This months First Things freebie is a debate between Joseph Bottum and Michael Novak on the Bush presidency. Here are a couple of snippets, first from Bottum:
Again and again, he has done the right thing in the wrong way, until, at last, his wrongness has overwhelmed his rightness. How can conservatives continue to support this man in much of anything he tries to do? Iraq is not America’s failure, and it is not conservatism’s failure. We are where we are because of George W. Bush’s failure.
All the 2008 Republican presidential candidates should understand the task they face over the next two years. George Bush’s ideals have gotten him elected president twice, and his incompetence has finally delivered the Congress to his domestic opponents and empowered his nation’s enemies abroad. Iraq needs an American president who embraces Bush’s principles-and rejects his policies. The United States needs much the same thing.
And now Novak:
Joseph Bottum’s criticisms are to be taken seriously, even if they set criteria for angels, not flawed humans, and seem to overlook some stirring initiatives by this much-attacked president-such as his work on AIDS, for the poor in Africa, and against human trafficking. However deficient you think his judgment may have been about what was possible, no president has ever been more openly pro-life.
At the very least, in the face of passionate hostility at home and abroad, George Bush has proved himself a brave and determined man who has staked his presidency on getting democratic momentum underway in the Middle East. Even if in the short run he fails-which many of us are not yet ready to concede-some Muslims in the future will be able to remember that in a difficult time an American president, at heavy cost, cared about their sufferings, their natural rights, and the better angels beckoning in their dreams. He held before them a democratic standard by which they will forever measure other political movements and other leaders.
These are not inconsiderable accomplishments.
Bottums is one of the more forceful and less hysterical conservative criticisms of GWB that I have seen, but I share Novaks view that in some cases JB has held the President to an impossibly high standard. Take, for example, social security. Bottum puts it this way:
President Bush was absolutely right that social security is a looming disaster, and as a result of his efforts, social-security reform is now dead for a generation.
As I recall, the Congressional Republicans didnt exactly leap to the support of a President who had just won reelection by means of an unprecedented expansion of the Republican electorate (the first popular majority since 1988). I suppose that one could blame Bush for not anticipating that, well, betrayal, especially since one clearly couldnt have gone wrong overestimating the short-sightedness and fecklessness of Congressional Republicans.
Of course, Iraq overshadows everything, and it doesnt look good, though, as Novak points out, things could well change (as we must hope they do). Bottum emphasizes the importance of perceptions and the Presidents responsibility for shaping them:
And the fact we must face is this: We have already been defeated in Iraq. Perhaps not in literal truth; a better policy, better implemented, might yet bring about a stable, democratic country. And certainly not in historical terms; Iraq is only an early chapter in what must be a long struggle against global Jihadism. But, at the very least, the battle for perception of the Iraq War has gone entirely against the United States. In the eyes of both the American public and the Islamic world, we have lost-and lost badly.
The reason is President Bush. His administration has mishandled the logistics of the war and the politics of its perception in nearly equal measure, from Abu Ghraib to the execution of Saddam Hussein. Conservatives voted for George W. Bush in 2000 because they expected him to be the opposite of Bill Clinton-and so, unfortunately, he has proved. Where Clinton seemed a man of enormous political competence and no principle, Bush has been a man of principle and very little political competence.
Bottum chooses to compare Bush to Clinton, but we might also consider a Reagan comparison: would RWR have fared any better had he had to commit the American military to a long-term conflict in Iraq? Or would he have eschewed the risk and tried "containment"? Would Reagan have been able to navigate these treacherous waters, both on the ground in the Middle East and in the court of domestic and world public opinion, any better than Bush?