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Mead Digs Himself a Deeper Hole

Walter Russell Mead responded to my critique of his post on the GOP and the Bush Legacy. It is revealing, though probably not in ways Mr. Mead had intended. Here are several things to take from it.

1. Mr. Mead says my “attention is fixed on the rearview mirror” and “GOPers who can’t take their eyes off the rear-view mirror will not help their party regain public trust.” This is a curious charge, since it was Mead, not I, who first brought up the Bush legacy. (Mead spends more than 2,900 words on his post about the Bush years–and that only constituted Part One!) Anyone who follows my writings regularly, and particularly since the 2012 election, knows that much of my focus is on the state of the Republican Party and what it needs to do going forward, without reference to the Bush presidency. I was drawn into a “rearview mirror” dialogue because of Mead, not the other way around.

2. The reason I responded to what Mead wrote isn’t because I have a fixation on the past (more about that in a moment); it’s because he claimed that “Fluency in discussing the disasters of the Bush years is going to be a job requirement for Republican candidates and mandarins for some time to come”–and then Mead made a series of claims about the Bush years that were wrong, incomplete or misleading. I felt they were worth correcting. 

You’ll note that Mead’s response to me is dripping with sarcasm, which he apparently believes can substitute for facts and rigorous arguments. But facts are stubborn things, as John Adams said, and as an academic, Mead might actually consider relying on a few. What I did in my post was to cite what Mead said and respond to it, with some empirical care. Mead didn’t challenge a single one of my claims; he chose instead to resort to a kind of adolescent mocking. Which is what people who have lost an argument sometimes do.

3. Mr. Mead claims that if I had my way, generations of Republican presidential candidates will be professing loyalty to the Bush agenda and defending the Bush record. Here again Mead–I want to put this as respectfully as I can–doesn’t know what he’s talking about. 

Having been involved in several presidential elections, I wouldn’t counsel any presidential candidate in 2016 to focus on the record of a person who left office in 2008, just as it wouldn’t have been wise for Bob Dole in 1996 to focus his campaign on Ronald Reagan, who left office in 1988. What a presidential candidate has to do is to articulate his policies on the challenges of his time, and on his governing vision and philosophy. You don’t win elections by focusing on the past, which Mead does in both of his pieces; you win them by focusing on the future. I’d add that in the 2012 election, George W. Bush was not much of a factor in the campaign, and that will be even more the case in 2016. Which is why Mead’s rear-view mirror counsel to Republicans to host  “ ‘Lessons learned’ conferences, symposia, special journal issues and so on” about the Bush era is an odd one.

The Bush presidency was far from perfect; mistakes, even large mistakes, occur over the course of eight years. I’m happy to discuss the pluses and the minuses. And if people want to draw the right lessons from the Bush years, fine. But those lessons should be based on what actually occurred, not on imaginary or shallow assertions. Which is why what Mr. Mead has written isn’t just useless; it’s downright counterproductive.

Usually what Mr. Mead writes deserves to be taken seriously. In this case, he tripped up. It happens. He’s forgiven. And now he should carry on.



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