Let’s face it. President Bush isn’t winning any popularity contests at the moment. With the rabid Left, he has gone from being detested in late 2000 to being evil today to the point of making Hitler look like a saint. Folks of the ‘reasonable’ Left want him unreasonably impeached. But none of these people were ever in his camp anyway.
Many in the flexible middle that used to stand with Bush have drifted away. But even many (most?) conservatives are sorely disappointed with him. Joseph Bottum, editor of First Things, persuasively argues here that while President Bush has his heart in the right place, his execution of conservative principles has been nearly unfailingly incompetent. Bottum asks, “Apart from the still not certain pro-life views of the two new Supreme Court justices, where is there a major success to which one can point?”
Philosopher Michael Novak is quick to answer here and here. He is eager to point out “numerous accomplishments,” but argues especially that Bush “has changed the way in which government gets things done.” Novak questions why Bush’s opponents on the Left “oppose him so fiercely.”
In answer, he says, “As often as possible, in as many ways as possible, he is using as the dynamo of personal choice and the methods of the market, not direct state-management, in order to make government programs more effective and more efficient.” This threatens many cherished liberal positions.
I think the point could be argued another way: that Bush has successfully co-opted some liberal programs and talking points so that the Left’s constituents may sense a diminished need for them.
Novak lists a number of things Bush has successfully and quietly accomplished, including successive tax cuts and a reinvigorated economy following 9/11. He makes particular note of “new pension, medical, and school mechanisms [that] deeply affect families, not simply individuals.” He presumably means that these positively affect families. He says, “Bush has begun a major turn from the state toward the “little platoons” once celebrated by Burke, the “mediating institutions” that Peter Berger and Richard Neuhaus emphasized twenty years ago. This is a profoundly conservative impulse.”
Bottum seems nonplussed by all of this. He argues that Bush has irretrievably messed up the war. Even if new policies succeed in achieving a win in Iraq, the perception that we have lost will supersede that victory and will haunt us for decades. He gloomily forecasts the nasty impact this will have on conservatism for a generation to come. Novak sharply disagrees with Bottum on this score and spends several paragraphs laying out a very hopeful (Pollyanna-like) projection, while admitting that the President held onto a failing Iraq policy for too long.
But Bottum isn’t done yet. Although conservatives were gaining in the abortion debate, he says, Bush came along and mucked it all up by allowing embryonic stem cell research, about which “the nation has yet to be convinced,” to reach a crisis stage, allowing “its opponents to shift the focus off abortion.” Bottum laments, “In all that he has tried to do--reform education, fix Social Security, restore religion to the public square, assert American greatness, appoint good judges--Mr. Bush has proved himself a conservative. Of course, along the way, he has also proved himself hapless.”
Bottum concludes passionately by asserting, “Iraq needs an American president who embraces Bush's principles--and rejects his policies. The United States needs much the same thing.”
Looking at the disparity between Bottum’s and Novak’s views, it would seem that they’re talking about two different people rather than the same President Bush. It is like the proverbial group of blind men that were introduced to an elephant, some finding it to be like a snake, some like a wall, some like a tree, and some like a fire hose.
It would seem that Bush has done the good things listed by Novak so quietly that many conservatives are oblivious to them. And there is the question of weight of importance. Bottum seems to focus on a handful of major items while Novak seems to focus on a number of items that come across as somewhat less significant. Perhaps we simply aren’t continually harangued by the MSM about those issues.
I would agree with Bottum that Bush’s major problem at present is the air of incompetence that seems to pervade his administration. People often don’t mind being associated with an underdog, but they generally don’t want to line up with the Keystone Kops. And regardless of what really goes on inside the administration, Bottum is correct that perception is often more important than reality.
The question, however, is whether anyone could reasonably do a much better job. I have often referred to an excellent October 2005 essay by LaVarr Webb (scroll down to Wednesday Buzz) that addresses this point. Webb points out that we haven’t had a truly successful president for decades. The problem isn’t that we have elected ineffective leaders, but that “the job of governing the United States, as currently defined, is impossible for any individual. It has become too big a job.”
Why is the job undoable? Webb’s answer is priceless. “We’ve come to demand and expect so much out of the federal government that the reality is it will never meet our needs and wants. We want government to take care of us from cradle to grave, handle every disaster and emergency, feed us, house us, educate us, provide us health care, make sure our caps cover our ears, button our jackets, tie up our little booties and wipe our noses. And do all of these things without ballooning the federal debt or taxing us too much.”
Webb argues that the solution “is to devolve much of what the federal government does back to the states where it should be anyway. Let the federal government do what it was designed to do in the Constitution. Let states and local governments handle all the rest. The job of president in a properly balanced federal system would once again become doable.”
Check out Webb’s computer networking analogy. It offers some great lessons. And Webb isn’t wearing rose colored glasses either. He writes, “Doing this would be very difficult and, given current circumstances, almost impossible to implement.” But he argues that we won’t have effective presidential leadership until we do implement it.
Indeed, Novak writes in the same vein as Webb. It’s not the president that is incompetent, he argues, but the fact that “even in the best of times, government is mightily incompetent--and the bigger government gets, the more incompetent it becomes.” He indicates that this is not a recent problem. “Lincoln himself was frequently charged with incompetence, bumbling and simplemindedness.”
So, few people today are happy with President Bush. They have valid reasons for being unhappy. But the real issue is that they have unrealistic expectations. Webb is right that each government function needs to be sent to its most appropriate governmental level. I would argue that a number of functions should be eliminated altogether. If you need to ask where to cut, check out Chris Edwards’ proposals. Although many disagree, I believe that this presents a strong argument for holding the line against government growth.
Today a number of conservatives are nearly as enthusiastic about the impending completion of the Bush presidency as are their liberal cohorts. We might end up with a Democratic president next time around. Or we might end up with a Republican in the office. Regardless, if Webb is right, she/he will ultimately end up disappointing most of us — not because he/she would be a bad president, but because the current job description is not humanly possible to accomplish.