Commentary Magazine


Topic: George W. Bush

The Discrediting of Government Continues

President Obama’s recent troubles have evoked various comparisons to his predecessor, whether they were the parallels between specific policies or simply the climbing disapproval ratings. To these we can add one more: the question of succession. Indeed the discussion about the makeup of the Democrats’ 2016 primary roster is quite relevant to this particular debate.

When George W. Bush left office amid low approval ratings, the Republican Party faced the challenge of trying to figure out its post-Bush identity–chiefly in the form of its 2008 presidential nominee–on the fly, without the benefit of years in the wilderness. Though Obama’s second term is far from over, Democrats will still face the same challenge.

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President Obama’s recent troubles have evoked various comparisons to his predecessor, whether they were the parallels between specific policies or simply the climbing disapproval ratings. To these we can add one more: the question of succession. Indeed the discussion about the makeup of the Democrats’ 2016 primary roster is quite relevant to this particular debate.

When George W. Bush left office amid low approval ratings, the Republican Party faced the challenge of trying to figure out its post-Bush identity–chiefly in the form of its 2008 presidential nominee–on the fly, without the benefit of years in the wilderness. Though Obama’s second term is far from over, Democrats will still face the same challenge.

In Hillary Clinton, for example, primary voters will have a reminder of the more successful Democratic governance of her husband but also the unprincipled, soulless pursuit of power that characterizes the Clintons’ political life and Hillary’s statist agenda. If Jerry Brown runs, they’ll see a candidate at once a throwback to 20th century politics of stagnation and a warning from the future, in the form of the failing state administration of California, as to where that leads. And if Brian Schweitzer runs, he’ll embody a halfhearted left-libertarianism that at least gestures toward a government less inclined to violate your personal space. The latest Gallup polling on the size and scope of government, however, does not bode as well for Clinton or Brown:

Seventy-two percent of Americans say big government is a greater threat to the U.S. in the future than is big business or big labor, a record high in the nearly 50-year history of this question. The prior high for big government was 65% in 1999 and 2000. Big government has always topped big business and big labor, including in the initial asking in 1965, but just 35% named it at that time.

But it’s the breakdown of the results by political party that is really striking:

Each party group currently rates big government as the greatest threat to the country, including a record-high 92% of Republicans and 71% of independents, as well as 56% of Democrats. Democrats are most likely of the partisan groups to name big business as the biggest threat, at 36%; relatively few Republicans, 4%, view big business as the most threatening.

It’s not just that a majority of Democrats (and large majority of independents) see government as the greatest threat to the country. It’s also the trajectory of those numbers that stands out. During the Bush administration 62 percent of Democrats felt this way, but were slowly reassured as the Democrats took back Congress and then Obama was elected president; the number dropped to 32 percent.

Some of Democrats’ fears about the government can be attributed, I suppose, to Republicans taking back the House earlier in this presidency. But they have not sponsored bills that chip away at individual liberty–just the opposite, they have stood opposed to ObamaCare’s mandates, EPA overregulation, Democrats’ anti-gun legislation, and so forth. It’s what made it so amusing when Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tried to spin congressional approval ratings against the GOP today by tweeting:

Congress is finishing this year less popular than a cockroach, and mindless, knee-jerk obstruction from Republicans is exactly why.

Not only was this the sort of tedious cant voters have come to expect from Reid, but it comes right after the Senate approved a bipartisan budget deal driven in large part by Paul Ryan. Reid, in other words, looks even more ridiculous than he normally would. But even more than Reid’s statement being patently false was its tone-deaf character: even a majority of Democrats see the government as getting too intrusive for comfort. Actions that put the breaks on this behavior are not what’s wrong with government. If anything, Reid only exacerbates this by deploying the “nuclear option” to get rid of the filibuster. Not only is Reid the problem, not the solution, but he’s advertising himself as such.

It won’t matter much to Reid, who isn’t running for president. But if ObamaCare isn’t fixed, the public’s faith in government will continue to collapse–among Democrats as well as Republicans. As the Democrats seek a presidential nominee that best embodies the party’s post-Obama identity, this will no doubt be a factor–and it could very well hold back the statists and elevate a candidate with a more rational approach to governance.

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Dan Rather’s Obsession

Dan Rather was once among the most powerful figures in American media. Which is why watching him today is a particularly poignant and painful thing. 

Consider Mr. Rather’s appearance with CNN’s Piers Morgan Monday night. When asked about the recent, erroneous Benghazi report on 60 Minutes that led to a leave of absence for reporter Lara Logan, Rather compared that story to the one that ruined his career:

“With our story, the one that led to our difficulty, no question the story was true. What the complaint… was ‘Okay, your story was true, but the way you got to the truth was flawed. The process was flawed.’ That’s not the case with the Benghazi story. Unfortunately, and there’s no joy in saying this, they were taken in by a man who was a fraud.”

Now for some context.

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Dan Rather was once among the most powerful figures in American media. Which is why watching him today is a particularly poignant and painful thing. 

Consider Mr. Rather’s appearance with CNN’s Piers Morgan Monday night. When asked about the recent, erroneous Benghazi report on 60 Minutes that led to a leave of absence for reporter Lara Logan, Rather compared that story to the one that ruined his career:

“With our story, the one that led to our difficulty, no question the story was true. What the complaint… was ‘Okay, your story was true, but the way you got to the truth was flawed. The process was flawed.’ That’s not the case with the Benghazi story. Unfortunately, and there’s no joy in saying this, they were taken in by a man who was a fraud.”

Now for some context.

Mr. Rather’s 44-year career at CBS (24 years of which he spent as the anchor of the CBS Evening News) ended because of his role in a story that blew apart. The 2004 story was meant to smear President George W. Bush a few months before his reelection. The problem is that it was based on forged National Guard documents that were almost immediately revealed as such. Yet Rather insists to this very day that the forged documents were accurate. 

