Saturday, January 30, 2016

This Election Is About George Bush

The Republican primaries have been chaotic, unpredictable, and in some ways unprecedented. They seem to get crazier every week. (If you predicted six months ago that Donald Trump would still be ahead just before the Iowa caucuses, you're part of a small minority. If you predicted six months ago that front-runner Trump would be boycotting a Fox News debate on the eve of the Iowa caucuses, well, you don't exist. No one saw that one coming.) But this election is not about Trump, or Cruz, or Jeb Bush. It's not about Obama or either Clinton, no matter how often the Republican candidates talk about them. The 2016 Republican primaries are about George W. Bush. The Republicans, and most of the media, won't bring up Bush's name any more than they can help doing, but that's part of the problem. Both the Republican Party and mainstream American journalism are doing their best not to reckon with, or even to recognize, the problems Bush the Younger has created.

The George W. Bush Administration was a catastrophic failure on the level of policy. Bush had enormous political success, thanks in part to the rally-around-the-Chief boost he got after September 11. He got almost everything he wanted done. But most of the things he wanted turned out to be wrong. He got his war in Iraq before the Afghanistan war was even finished, and left the US mired in both countries. He turned a budget surplus into a deficit. He pushed for financial deregulation and top-bracket tax cuts only to see Big Finance wreck the economy. He de-emphasized FEMA and botched the emergency response when an iconic American city drowned. This goes beyond partisanship. It's not that I don't like what Bush did. It's that he screwed up in disastrous ways. He was like some kind of Superfund Midas: everything he touched turned into toxic waste.

Policy failures this big only come along every generation or two in American politics. I think the closest comparison to Bush is Herbert Hoover, who was badly wrong on both the Depression and the threat of fascism in Europe. (Some might argue that Jimmy Carter's policies were failures, but even if that's granted the sheer scale of Bush II's mistakes dwarf any of Carter's setbacks. Would you rather have economic problems of 1980, or 2008?) And what usually happens after such a major policy failure is that a bipartisan consensus forms. The party that pushed for the mistaken policies gives up and switches to the other position. (Compare Richard Nixon's policy stances to Hoover's: the whole Republican party had moved on.) The Republican party gave up isolationism in the 1940s, and it adopted a more grudging and less generous approach to the New Deal it could not fully undo.

What is startling today is the degree to which the current Republican Party has refused to change after the debacle of the Bush years. They have not surrendered their positions. They have not conceded that their opponents were right. They have not even admitted that Bush was a failure, although he is unpopular even among their base. The behavior of the national Republicans since the 2008 election, and especially during the 2016 primaries, has been driven by the need to navigate around George W., the elephant in the room.

The immediate Republican response in 2008 and 2009 was to move into full opposition mode. Their own policies were in tatters, had been tried and failed. But rather than switch they fought, trying to do everything they could to derail Obama's policies. Much of the need to demonize Obama, beyond the element of racial animus, is the need to displace the disastrousness of the Bush II regime onto a scapegoat. Blaming Obama for Bush's failures is a core party belief at this point, because it's the only way to deny how badly Bush failed. This is why Fiorina can blame Obama for firing a general Bush fired, and Neil Cavuto can ask the GOP candidates, in all apparent seriousness, about "Obama's" 2008 financial crisis. And this has worked for them, psychologically and politically, in the short term. It gave them their majority in the House. But it is not clearly sustainable in the long run, and these primaries are exposing some of the strain.

The strange and lackluster quality of the 2016 primary candidates reflect a range of strategies for denying Bush's policy failures. The sheer fact that Jeb Bush is in the race, and that the party establishment originally treated him as the favorite, is clear proof of that denial. The Jeb (!) Bush position, which can never be articulated openly because that would require admitting previous failures, is that W.'s failure was simply a matter of execution. The implied promise is that a smarter, more competent version of Bush would make those Bush-II-era policies work. That's the implicit pitch for the other mainstream or mainstream-ish candidates, such as Kasich, Christie, and (by relative position) Rubio. The appeal is that one of these guys can execute Bush's failed policies successfully. That's a pretty dicey appeal when you say it out loud, and goes a long way to explaining why the mainstream-y candidates aren't getting much traction this year.

The second approach is the Not-Conservative-Enough position, the dogged belief that W. failed because he was too liberal, and that only a more extreme ideological rigor can make things work. This is the conservatism-hasn't-failed-it's-never-been-tried line of attack, embodied in different ways by Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Ben Carson. (Religious-right types Huckabee and Santorum may count, too.) As many people have noticed, this is analogous to the Goldwater approach in 1964, when Goldwater was part of the few Republicans who rejected the post-FDR policy consensus.

It's also worth noticing the preponderance of candidates who only emerged after Bush II left office. Cruz, Paul, and Rubio were only elected to national office in the Obama Administration, which absolves them all from any responsibility for the mistakes of the Bush years.

Finally, there is the Trump approach, which gets around a legacy of failed-but-never-renounced policies by having no policies at all. Trump moves the entire question to the levels of personality and fantasy. (His only concrete policy proposal, the impregnable southern border wall patrolled by various orcs, trolls, and Nazgul, is strictly on the level of fantasy.) Trump's active refusal to detail any policies is a feature and not a bug for his voters. He allows them to get around the question of what to do by taking actual plans out of the discussion entirely. He offers instead the fantasy of a strong, magically potent leader who makes things happen through the force of will. You don't need policies! You just need the Leader! It's gonna be huge!

Sooner or later, the Republican Party will have to come to Earth and adopt policies that actually work in the real world. It may take a number of electoral drubbings to make that happen. It may take electoral success followed by a disastrous return to failed policies, a second try that finally discredits those policies for good but at the cost of doing serious damage to the country. Or the party itself might go through some painful upheaval or realignment. But the longer it takes, the worse the consequences will be. The longer you deny painful reality, the harder you pretend that things are working when they're not, the worse it gets. It is remarkable that the GOP has hung on this long, this hard. And it's already unhealthy for the country. It's only going to get worse.

And here's where the media takes its share of the blame. The media has in many ways abetted the GOP's campaign against reality, through its reflexive "even-handedness" and its related refusal to cover policy, as opposed to politics. The media is so afraid of being called biased that it has largely shied away from admitting what is manifestly clear. Bush drove this country off this road into a ditch, but the media feels that saying so would be partisan, so it waffles about whether or not an upside-down car in a culvert has been safely parked.

Consider, for example, the "Obama's Katrina" meme, which has asked, repeatedly and erroneously, if a particular problem is "Obama's Katrina." That takes for granted, as some axiomatic rule, that if a president of one party makes a disastrous error that his successor in the other party will of course make a completely comparable error. That is obviously nonsense. "Is this FDR's stock market crash?" would be a stupid question, as would "Is this Carter's Watergate?" The "Obama's Katrina" meme isn't fair to Obama, but it's even less fair to George W. Bush, because it denies what is truly exceptional about him.

And after all, admitting the failures of Bush's policies would mean admitting the media's own failures, and the way it abetted him politically through its ersatz neutrality. Admitting how bad the Bush Administration failed would mean admitting how major newspapers failed to cover the run-up to the Iraq War, and how those newspapers got used to funnel false information to the public. It would mean admitting how the press cheer-led for Bush, and how it failed to vet his qualifications in the 2000 elections. Reckoning with the failures of the last decade will require major institutional change, change that will be terribly painful, both in the Republican Party and in the major media. Neither institution is willing to face that necessary pain yet. So both will continue to suffer, and so will we.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

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