His image will never be rehabillitated. He started two very expensive wars and did nothing (until it was too late) about the economy collapsing.

    I don't know if this has been said before, but with this painting thing GWB reminds me of GOB from Arrested Development. He got to be president of the family business so someone else could do the string pulling, he's a bewildering combination of puppy dog vulnerability and narcissistic douche bag, he doesn't even want the job, he likes riding Segways instead of walking, he just wants to do MAGIC!

    1. I always had the feeling that he was pretty close to irrelevant to his own presidency. Did he ever defy Cheney on any item other than refusing to pardon Scooter Libbey?

  7. When evaluating the old "Bush is stupid" meme (which, despite its popularity among comedians, few pundits ever expressed openly or even really implied), I have to ask, "What exactly do you mean by 'stupid'?" I do think Bush is shallow, simplistic, and somewhat anti-intellectual. There is some evidence that Bush was smarter than he let out during his presidency. I have long believed that he played up a country-bumpkin image as part of a conscious strategy to make himself seem like a commoner (belying his privileged roots) and to provoke an anti-elitist backlash. Perhaps it all goes back to his unsuccessful 1978 bid for a Congressional seat against an opponent who depicted him as being out-of-touch with rural Texans. (I imagine Bush said, "I will never be out-rednecked again.") I found it amusing and revealing when Vicente Fox described Bush as a "windshield cowboy" after visiting him on his ranch and discovering he was afraid of horses.

    I think Bush's strategy worked, to some degree: part of what led to the (mostly retroactive) perception that he "won" the 2000 debates against Gore was that they were presented as an antidote to the idea that he could barely string a sentence together in extemporaneous situations. By that standard even his mediocre performances exceeded expectations, and it was easy to paint Gore as an arrogant smartypants who failed to vanquish Bush quite as easily as he should have.

    I've met people who believe Bush is literally retarded or at least of below-average intelligence, but much of the time "Bush is stupid" is little more than an empty mantra used by liberals to express their disdain for him. It's sort of the left's equivalent to "Obama is a Muslim," which I also think is a lot less of a literal belief than many people assume.

    1. Well there's some evidence for the "Bush is stupid" meme there's absolutely none to support the Obama is a Muslim tag. Apples and oranges, mon frere.

    2. Whether there's evidence for the "Bush is stupid" meme is to some extent in the eye of the beholder. There's no evidence he had a low IQ. (In fact, his reported SAT scores--566 for verbal and 640 for math--while not remotely Yale material, are unlikely to come from someone with a below-average IQ.) Beyond that, any measure of intelligence is highly subjective. We all have at times succumbed to the temptation to call particular public figures "idiots" when they're quoted saying ridiculous and/or ignorant things. The problem is that smart people have been known to say ridiculous and/or ignorant things.

      So, I was comparing a belief that is objectively false (Obama is a Muslim) with a belief that is either objectively false or a matter of subjective opinion, depending on how you define "intelligence." Either way, the truth or falsity of these statements is almost besides the point. The point I was making was that many of the right-wingers who assert that Obama is a Muslim don't actually believe it in a literal sense, but simply say it as a way of expressing their hatred for him, and I think "Bush is stupid" has performed a similar function on the left.

    3. True, Jylopod. "Bush is stupid" wasn't primaily some literal assessment of his native intelligence (although I do believe the left had a low opinion of this). It was more a shorthand way of saying he's a terrible president, i.e. "stupid at presidenting" in the sense that JB is talking about there. The difference between that and "Obama is a Muslim" is that the latter is just a non sequiter. I mean, even if he were a Muslim, what would that have to do with his abilities as president or the merits of his policies?

      Then again, I say that as a left-liberal elitist who would have no problem with a Muslim president. To the GOP base, "Muslim" is presumably the name for a package of ideas which (as you say) have little to do with actual Islam, and more to do with whether one is culturally "American" in some sense. If that crowd sees "Americanness," defined their way, as a prerequisite to being a good president, then I suppose they, too, are essentially using their chosen insult, "Obama is Muslim," as shorthand for "Obama is a terrible bad president," and in a way that's coherent within their terms of reference.

      Long-winded way of saying: I agree with you.

