George W. Bush
posted by Gerard Magliocca
How should we think about George W. Bush’s Administration? This is a subject that I (perhaps foolishly) tackle in “George W. Bush in Political Time: The Janus Presidency” (http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1155870), which comes out next month. In part, this is a review of superb books by Steven Skowronek and Keith Whittington, who categorize various presidents according to their relationship with the prevailing party system. After examining their framework, I try to apply that analysis to President Bush.
Consider two types of Presidents. The first inherits an existing coalition from a glorious predecessor. Examples include Harry Truman, George H.W. Bush, or Martin Van Buren. These are the “Stay The Course” leaders. Their interest is in stability, as radical change could threaten the winning formula for their party. A second type of president creates that dominant coalition. Examples here would be Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and (probably) Barack Obama. These are the “We Can’t Go Back” presidents. They are in the business of repudiating past practice and introducing sweeping changes that create a new set of stable first principles.
What distinguishes these two types of leaders? Basically, just luck. Their success depends on the political conditions that they inherit, not on their individual skill. After all, the worst presidents (Herbert Hoover, James Buchanan, Jimmy Carter) were successful before (and in some cases) after their time in office. Nevertheless, they get taken to the woodshed for their leadership skills in office. And it just so happens that their immediate successors had terrific leadership abilities. Is that really true? Or is that people like Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan were free (because they came from another party) to throw established dogma overboard and experiment in a way that their luckless predecessors could not?
The main reason, I submit, that George W. Bush’s Presidency failed (in the sense that he was really unpopular at the end) is that circumstances forced him into the unusual posture of playing the “Stay The Course” and “We Can’t Go Back” roles at the same time. In one sense, he was managing a political coalition put together by Reagan and adapting that to the 2000s. On the other hand, he was calling for transformative changes in foreign policy and domestic security as a result of 9/11. That was the product of nothing more than random chance or a “black swan,” if you like Nassim Taleb’s book.
This split personality created two problems for Bush. First, it produced a confused political message that roiled the electorate. Since Republicans were the majority party entering the 2000s (though by a small margin), any upset was bound to be harmful. When elected officials challenged precedent in the foreign/domestic security realm, that undermined settled ideas in other areas (like the thought that robust federalism should be maintained after 9/11) that were important to parts of the conservative coalition. Second, the transformative impulse spilled over into the domestic realm, as the President thought (mistakenly) that he had the same heroic ability to overhaul Social Security or immigration policy as he had in Iraq or on terrorism policy. This was an error that damaged the GOP brand, but the point is that it was the product of a structural flaw, not the President’s poor decision making.
My last point may seem incredible — wasn’t Bush just a clumsy President? Think about this though. Suppose he had not done the things that he gets criticized for (did not invade Iraq, did not do coercive interrogation, did not pass the Patriot Act, etc.) How would Republicans have reacted to this? The assumption seems to be that they would have just accepted this without a peep. I think this is wrong. In reality, the faction in the party supporting stronger action would have challenged the President, as others did on immigration or on the nomination of Harriet Miers. This is, after all, what happened to Bush’s father when he did the “responsible” thing and raised taxes in 1990. Politicians face constraints from their supporters that sometimes cannot be avoided. We need to get beyond Bush’s personality if we are to get an accurate view of the times that we just lived through.