This claim is a hallucination, as this 224-page Report of the Independent Review Panel (convened by CBS) makes clear. But Rather would not let it go. After being fired in 2006, he filed a $70 million lawsuit against CBS and its parent company, Viacom, claiming he had been made a “scapegoat,” which was subsequently dismissed in its entirely. Mr. Rather of course appealed. And in 2012, while promoting his book Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News, the former CBS reporter continued to insist the forged documents were accurate. “I believe them to be genuine. I did at the time, I did in the immediate aftermath of it, and yes, I do now,” he said.

This story fascinates me in part because of its insight into human psychology. Mr. Rather is emotionally unable to accept that the National Guard story was false and built on lies, that his effort to bring down an American president brought him down instead. And so he keeps returning to the scene of the crime, hoping to clear his name, convinced that one more adamant declaration that his story was true will magically make it so. Unfortunately, and there’s no joy in saying this, Rather doesn’t have the self-awareness to know that each time he does this, he becomes a more pitiable figure.

“To the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.” These are the words of Captain Ahab as he tosses his harpoon toward the great white whale. But they could just as easily be Dan Rather’s. 

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Hurricane ObamaCare and the Lame Duck

Even at the time, many of President Bush’s supporters knew what they were witnessing was the effective end of his ability to control events. Hurricane Katrina was the turning point of the George W. Bush administration. The last moment when the Real Clear Politics average of polls measuring Bush’s job approval was a net positive was in early May of 2005. But the impact of Hurricane Katrina a few months later was the point at which the accumulated discontent about the bloody and inconclusive war in Iraq metastasized into a general impression of dysfunction and failure. Though the widely held belief that Bush was to blame for the suffering of the people of New Orleans and the Gulf coast was based more on the reporting of a biased media and partisan exploitation of the problem than reality, it didn’t matter. Bush would achieve a remarkable turnaround in Iraq in 2007 that left his successor a war that was largely won (and situation that successor would largely squander), but his job approval never recovered. It would stay negative for the remainder of his term and even sink as low as 25 percent in his final months in office.

Barack Obama is not quite there yet, but the ObamaCare fiasco that the president is trying, probably in vain, to rescue with questionable fixes may turn out to be his hurricane. The current RCP job approval average is only 41.5 percent, an all-time low for this president. The RCPC average for those disapproving of his performance is 54.2 percent, another all-time Obama high. Two recent polls, Quinnipiac and Pew Research, show him at only 39 percent approval. If you compare Obama’s numbers today with his predecessor’s at the comparable point in his presidency months after Katrina, you discover the startling result that he is now viewed as negatively as the much-abused Bush was. That point hasn’t escaped the notice of some of the president’s most ardent supporters in the mainstream press. When the New York Times is ready to speculate about the parallels to Bush on its front page, a watershed moment has arrived. Obama was reelected with the help of an adoring press (a luxury Bush didn’t enjoy when he won his second term) but a spring and summer of scandals and legislative failures has now been followed by a famous broken promise that he may never live down.

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Even at the time, many of President Bush’s supporters knew what they were witnessing was the effective end of his ability to control events. Hurricane Katrina was the turning point of the George W. Bush administration. The last moment when the Real Clear Politics average of polls measuring Bush’s job approval was a net positive was in early May of 2005. But the impact of Hurricane Katrina a few months later was the point at which the accumulated discontent about the bloody and inconclusive war in Iraq metastasized into a general impression of dysfunction and failure. Though the widely held belief that Bush was to blame for the suffering of the people of New Orleans and the Gulf coast was based more on the reporting of a biased media and partisan exploitation of the problem than reality, it didn’t matter. Bush would achieve a remarkable turnaround in Iraq in 2007 that left his successor a war that was largely won (and situation that successor would largely squander), but his job approval never recovered. It would stay negative for the remainder of his term and even sink as low as 25 percent in his final months in office.

Barack Obama is not quite there yet, but the ObamaCare fiasco that the president is trying, probably in vain, to rescue with questionable fixes may turn out to be his hurricane. The current RCP job approval average is only 41.5 percent, an all-time low for this president. The RCPC average for those disapproving of his performance is 54.2 percent, another all-time Obama high. Two recent polls, Quinnipiac and Pew Research, show him at only 39 percent approval. If you compare Obama’s numbers today with his predecessor’s at the comparable point in his presidency months after Katrina, you discover the startling result that he is now viewed as negatively as the much-abused Bush was. That point hasn’t escaped the notice of some of the president’s most ardent supporters in the mainstream press. When the New York Times is ready to speculate about the parallels to Bush on its front page, a watershed moment has arrived. Obama was reelected with the help of an adoring press (a luxury Bush didn’t enjoy when he won his second term) but a spring and summer of scandals and legislative failures has now been followed by a famous broken promise that he may never live down.

As the Times rightly notes:

For the first time in Mr. Obama’s presidency, surveys suggest that his reserve of good will among the public is running dry. Two polls in recent weeks have reported that a majority of Americans no longer trust the president or believe that he is being honest with them.

It’s not just that the president’s rambling if contrite press conference yesterday and the confusing fix to his signature health-care plan is unlikely to change public opinion about ObamaCare or do anything but turn an already bad situation into an even bigger mess. It’s that we’ve arrived at the point when the Obama magic has disappeared. Much of the good will that the president could bank as a result of his historic status as our first African-American president and the hopes he engendered for genuine change has evaporated. He is now just a standard-issue lame duck with a credibility gap that can easily match those of any of his predecessors.