    4. I agree, but I think the "Obama is a Muslim" meme is also intended to imply deceit and untrustworthiness because of the presumed refusal to admit who he really is

    5. Scott,

      Of course. But it's often hard to separate charges of deceit from what the person is allegedly deceiving others about. I can imagine a right-wing conspiracy theory charging that Obama lied about his age and is actually two years younger than he claims. But I doubt that sort of theory would attract as many followers as birtherism. It just wouldn't resonate as deeply, because the subject of Obama's alleged deception would seem trivial to almost everyone, even hardcore right-wing paranoiacs.

      In contrast, the claim that Obama is a Muslim isn't rooted simply in a fear that Obama is misrepresenting himself. It's based on a fear and hatred of the thing Obama is charged with secretly being: a Muslim. Somehow I suspect that the same people would be at least a tad less agitated if they believed he was a secret Presbyterian.

      Anyway, looking over all these responses I think people are slightly missing the point of the comparison I made. I wasn't intending to imply that "Bush is stupid" and "Obama is a Muslim" are equivalent claims, either factually or morally. For one thing, I think the second claim reeks with bigotry, whereas the first does not. My point was simply that these two claims both reflect what the left and right respectively value, and that they aren't necessarily meant to be taken literally. The left typically places great value on intellect, whereas the right more often values being a "real American" as opposed to being foreign or subversive. As a member of the left, I think the former is generally a more positive value (though it can bleed over into snobbery). But regardless of the respective merits of these values, they are expressed in similar ways.

      As I said, I recognize there are many liberals who believe, in a strictly literal sense, that Bush is of below-average intelligence, and likewise there are many conservatives who believe Obama is literally a practicing member of the Islamic faith. But from talking to liberals and conservatives on these topics over the years, I've gotten the distinct impression that these claims are often a lot less literal than is commonly assumed. To many on the right, "Muslim" is just a stand-in for implying Obama is subversive and un-American, and to many on the left, calling Bush "stupid" is just a way of saying the man is foolish, unthinking, and reactionary.

      Even here, I don't think these are remotely equivalent claims. I think the idea that Obama is subversive and un-American is ridiculous, whereas I think the idea that Bush is intellectually lazy holds considerable merit. Nevertheless, I think many partisans on both sides of the political divide are prone to a kind of empty talking point where they use one category (stupid, Muslim) to imply something else.

  8. I don't think the Iraq war was a "party position" until after Bush pushed it for several months. Certainly deciding to go in with less troops then the Pentagon wanted, dismissing the Iraq army and pretending everything was going fine until after the election of 2006 was not an inevitable choice of action for a GOP President.

    Bush's critics need to make a distinction between stupid ideas and stupid people. Anyone who watched Rumsfeld could see a very clever man hold stupid ideas.

    1. I used to watch Rumsfeld's press conferences in absolute amazement at his incoherence and confusion and apparent inability to mask his confusion. It was an almost daily black comedy sketch.

      I was in Romania at the time, and I'd read the US papers and somehow no-one seemed to have noticed it, and nor did the Romanian media despite broadcasting/quoting all the press conferences.

      Then he came out with that thing about 'known unknowns', and I thought, "To be fair, that actually makes sense"... and it promptly got ridiculed around the world as complete gibberish.

      Those were weird times.

  9. "Good presidenting, perhaps more than anything else, is the art of extracting information from political action and actors"

    I really like this idea. I really, really, really like it. It explains so much, and makes a lot of disparate stuff fall into place. It's not that a president has a good idea, it's that he knows how an idea will come off and be able to do the internal calculation of trying to put it together in such a way that it will occur to its best effect.

  10. Its been a while since I've had a chance to so link, but as a devotee of the 10,000 hour excellence school, the apparent contradictions in Dubya don't bother me at all. We 10,000 hour advocates know that no one is inherently smart or dumb, some people just put in more effort than others.

    It would seem that Dubya is a fellow from a family of 10,000-hour experts (Prescott and GHWBush were, I think, personally excellent, whatever you think of their politics). The third generation didn't really pick up where Grandpa Prescott or Dad George HW left off; from Neil to Jeb to Dubya they pretty much all ambled where prior family generations hustled.

    Though Dubya's generation was mostly slackers, they would have been at least exposed (cause the family is close) to what it takes to be an expert, from the model of their father and Grandpa. So they all would have realized that, if you cared about something, you had to put in the effort to be good at it, which they must have learned from dad and Grandpa.

