T Nation

On Bush and Leadership

Nice editorial in the Wall Street Journal today reminding people both of the challenges Bush has faced and the leadership he has provided – as well as illustrating the opportunistic nature of the critics (especially important when evaluating claims such as “I have a plan”, “I would have done it differently” or “I would have done the same thing”, with absolutely no supporting details):

The Bush Record
November 1, 2004; Page A14

Of our handful of meetings with George W. Bush, the one that lingers as a harbinger of his Presidency is lunch in Austin, Texas, in late 1999. One of us asked the then-Governor what lesson he had learned from his father’s White House experience. Without missing a beat, Mr. Bush replied that he’d learned that if you have political capital, you should spend it.

In his four turbulent years, he certainly has. Among the many ironies of this year’s election campaign is that the challenger, John Kerry, has been running as the candidate of caution and old ideas. The incumbent says he has much more to do. If Mr. Bush loses his bid for re-election tomorrow, it won’t be because he has tried to achieve too little. The reason may be that many Americans, nostalgic for the illusory calm of the 1990s, want to take a breather from Mr. Bush’s habit of accelerating history.

In a sense, Mr. Bush was granted Bill Clinton’s wish to live in “interesting times,” as the Chinese curse has it. Instead of inheriting an economic recovery as Mr. Clinton did, Mr. Bush began his term facing the end of the 1990s’ investment bubble and a looming recession. And instead of inheriting a placid post-Cold War world, he was presented with September 11. In both cases, the two largest issues of his Presidency, Mr. Bush’s choice was not to play it safe but to spend his political capital to set a new policy direction.

On the economy, he compromised on his first tax cut to win 12 Democratic Senate votes, but it proved too Keynesian and too long-delayed to pack much punch. So Mr. Bush used his Senate victory in 2002 to double down on his tax cut bet. This time, however, he aimed the fiscal incentives more precisely on the problem of post-bubble investment weakness. Since that second tax cut passed in mid-2003, the economy has grown by more than 4%, and on Friday the third quarter was scored at 3.7%. That is a better recent record than nearly all of the world, China notably excepted.

Yes, the deficit has returned, and Mr. Bush could have done more to control spending. But when his opponents on the left attack him for “deficits,” what they really mean is that Mr. Bush should have imitated his father and raised taxes. Then Democrats would have blamed him for the slower recovery. Without the boldness of his 2003 tax cut, in short, the economy would be weaker than it is today and Mr. Bush would be heading to almost certain defeat.

Mr. Bush’s other great political bet has been in reordering American foreign policy. Any President would have had to pursue al Qaeda, though the success of Afghanistan allows Mr. Kerry and others to say they would have done it the same way. We doubt it. At the time, there were cries of “quagmire” and don’t topple the Taliban or work with the unsavory Northern Alliance. Mr. Bush took the risk of doing both, and the recent Afghan elections mark a major strategic anti-terror victory.

The President further upset the security establishment with his strategy of “pre-emption,” and pursuing the states that sponsor terror. This led him inevitably to Saddam Hussein, and the initial success followed by difficulty in Iraq. Mr. Bush now finds himself running for re-election when the costs in Iraq are more obvious to voters than the potential long-term benefits, which remain enormous if that country can follow the Afghan path. But no one can deny Mr. Bush’s boldness in toppling a ruler that everyone (including Messrs. Clinton and Kerry) said was a threat but had refused to act against.

His critics would have us believe that Mr. Bush’s Iraq invasion has made the Middle East more unstable, but what pre-war “stability” are they imagining? The Oil for Food scandal has shown why the containment of Saddam was unsustainable, and 9/11 proved that we can’t sit out the civil war that al Qaeda has begun in the Muslim world. Mr. Bush’s “forward strategy of freedom” in Iraq and the Mideast recognizes that reality. If Dick Holbrooke or Brent Scowcroft have an alternative beyond returning to the “realist” illusions that led us to 9/11, we haven’t heard it.

With ambitions this large, Mr. Bush has suffered from his failures as a communicator. Especially amid the troubles in Iraq, Americans have yearned for a President who could better explain the dilemmas of acting or not in Fallujah, the mistakes of Abu Ghraib, and the nature of the insurgency. Mr. Bush did himself no favors with his reluctance to hold more press conferences, a lack of practice in making his case that showed during the first Presidential debate.

We also recognize that Mr. Bush has shown he is capable of some crass political retreats, notwithstanding his campaign theme as a leader who never bends a principle. Steel tariffs, McCain-Feingold, the farm bill, Medicare prescription drugs, and most recently his surrender on intelligence reform – these have not been profiles in political courage.

Yet in the larger arc of the Bush Presidency, all of these are also of secondary importance. A leader’s first priorities are peace and prosperity, which in our time mean keeping the U.S. economy competitive amid the emerging challenge from India and China, and of course the battle against terrorism.

A frequent lament among journalists, and often voters, is that politicians always take the easy way out; they never risk their personal popularity or re-election chances for the sake of longer run gains in the national interest. In Iraq and the Middle East, Mr. Bush has done precisely that. We will find out on Tuesday how much Presidential leadership the voters really want in a dangerous world.