This is hard for the president and his inner circle to accept because they live in a liberal echo chamber where his opponents are dismissed as fools, extremists, and scoundrels. Many still hold onto hope that once ObamaCare is implemented it will become popular. But the rollout has revealed to the nation that the ranks of ObamaCare losers are largely made up of the middle class he pledged to protect. The pain that is just starting to be felt by ordinary Americans from this plan has soured the public’s view of a president that has previously had a Teflon image impervious to Republican attacks.

President Obama has often defied the rules of political gravity, but this may be the point where the rules of physics kick in. No second-term incumbent has ever recovered his popularity once he sunk to the levels that Obama has now reached. Moreover, contrary to Democratic hopes, the health-care boondoggle promises only to get worse in the coming year as the government’s intervention into one-sixth of the nation’s economy increases the pain felt by millions. The measure by which he had hoped to be remembered in history may yet serve to do so, but not for good. Much to his surprise, the Affordable Care Act is his hurricane and it is sinking his second term. Like Bush and others who crashed and burned once they had been reelected, Obama has lost the confidence of the American people. His presidency isn’t over and he has three years to either do further damage—as he appears intent on doing with his rush to appease Iran—but the era in which he could count on his unique status to protect him against failure and scandals has come to an end.

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Iraqis Thank U.S. Troops and Seek New Partnership

President George W. Bush made not one decision, but two when he believed it necessary to rid the world of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The first was to utilize military force, but the second was even more momentous: Rather than simply replace one dictator with another, he sought to provide with a framework toward democracy. That decision, which is far too recent for historians to judge adequately, prolonged the American presence. Almost 4,500 American soldiers lost their lives not only to address a destabilizing threat Saddam Hussein posed but also to bring a chance at freedom to the Iraqi people.

While Islamist radicals used Saddam’s fall to rally their forces, and Iranian-backed militias moved in to intimidate Iraqis in predominantly Shi’ite areas, many ordinary Iraqis enjoyed their first breaths of freedom during the short honeymoon period before insurgency exploded. Two of my most memorable experiences occurred in the months immediately following Iraq’s liberation. In one case, I accompanied an Iraqi returnee I met randomly in the governor’s office of a southern province home to the house he fled two decades earlier. He had not told his parents he was coming, nor had he contacted them during his time abroad for fear that the regime might retaliate, as he was wanted for alleged opposition activities at the time he fled.

The look on his father’s face—and his mother’s—when they saw the son they believed to be in a mass grave was priceless, and the impromptu neighborhood celebration memorable. Likewise, in Kirkuk I was able to use my satellite phone first to find a woman’s exiled daughter and then let her speak to her mother for the first time in more than a decade, letting the woman not only reconnect to her child but also learn about her three grandchildren. I was not alone in such experiences. U.S. soldiers had far more contact with Iraqis than did diplomats, and such stories were the rule rather than the exception.

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President George W. Bush made not one decision, but two when he believed it necessary to rid the world of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The first was to utilize military force, but the second was even more momentous: Rather than simply replace one dictator with another, he sought to provide with a framework toward democracy. That decision, which is far too recent for historians to judge adequately, prolonged the American presence. Almost 4,500 American soldiers lost their lives not only to address a destabilizing threat Saddam Hussein posed but also to bring a chance at freedom to the Iraqi people.

While Islamist radicals used Saddam’s fall to rally their forces, and Iranian-backed militias moved in to intimidate Iraqis in predominantly Shi’ite areas, many ordinary Iraqis enjoyed their first breaths of freedom during the short honeymoon period before insurgency exploded. Two of my most memorable experiences occurred in the months immediately following Iraq’s liberation. In one case, I accompanied an Iraqi returnee I met randomly in the governor’s office of a southern province home to the house he fled two decades earlier. He had not told his parents he was coming, nor had he contacted them during his time abroad for fear that the regime might retaliate, as he was wanted for alleged opposition activities at the time he fled.

The look on his father’s face—and his mother’s—when they saw the son they believed to be in a mass grave was priceless, and the impromptu neighborhood celebration memorable. Likewise, in Kirkuk I was able to use my satellite phone first to find a woman’s exiled daughter and then let her speak to her mother for the first time in more than a decade, letting the woman not only reconnect to her child but also learn about her three grandchildren. I was not alone in such experiences. U.S. soldiers had far more contact with Iraqis than did diplomats, and such stories were the rule rather than the exception.

I typically visit Iraq twice each year, and gratitude Iraqis feel toward the United States remains. True, many Iraqis had grown frustrated with American occupation in the interim years, and they do not hesitate to point out what they see as mistakes (re-Baathification rather than de-Baathification chief among them) but they value liberty more than those who so often try to speak on Iraqis’ behalf in various circles. Now that the Americans are gone—and with the American diplomatic presence pretty much invisible behind the embassy’s blast walls—Iraqis increasingly look at an American presence–not occupation certainly but a presence–with longing. Sometimes absence does make the heart grow fonder.

Lukman Faily, Iraq’s talented new ambassador to the United States, has an important thank you in today’s USA Today. He begins:

My first trip to the hallowed grounds of Arlington National Cemetery was on a rainy Friday afternoon, soon after my arrival in Washington. As the newly appointed ambassador to the United States from Iraq, it was important for me to honor the brave American men and women who gave their last full measure of devotion so that the people I represent may live to be free. Standing before the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and gazing over the rolling hills of Arlington, I was struck by the depth of the sacrifices borne by the United States to defeat tyranny, support the oppressed and build democratic institutions around the world.

And he gives credit where so much credit is due:

In my country, nearly 2 million more U.S. military personnel served and helped liberate my country from Saddam Hussein and defeat al-Qaeda. Iraq is on track to join other countries that have benefited from America’s sacrifices. Our economy is one of the fastest growing in the world, oil production is growing, democratic institutions are maturing and our sixth round of elections is scheduled for April of next year. These successes were not generated solely by Iraqis. America’s soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and foreign service officers helped set Iraq on the path to success — and we are thankful to all of those brave men and women.

