The Rockaway Irregular
Writing in the Financial Times, columnist Max Boot recently described the Bush team as “dysfunctional, not duplicitous,” arguing against the left’s oft-advanced notion that Bush et al are liars. Noting that the embarrassing undercount of terrorist incidents by the State Department, which Secretary of State Colin Powell recently had to publicly disavow, was too obvious to have been part of a planned effort to deceive, Boot nevertheless went on to add that continuing mistakes of this nature by the administration do seem to suggest a disturbing pattern. Combined with intelligence gaffes concerning wmds in Saddam’s Iraq and recent administration flip-flopping over support for former Iraqi dissident and Defense Department favorite Ahmed Chalabi, along with various other false starts and reversals, Boot argues that Bush appears to have failed to bang the necessary heads together to force agreement between strong-willed cabinet members. A pattern of errors like this, Boot emphasizes, can only be laid at the feet of the man in charge.
In the end, I think Boot is more right than wrong here. Bush, from the first, was under-credentialled for the job he took and it showed in his uncertain persona during the 2000 campaign and in the early years of his administration. With only a five-year stint as Texas governor under his belt, Bush won his office by presenting himself to voters as an outsider. And he was. Unlike Kerry, his erstwhile Democratic challenger who has a resume of government service decades long, and oratorical skills that bespeak years of practiced speechifying, Bush does not exude “presence” or the easy confidence of a long time politician accustomed to the perks and deference of public office. But if Bush came to office as a political tyro, no one can deny that he’s now had three-plus years of very intense on-the job-training. So the question is what’s that worth to the country?
If Kerry’s policies, insofar as we can figure them out, are preferable to those of the incumbent, then Americans should certainly choose Kerry in the upcoming elections. But if Bush’s policies have been right, on balance, then the fact that he’s been getting his seasoning on the run, so to speak, is not a strong argument against him. Of course, much depends on whether Bush firmly takes his administration in hand now, as Boot suggests needs to be done.
Mistakes and errors, of course, are unavoidable in any administration. It’s how an administration handles things afterwards, how well they navigate between the rocks and shoals of harsh (and often highly partisan) criticism, that determines a good captain and crew. But success writes its own history since mistakes and blunders are soon forgotten in the warm afterglow of achievement. Right now much is up in the air so the political enemies of this administration are having a field day surfacing every mistake they can find and worrying it to death as a dog will do with an old and treasured bone. But events have not yet run their course, particularly with regard to this administration’s big policies.
What does the Bush report card show now? Well, we know he’s had a problem with some crewmen who’ve gone overboard. Former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neil and former administration security coordinator Richard Clarke come readily to mind. George Tenet, the departing CIA director also doesn’t cast the Bush administration in a particularly good light, given the CIA’s contribution to many of the past errors (although Tenet, like Clarke, was a holdover from the Clinton administration, suggesting another flawed Bush tendency: to hang onto “experts” because of his own lack of familiarity with their fields).
There also seems to be an unfortunate and somewhat public feud between the Departments of State and Defense going on, which is not doing the president or the country much good. As Boot notes, Bush needs to get hold of this . . . fast. But his economic policies, despite Democratic carping about tax cuts being bad for the economy, seem to be working just fine. Taxing and spending is always a difficult balance and Bush has been too easy on the spending side, to be sure. But tax cuts have worked as promised, delivering an improving economy with continued low interest rates, even as the budget deficit begins to come back down because of increased revenues reflecting better economic times, again precisely as predicted by Bush and his people. A strong and growing economy is essential to the war on terror and Bush’s policies have clearly delivered.
On the international front Bush has dealt proactively and energetically with the terrorists who declared war on us and brought us 9/11. So far (fingers crossed) further attacks within our borders have been avoided through a combination of tightened homeland security and aggressive search and destroy operations abroad. More, a tyrannical and internationally destabilizing regime has been replaced in Iraq. The results of this last effort aren’t in yet, despite his critics’ eager pre-judgments of failure, but if Bush can pull it off, history will credit him with dramatically changing the face of the Middle East. True, he hasn’t made friends of the French and German leadership by his actions in this theater, and most Europeans seem to have issues with him. But he’s not Europe’s president, he’s ours, and his job is to look to our interests, not theirs. Since they’d as soon capitulate to the terrorists who threaten world stability today as fight them, it’s not clear that their preferences ought to make a whole lot of difference. So, when we come down to the wire this November the choice will pivot on two issues: Are Bush’s policies the right ones for the country and is Bush the man for the job? I think the evidence shows his policies on the major issues of the day are, indeed, the right ones. Whether we’ll judge him man enough, however, is another question, one dependent on how well he takes his administration in hand over the next few months. But, at the least, no one can deny that he is, by now, an experienced hand . . . or suggest that his experience should somehow count for less than that of a lifetime politician like John Kerry who has, as liberal columnist Al Hunt recently noted in the Wall Street Journal, only “a mediocre record as a legislator.” There’s more to being president than the penchant for pompous self-congratulation Kerry exudes.
If you like Kerry’s policies, then he’s the guy to vote for. And if you doubt Bush’s ability to guide the ship, then again, Kerry’s your man. But if you think Bush has chosen a tough but necessary course and is successfully guiding his ship, our ship, into port, despite fiercely adverse headwinds, then the fact that he came to the job without a lifetime of political posturing behind him is no reason to fire the captain now.