    So when Jonathan says "I've heard George W. Bush talk about baseball and I think he's smart", perhaps another way to frame that is "I've heard George W. Bush talk about baseball and he obviously cares about it, and he knows that if you care about something you have to work pretty hard to become expert at it, and thus he did."

    And if it follows that politics was something he was bad at, well, maybe he just never really gave a shit. Maybe that's just how it goes, sometimes.

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  12. Back in the Nixon era, I remember some appologist saying that he was an intellect, not an intellectual.

    Bush isn't stupid, but he is not even an intellect. He is a spoiled, lazy, incurious, contemptuous elite frat boy who had everything handed to him; and then, whenever he screwed up - which he did in the guard, in baseball, as an oil executive - Poppy or his buddies were there to bail him out.

    This made him the just about perfect puppet in the hands of Cheney and the neocons.

  13. Another thought: maybe y'all are missing the forest for the trees in directing your ire at George W. Bush personally. Perhaps he represents a "type" that will remain common going forward, and thus continuously dangerous to democracy.

    The good thing about George W. Bush is that we all love a good brand, especially in a hyper-partisan media saturated world. Bush's brand was especially powerful in the late 90s, as a reminder of a better time, before Monica's blue dress and "what the definition of is is" and all the rest.

    That's what's good about Bush 43. And then what's bad: y'all know Finley Peter Dunne's famous axiom "Politics ain't beanbag", right? You know what is beanbag? Being the scionic, third generation offspring of a powerful, political family.

    From which we might shake our head, and channeling Dunne, wonder why the hell we ever thought that Bush 43, or any other late-generation scion of a powerful family - even a political family - would be good at politics. They aren't dispositionally cut out for it!

    And yet we can't resist them, especially Republicans can't resist them. Like moths to the flame.

    1. That's a very good point about the "brand" and the likelihood of the Bush type continuing to be popular going forward. Raises a question for me about whether there might be such a thing as an "Obama brand," or why in general Democratic leaders have not been successfully branded in ways that their successors wanted to mimic. The last example of a popular Democratic presidential "brand" was, I think, JFK's.

    2. For me, it raises questions about Kim Jong Un, the third-generation heir of a highl successful political family.

    3. Thanks for the compliment, Jeff; like Scott I was reflecting on the "bad" part of the scion politician. I was thinking about the following: there's a ways to go yet, but it seems overwhelmingly likely that virtually all nonpartisan sources will regard the 44th President more favorably than the 43rd.

      One of those two Presidents had an upbringing that was soft as a baby's bottom, the other spent his formative years a black kid with a white mother in the homeland of his SE Asian stepfather.

      In adulthood, the one continued to gravitate toward circumstances greatly favoring him, while the other broke down barriers and held his peace at the unhappiness from all the china he was breaking.

      So to the extent that politics ain't beanbag, and successful politicians are good at overcoming conflict, does it surprise anyone that the one President will end up (at worst) "not bad", while the other will universally be regarded - by non-partisans - as a complete failure?

  14. My general comment on the original post here is that I agree with the analysis about skill at "presidenting," and that mere moral impulses are not sufficient to it and may often be harmful. I believe that was also the gist of Machiavelli's argument, yes? But as it happens, just last week I screened an episode of "Yes, Minister" in one of my classes. It's called "The Whisky Priest" and is available on youtube. It was basically an extended argument over what the point of government is, and whether it doesn't somehow include doing the right or moral thing. To the smarmy civil servants and their allies in the party leadership who spent the whole series running circles around Jim Hacker, our hapless Minister hero, the very idea is ludicrous and indeed troubling. As this episode makes especially explicit, their vision of governing is all about stability, keeping things going, "being here tomorrow," as Sir Humphrey explains. For them, moral intuitions can ONLY be a problem; they have no place at all in the larger scheme. And these chaps, we are given to believe, are very, very good at "presidenting" or its British equivalent. They know the system, and the levers of power, and the interests in play, like they know their own names.

    So I guess I'm saying that a full account of what makes presidents good or smart can't just sound like "Yes, Minister." It would have to include, at some point, an explanation of why it's better for a president to be a moral and (good-)principled person rather than not.