Having come to Washington after several years in Tokyo, Ambassador Faily understands the importance of post-war relationships. How tragic it is, then, that the United States has been so lacking in maximizing its relationship with Iraq. Iraq wants greater ties. Iraq and the United States face a common foe in al-Qaeda. It is short-sighted not to grasp Iraq’s outstretched hand but for much of the past two years, the United States has effectively closed the door on its relationship with Iraq. When Faily concludes, “The United States remains Iraq’s ally of choice; on this day, we reflect on, and learn from our past, and look forward to building on our partnership in the years to come,” let us hope that the White House and Congress are listening.

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George W. Bush, Messianics, and the Left

In March of last year, I wrote about a minor kerfuffle involving Rick Santorum, who was then in the middle of a quixotic run for the presidency. The former senator who had come from out of nowhere to be the runner-up in the Republican presidential nomination race had apparently given a paid speech to the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America, a group whose adherents claim Jewish identity but also profess a belief in the divinity of Jesus. As I explained at the time, in doing so Santorum was picking at a sore wound for a Jewish community whose history rendered them especially sensitive to efforts aimed at converting Jews to Christianity, as the Messianics intend. While these people are as free to believe what they like as any other American, the overwhelming majority of Jews—regardless of denomination or political belief—reject their claim to being part of the Jewish people as well as take a dim view of their deceptive practices aimed at fostering conversion. I wrote that the candidate, who had a long history of friendship for the Jewish community and the State of Israel, needed to understand that involving himself with such a group compromised his standing with Jews. While this episode neither helped nor hurt Santorum’s long-shot presidential run, apparently the lesson was lost on a far more important member of the GOP who also has a sterling record of friendship for the Jews: former President George W. Bush.

As Mother Jones reports, Bush is scheduled to speak at a fundraiser for the Messianic Bible Institute on November 14 in Irving, Texas. The Institute trains people to try and convert Jews to Christianity and thereby hasten Jesus’s second coming. While the former president has done his best to avoid entangling himself in political controversies of any kind since he left the White House, by involving himself with this organization he has stepped into one with both feet. That is troubling not just for those of us who were grateful for his heartfelt support for Israel but also for those who care about fostering good relations between Jews and evangelical Christians, among whom Bush numbers as one of their most prominent adherents. But while I condemn Bush’s involvement with a group that seeks to target Jews for conversion, I am just as troubled by those on the left who would seek to use this unfortunate incident as a weapon to delegitimize all evangelical supporters of Israel and to disrupt the growing ties between Jews and their friends among the Christian right.

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In March of last year, I wrote about a minor kerfuffle involving Rick Santorum, who was then in the middle of a quixotic run for the presidency. The former senator who had come from out of nowhere to be the runner-up in the Republican presidential nomination race had apparently given a paid speech to the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America, a group whose adherents claim Jewish identity but also profess a belief in the divinity of Jesus. As I explained at the time, in doing so Santorum was picking at a sore wound for a Jewish community whose history rendered them especially sensitive to efforts aimed at converting Jews to Christianity, as the Messianics intend. While these people are as free to believe what they like as any other American, the overwhelming majority of Jews—regardless of denomination or political belief—reject their claim to being part of the Jewish people as well as take a dim view of their deceptive practices aimed at fostering conversion. I wrote that the candidate, who had a long history of friendship for the Jewish community and the State of Israel, needed to understand that involving himself with such a group compromised his standing with Jews. While this episode neither helped nor hurt Santorum’s long-shot presidential run, apparently the lesson was lost on a far more important member of the GOP who also has a sterling record of friendship for the Jews: former President George W. Bush.

As Mother Jones reports, Bush is scheduled to speak at a fundraiser for the Messianic Bible Institute on November 14 in Irving, Texas. The Institute trains people to try and convert Jews to Christianity and thereby hasten Jesus’s second coming. While the former president has done his best to avoid entangling himself in political controversies of any kind since he left the White House, by involving himself with this organization he has stepped into one with both feet. That is troubling not just for those of us who were grateful for his heartfelt support for Israel but also for those who care about fostering good relations between Jews and evangelical Christians, among whom Bush numbers as one of their most prominent adherents. But while I condemn Bush’s involvement with a group that seeks to target Jews for conversion, I am just as troubled by those on the left who would seek to use this unfortunate incident as a weapon to delegitimize all evangelical supporters of Israel and to disrupt the growing ties between Jews and their friends among the Christian right.

One such person is Jay Michaelson, who took to the pages of the Forward to not only make the hyperbolic claim that “George W. Bush wants to convert you and destroy the Jewish faith,” but to also assert that the former president’s presence at this dinner discredits all Christian Zionists and the entire notion of friendship between Jews and evangelicals.

In Michaelson’s worldview, evangelical supporters of Israel are not to be trusted because he thinks their only purpose is to hasten the rapture. Moreover, his animus for these Christians is so deep-seated that he includes Bush’s support for aid to faith-based organizations in his litany of the 43rdpresident’s sins. While the rest of the civilized world, including many of Bush’s fiercest critics, have conceded that his work to vastly increase the amount of U.S. aid to Africa and to prioritize the fight against AIDS there was among his most praiseworthy actions in the White House, Michaelson even condemns this because the money went in part to Christian groups. Apparently, the author, who is a prominent advocate of gay rights, is so afflicted with a classic case of Bush-derangement syndrome that even Bush’s work to combat the spread of AIDS is somehow suspect.

Whatever our feelings about Bush’s presence at this dinner, this argument holds no water. The overwhelming majority of evangelicals reject replacement theology in which Jews have no purpose but to serve as the spark for the second coming. The genuine devotion of American Christians for Israel’s well being is measured by their charitable giving to groups such as the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews as well as a stout support of Israel’s existence and right to defend itself that often outshines that of many, if not most, American Jews. As for Bush, whatever you may think of his politics, he is no enemy of the Jews, not while he was president and not today. His record on Israel, and indeed his friendship for the American Jewish community, is a matter of record.

As Michaelson’s hysterical piece demonstrates, many Jewish liberals are living in the past when it comes to Christians and imagine these good friends of the Jewish people are enemies. They are wrong. Whereas in the distant past, religious Christians might be assumed to harbor hostile intentions toward Jews, that is not the case in 21st century America. The good faith of Christian friends of Israel has been demonstrated time and again. Moreover, at a time when many liberal Protestant denominations have turned their backs on Israel and flirted with the BDS movement and its war on the Jewish state, the alliance between evangelicals and Jews is more important than ever.

As I wrote last year, all Christians need to steer clear of groups that aim at conversion of Jews if they wish to maintain good relations with the Jewish community. While there is nothing illegal about members of one faith seeking to win converts from another in a free country, after 2,000 years of Christian anti-Semitism that laid the groundwork for the Holocaust, those who support conversion campaigns must realize that Jews regard them as offensive. Supporters of the Messianic Bible Institute may believe they have good intentions, but their efforts undermine those who labor to bridge the gap between conservative Christians and Jews.

That said, it should be remembered that if any Jew does leave the fold, the fault belongs to a Jewish community that has often failed to educate its children. As much as Jews have reason to be offended by groups like the Bible Institute, they are nothing more than an annoyance and are in no way a threat to Jewish life in this country or Israel. Those who worry about perils to the Jewish community’s future should concentrate on the recent Pew Study and the way it demonstrated how irreligion and assimilation are leading to a situation where the ranks of American Jewry are rapidly shrinking. If conversion to Christianity went largely unnoticed in the report, it is because it constitutes a threat that is so marginal as to be barely worthy of mention.

Nevertheless, President Bush needs to reconsider his presence at this dinner. If he does not, it will lend weight to destructive arguments such as those voiced by Michaelson and create obstacles to interfaith harmony that should be demolished rather than strengthened.

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Is the U.S. Too Engaged in Peace Talks?

Since the beginning of the Obama presidency, the administration has navigated foreign policy through the fog of public war-weariness. It may now find its diplomacy hounded by the other side of that coin: peace fatigue–or, rather, peace process fatigue. Israel Hayom reports on a new poll, commissioned by the Anti-Defamation League, that surveyed Americans’ opinions on a range of issues related to the Arab-Israeli conflict and the broader Middle East.

The poll found high support for Israel, with 76 percent of respondents agreeing with the sentence: “Israel can be counted on as a strong, loyal U.S. ally.” When asked to choose if their sympathies lie more with Israel or the Palestinians, 48 percent said Israel against 16 percent for the Palestinians. Outside the Arab-Israeli conflict, 50 percent of respondents supported using force to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, with 41 percent opposed. If Israel launched an attack on Iran, 40 percent said the U.S. should support the Jewish state and nine percent said the U.S. should oppose the action.

But on the peace process, currently enjoying yet another round of American diplomatic attention, respondents were pretty realistic on a key point:

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Since the beginning of the Obama presidency, the administration has navigated foreign policy through the fog of public war-weariness. It may now find its diplomacy hounded by the other side of that coin: peace fatigue–or, rather, peace process fatigue. Israel Hayom reports on a new poll, commissioned by the Anti-Defamation League, that surveyed Americans’ opinions on a range of issues related to the Arab-Israeli conflict and the broader Middle East.

The poll found high support for Israel, with 76 percent of respondents agreeing with the sentence: “Israel can be counted on as a strong, loyal U.S. ally.” When asked to choose if their sympathies lie more with Israel or the Palestinians, 48 percent said Israel against 16 percent for the Palestinians. Outside the Arab-Israeli conflict, 50 percent of respondents supported using force to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, with 41 percent opposed. If Israel launched an attack on Iran, 40 percent said the U.S. should support the Jewish state and nine percent said the U.S. should oppose the action.

But on the peace process, currently enjoying yet another round of American diplomatic attention, respondents were pretty realistic on a key point:

A large majority of Americans believe the U.S. should have minimal involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, according to the results of a new survey released by the Anti-Defamation League.

Some 62 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, “It is up to the Palestinians and the Israelis to solve their own problems. Any lasting peace agreement between them must be reached with minimal involvement from the U.S.,” while only 29% agreed with the statement, “Peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians will never take place without the leadership and involvement of the U.S. government.”

A few caveats: we don’t know what “minimal involvement” means exactly, so there is only so much we can take away from such results. Additionally, the ADL’s report on the poll seems to present only two options, so how the choices are phrased could make a real difference. And finally, it’s impossible to know just how much of the response to this question is intended as a referendum not on the broad contours of the peace process but on the hapless and often clueless chief American diplomat leading the charge, John Kerry.

With that said, the peace process fatigue is a good instinct. The series of events that led to Oslo and the famous handshake at the White House between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin were part of a conscious peace process, admittedly, but one without the attention of later years. It’s no coincidence that this period was also the most productive diplomatic push of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Even after the formal process got underway, the two sides were doing two things that were crucial to progress: keeping expectations modest and talking directly. And this was at a time long before the Likud Party officially adopted the model of “two states for two peoples” as its guiding force for the talks–even Rabin was famously uncomfortable with the idea of an independent Palestinian state–so there was plenty of reason on the Palestinian side to doubt Israel’s ability to carry out any comprehensive deal.