    1. I disagree.

      I'd say that Sir Humphrey is great at what he does -- but he doesn't have the same job as the minister, and if he always won, and "being here tomorrow" always won, that would, in fact, be bad for Britain. British government needs, the show says, Hacker and the politicians to win sometimes too, because what they bring to the system is also important -- and Sir Humphrey is, in his own way, as naive to not realize that as Hacker can be to not realize the value of what Humphrey stands for.

      But I don't think that what Hacker and other politicians at their best bring to government is morality and principle; I think what they bring is representation.

  15. I don't think it matters very much whether Bush was smart or stupid. What matters much more is the reality that the people who VOTED for Bush (Twice!) were very stupid indeed.

    1. Not those of us in the top income tax bracket! We twice voted for Bush, and he rewarded us with sizable tax cuts (voters making over $200,000 per year voted for Bush over Kerry by 63-36%, according to the CNN exit poll). While Obama has now raised our taxes, we paid far less from 2001 through 2012 than we would have if Gore had won in 2000 or Kerry in 2004, and as a result our net worths are substantially higher due to Bush's two election victories. How was that stupid of us?

  16. Bush's ideas weren't formed by party they were formed by class. In terms of the interests of the elite he belongs to his policies were very beneficial. He is not a stupid man, but, he is a limited one -- someone who has had no reason or need to think beyond his own experience or elite class expectations. And, someone who naturally sees those expectations and values as beneficial to everyone else. Both the most harmful things he did as president and the most beneficial and useful things he has done as an individual arise from the same set of class values and interest. And, of course, he was/is extremely shrewd politically -- why wouldn't he be? Politics, even more than finance, is now the family business.

    Bush is an aristocrat (not a small "d" democrat or a "regular guy"). The funny thing is that anyone, the media most especially, saw him as anything else.

    In 2006 I wrote an essay about Bush as "Speechmaker in Chief" that makes some points that, I think, get at why democrats and conservatives always hear him so differently -- points that go beyond the usual complaints about his difficulties with the language or the usual compliments for his "regular guy" style:

    "Commentators often note how comfortable Bush is with the language of (Evangelical) "faith." But less noted, and in light of his administration's failures and his falling popularity more important, is Bush's extreme discomfort with both moral argument and the traditional language of small "d" democracy.

    Time and again, Bush has explicitly rejected moral argument as little more than an attempt to make him justify, second guess or explain himself. Even more interesting, to me at least -- and unique among Presidents in my lifetime -- it never seems to occur to him to appeal to us, in the democratic tradition, as fellow citizens who he hopes to inspire to unite with him (in a great cause or enterprise). The reason for this, I believe, is because frankly he doesn't see us that way.

    However "regular guy" he strives to be, at heart Bush is both an aristocrat and autocrat.

    His speeches, whatever the subject, tend to be not about us (we, the people), but, primarily about himself -- his resolve, his faith, his beliefs, his responsibilities, his suffering ("It's hard work").

    This, for instance, is how he opened the first speech (in a series) he gave to win back our support on the war in Iraq, "My greatest responsibility as president is to protect the American people."

    It's a sentence (often repeated) that immediately asserts his rank, his centrality and importance as our leader, and his wish to reassure and comfort those of us who follow. But it is not one that can, or is meant to, inspire or activate. Instead, it reflects an attitude that sees "the people" as dependent, childlike, waiting to be reassured and led by the leader's higher resolve and wisdom. Not as, in the democratic tradition, a powerful, active, moral force.

    There are many Americans -- and perhaps more today than in the past -- for whom the language of simple faith, unyielding authority and comforting assurance are enough (and the complexity of moral judgement and ethical choice, perhaps, too much). If that weren't true Bush wouldn't have won the last election.

    But, as new information and events continue to undermine Bush's credibility, and therefore his authority, and more Americans feel less protected -- from the realities on the ground in Iraq, from the suffering of military families, from the incompetence on display after Katrina, from the shock of oil prices and health care costs, from doubts about the economy, etc. -- it may no longer be enough.

    With his authority tarnished, and their faith (in him) waning, it is probably now too late for Bush to make the moral arguments, and the democratic appeals to shared sacrifice, he failed to make earlier."


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