The problem is that when the sole superpower becomes closely involved (and at the time of the Madrid conference the Soviet Union was well on its way to dissolving, leaving the U.S. alone on the world stage), everyone’s incentives change. For the Americans, there is the lure of legacy. President George H.W. Bush was less susceptible to this than his successors because he already presided over America’s official emergence as the world’s great power. But politicians are only human, and the longer the conflict drags on, the more impressive “peace in the Middle East” appears.

The incentive structure got no better for the U.S. as time dragged on because of the natural evolution of the process. At first, vague notions of “peace” were seen as the objective. But after Bill Clinton left office and George W. Bush took over, the creation of a Palestinian state became the benchmark by which the conflict would be deemed “resolved.” The race to create a Palestinian state has run up against a by-now familiar obstacle: the sense of urgency among world opinion for a Palestinian state progressed while the actual task of state-building in the West Bank and Gaza stagnated.

The expectations game has been managed terribly by all involved, and the high profile of the peace process has become an obstacle. With their domestic populations–and the world–following along, Israeli and Palestinian leaders behave as though their every step is being watched closely, because it is. All the American attention has resulted, finally, in needing to lure the Palestinians to the table.

This is insanity. If the Palestinians have to be bribed to even enter negotiations, then they don’t have a desire to end the conflict. And Israeli leaders are not going to take major diplomatic risks if they’ve already spent their political capital on freeing Palestinian terrorists from jail or halting construction in Jewish communities for a process that keeps going nowhere. The United States has a constructive role to play in the peace process, but it’s not the one Kerry envisions. And the ADL polls suggests Americans are starting to agree.

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NY Times’s Sudden Aversion to Calling the President a Liar

Barack Obama’s election neatly coincided with the liberal left’s rediscovery of the value of civility in the public square. The time for derangement was over. Liberals remembered that they have had only modest success in outlawing political speech, and that when tempers flared they could be on the receiving end of overheated criticism now that they were back in power.

Among the results of the left’s newfound distaste for dissent was a suddenly self-censoring media. And, as evidenced by the New York Times’s rather amazing Sunday editorial on ObamaCare, giving the president the benefit of the doubt is back in vogue. The Times explained that when President Obama said that if you liked your health-care plan you could keep your health-care plan, period, he simply “misspoke.”

Believe it or not, the Times’s Andrew Rosenthal is defending the word choice. The paper’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, wrote a post yesterday afternoon responding to the criticism the Times has received on the editorial. She asked Rosenthal for an explanation. Here is his response:

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Barack Obama’s election neatly coincided with the liberal left’s rediscovery of the value of civility in the public square. The time for derangement was over. Liberals remembered that they have had only modest success in outlawing political speech, and that when tempers flared they could be on the receiving end of overheated criticism now that they were back in power.

Among the results of the left’s newfound distaste for dissent was a suddenly self-censoring media. And, as evidenced by the New York Times’s rather amazing Sunday editorial on ObamaCare, giving the president the benefit of the doubt is back in vogue. The Times explained that when President Obama said that if you liked your health-care plan you could keep your health-care plan, period, he simply “misspoke.”

Believe it or not, the Times’s Andrew Rosenthal is defending the word choice. The paper’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, wrote a post yesterday afternoon responding to the criticism the Times has received on the editorial. She asked Rosenthal for an explanation. Here is his response:

“We have a high threshold for whether someone lied,” he told me. The phrase that The Times used “means that he said something that wasn’t true.” Saying the president lied would have meant something different, Mr. Rosenthal said — that he knew it was false and intended to express the falsehood. “We don’t know that,” he said.

It may be honorable for the media to be more sparing with accusations of outright lying. But that is most certainly not the Times’s standard. Rosenthal’s spin about the paper’s “high threshold” is arrant nonsense, and the paper’s readers presumably know this. In January 2006, the Times published an editorial criticizing George W. Bush and calling attention to what the Times pronounced as “a couple of big, dangerous lies.”

What were those two “lies”? The first was that the Bush administration’s domestic spying apparatus “is carefully aimed” at those working with al-Qaeda, when in fact by the Times’s lights the program “has violated the rights of countless innocent Americans.” That’s some fairly clumsy–and dishonest–sleight of hand from the Times in what amounts to a disagreement over just how “careful” the surveillance had been. What was the other “lie”? That with the domestic surveillance now in place 9/11 could have been prevented. Perhaps that is an unlikely justification, but any threshold which considers that a “lie” is low indeed.

The idea that Bush “lied” the country into war with Iraq has long since been debunked: Bush, like those around him and our allies, was fooled by the faulty intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. But the Times editorial board painted Bush as a serial liar on the matter. In December 2008, reflecting on the Bush tenure, the Times published an editorial growling that it was by then public knowledge that “Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney manipulated Congress, public opinion and anyone else they could bully or lie to.” Does the accusation–again, by then conclusively debunked–that Bush was a compulsive liar meet the “high threshold” the paper now claims governs its use of the word? Of course not.

Two years earlier the paper’s editorial board lamented that Bush needed “a blue ribbon commission” to tell him that “Government officials should not lie to the public.” It appears that the left, including the Times, was quite liberal with its use of the “l” word to an extent that rivaled the left’s obsession with calling Bush a fascist.

Yet aside from the Times’s obvious hypocrisy on the issue, there is another critique of the Times editorial. Even if it isn’t true that the Times has a high threshold for calling someone a liar, we could argue that they should. As I noted earlier, it would behoove the Times to live up the standards to which it pretends to adhere. Yet even so, Rosenthal presents what the president might call a “false choice.” Certainly there is something in between “liar” and saying the president “misspoke.”

Sullivan pointed this out in her correspondence with Rosenthal:

But “misspoke” does suggest a one-time slip of the tongue.

Wouldn’t it have been better, I asked Mr. Rosenthal, if the editorial had said that Mr. Obama’s statements “clearly weren’t true,” or that the president “was clearly wrong” when he repeatedly made those statements?

He responded that the editorial’s language was fine, but he also allowed, “We could have done that.”

The president did not have a “one-time slip of the tongue,” of course. Obama made the promise repeatedly and without qualification. We now know that, as the Wall Street Journal reported, the decision to make this promise was made knowing that it was inaccurate and after a debate within the administration over whether to be frank about ObamaCare or not.

The president obviously decided that accuracy was a luxury the administration could not afford if it was to get its agenda through Congress. The Times should be encouraged to be discerning when accusing the president of being a liar. But were the Times to show such restraint, it would be new indeed.

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Obama’s Stirring Case Against Obama

Last night, President Obama addressed the American people to make the case for war–in general. He was speaking to build support for military action against Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, but he undermined that case by also highlighting the lack of urgency of such action, implying that the American people should support and Congress should approve action that would be either irresponsible or unnecessary at this point.

But he made a powerful case for the wars America has fought over his own objections. And he ruthlessly demolished whatever was left of Senator Obama’s breezy moralist posturing that began disintegrating when it collided with reality and the responsibilities of statecraft four years ago. And though he tried studiously to avoid it, after four years as president, Obama was unable to make the case against Bush-era intervention without implicitly but unmistakably indicting his own. It may have been overshadowed by the “pinprick” comment, but the full context of that remark is revealing. Obama said:

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Last night, President Obama addressed the American people to make the case for war–in general. He was speaking to build support for military action against Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, but he undermined that case by also highlighting the lack of urgency of such action, implying that the American people should support and Congress should approve action that would be either irresponsible or unnecessary at this point.

But he made a powerful case for the wars America has fought over his own objections. And he ruthlessly demolished whatever was left of Senator Obama’s breezy moralist posturing that began disintegrating when it collided with reality and the responsibilities of statecraft four years ago. And though he tried studiously to avoid it, after four years as president, Obama was unable to make the case against Bush-era intervention without implicitly but unmistakably indicting his own. It may have been overshadowed by the “pinprick” comment, but the full context of that remark is revealing. Obama said:

Let me make something clear: The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.

Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver. I don’t think we should remove another dictator with force. We learned from Iraq that doing so makes us responsible for all that comes next. But a targeted strike can make Assad or any other dictator think twice before using chemical weapons.

If we learned from Iraq that removing a dictator with force makes us responsible for all that comes next, then surely Obama believes the U.S. takes at least some responsibility for the violence in the wake of the removal of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. And lest the president or his supporters downplay the American role, here is how Obama himself sees the situation, as he expressed in a debate with Mitt Romney last year:

But you know, going back to Libya, because this is an example of — of how we make choices, you know, when we went into Libya and we were able to immediately stop the massacre there because of the unique circumstances and the coalition that we had helped to organize, we also had to make sure that Moammar Gadhafi didn’t stay there. And to the governor’s credit, you supported us going into Libya and the coalition that we organized. But when it came time to making sure that Gadhafi did not stay in power, that he was captured, Governor, your suggestion was that this was mission creep, that this was mission muddle.

Imagine if we had pulled out at that point. That — Moammar Gadhafi had more American blood on his hands than any individual other than Osama bin Laden. And so we were going to make sure that we finished the job. That’s part of the reason why the Libyans stand with us. But we did so in a careful, thoughtful way, making certain that we knew who we were dealing with, that those forces of moderation on the ground were ones that we could work with. And we have to take the same kind of steady, thoughtful leadership when it comes to Syria. That’s exactly what we’re doing.

Unambiguous: our involvement in Libya was to remove Gaddafi from power and shepherd the political transition. And shame on anyone, goes the president’s forceful argument, who would even suggest otherwise. Well, today is of course the anniversary not only of the September 11, 2001 attacks but also those carried out on our diplomatic mission in Benghazi last year.

And the situation there has not improved. As the Washington Post reported last week:

Even minor disputes escalate into frequent gun violence on the streets. Kidnappings and armed robberies are increasing, and government officials and others have been assassinated with guns and bombs. Militants and arms smugglers easily cross poorly protected borders shared with Niger and Chad….

“It’s impossible,” said Mahmoud Ibrahim Sherif, the Tripoli police chief, who blamed the government for failing to properly fund and equip his officers….

In the face of spiking numbers of kidnappings and armed robberies, he said, his officers rarely attempt to arrest anyone because “they have more guns than we do.” He said arrest attempts stopped after several incidents in which his cops were attacked with ­rocket-propelled grenades.

It’s certainly, it should be noted, in worse shape than Iraq, and might have made for a better example of the argument the president was trying to make. But the Iraq example is relevant for another reason. In justifying military action against Syria, President Obama asked, “What kind of world will we live in if the United States of America sees a dictator brazenly violate international law with poison gas and we choose to look the other way?”

That wasn’t the only time the president seemed to make the case that military action against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was taken later than it should have been. Earlier in the speech, Obama said this:

As the ban against these weapons erodes, other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas and using them. Over time our troops would again face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield, and it could be easier for terrorist organizations to obtain these weapons and to use them to attack civilians.

If fighting spills beyond Syria’s borders, these weapons could threaten allies like Turkey, Jordan and Israel.

And a failure to stand against the use of chemical weapons would weaken prohibitions against other weapons of mass destruction and embolden Assad’s ally, Iran, which must decide whether to ignore international law by building a nuclear weapon or to take a more peaceful path.

This is not a world we should accept.

Of course, military action can be taken any number of ways following any number of strategies. But Obama wasn’t just against the way the war in Iraq was prosecuted. This was the war he called a “dumb war.” In that famous 2002 speech, Obama said that he has “no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power.” However, Obama then added:

I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.

How vigorously Obama now apparently disagrees with that assessment.

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Arabs Give Obama the Bush Treatment

There may be some Americans who still cling to the image of Barack Obama as a magical figure with the power to transform his country’s image. That was the Obama we were told five years ago the world would embrace because his election would signal a return to America’s status as the defender of all that was good after eight years of George W. Bush’s evil cowboy act that had caused everyone to distrust us. But if there is anything to be learned from the prelude to whatever it is that the administration will do about Syrian chemical attacks, it is that the myth of Obama’s ability to make the U.S. loved in the Third World is officially dead.

As it turns out, Arabs and Muslims are today reviling Barack Obama’s America for proposing military action that is aimed at protecting Arabs and Muslims from atrocities in Syria. That is more or less the same thing that happened when George W. Bush sought to overthrow the Taliban oppressors of Afghanistan and Iraq’s madman tyrant Saddam Hussein. Whatever it is that the U.S. winds up doing in Syria will not have the imprimatur of the United Nations, and it will be opposed by the Arab League even though that august body has been vocal in its criticism of the Assad regime and supportive of efforts to effect regime change in Damascus. But the use of U.S. force to punish an Arab government for using chemical weapons against its own people is still a bridge too far for them. As the U.S. prepares to attack Syria, it will do so without a U.N. endorsement or even encouragement from those Arab governments that hate Assad. What exactly is the difference between this and Bush’s “coalition of the willing” that the American left (including Obama himself) mocked so much? Not much.

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There may be some Americans who still cling to the image of Barack Obama as a magical figure with the power to transform his country’s image. That was the Obama we were told five years ago the world would embrace because his election would signal a return to America’s status as the defender of all that was good after eight years of George W. Bush’s evil cowboy act that had caused everyone to distrust us. But if there is anything to be learned from the prelude to whatever it is that the administration will do about Syrian chemical attacks, it is that the myth of Obama’s ability to make the U.S. loved in the Third World is officially dead.

As it turns out, Arabs and Muslims are today reviling Barack Obama’s America for proposing military action that is aimed at protecting Arabs and Muslims from atrocities in Syria. That is more or less the same thing that happened when George W. Bush sought to overthrow the Taliban oppressors of Afghanistan and Iraq’s madman tyrant Saddam Hussein. Whatever it is that the U.S. winds up doing in Syria will not have the imprimatur of the United Nations, and it will be opposed by the Arab League even though that august body has been vocal in its criticism of the Assad regime and supportive of efforts to effect regime change in Damascus. But the use of U.S. force to punish an Arab government for using chemical weapons against its own people is still a bridge too far for them. As the U.S. prepares to attack Syria, it will do so without a U.N. endorsement or even encouragement from those Arab governments that hate Assad. What exactly is the difference between this and Bush’s “coalition of the willing” that the American left (including Obama himself) mocked so much? Not much.

While the Arab League is not the most consequential institution in the world, its opposition to Obama’s plans is telling. As the New York Times notes:

The vast majority of Arabs are emotionally opposed to any Western military action in the region no matter how humanitarian the cause, and no Arab nation or leader has publicly endorsed such a step, even in countries like the Persian Gulf monarchies whose diplomats for months have privately urged the West to step in. In the region, only Turkey has pledged to support intervention.

This is important not so much because it illustrates the hypocrisy of the Arab League and the opinion of the so-called Arab street but because it demonstrates the utter lack of success of President Obama’s efforts to appease them during the course of his administration. Not his Cairo speech which sought to validate Muslim myths of victimization at the hands of the West, nor his fights with Israel, his efforts to work with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, or his withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan have convinced anyone there that Obama’s America is any less of an inherent enemy to the Arabs than Bush’s America.

Just as Muslims claimed that American wars fought to save Muslim lives in Somalia, Kuwait, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq were really expressions of American imperialism, now Obama’s war in Syria is treated the same way. If the injustice of this charge rankles the president, he should remember that Bush had just as much if not more reason to complain of unfair treatment abroad and at home from critics like his successor.

Of course, despite the fears of the president’s American critics, these Arab opponents of America have a point. Though, as Elliott Abrams writes in the September issue of COMMENTARY, the president has sought to portray himself as a “citizen of the world” rather than an American exceptionalist in the manner of his predecessors, the world understands that this is an artificial construct that is doomed to fail.

What we are about to witness in Syria is not only what appears to be a symbolic expression of American temper that will do nothing to change the situation on the ground and possibly strengthen a dictator and his dangerous allies if they are seen as surviving or defeating an American attack. It is also a demonstration of the bankruptcy of Obama’s foreign-policy approach. Though he will never admit it, Syria is the final proof that the magical Obama many Americans thought they elected was a figment of their imagination.

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Americans Rejoin the World

There exists a bedeviling paradox for foreign-policy realists: When America determines to mind its own business it invites the kind of atrocities Americans find hard to ignore. And so Barack Obama’s flight from global stewardship comes to ground with an apparent nerve-gas massacre of innocents outside Damascus. The Bush-weary intelligentsia that twice voted for the man who promised disengagement from troubled regions is now disturbed. “[T]he United States and other major powers will almost certainly have to respond much more aggressively than they have so far,” reads a New York Times editorial from Thursday. And American reproach goes beyond events in Syria. The Kremlin’s anti-gay crackdown has inspired activist Americans to focus their energies on bringing change to a foreign land. The “who are we to say?” outrage at Bush-style interventionism is giving way to “how can we just stand here?” frustration over Obama-style aloofness. 

If it’s taken five years of George W. Bush’s being out of the spotlight for Americans to recover a sense of global do-goodism, that’s unjust to the 43rd president, but the return of clarity is welcome all the same. “There is no question that the image the United States holds of itself must affect its role in foreign affairs,” wrote Nathan Glazer in a July 1976 COMMENTARY essay. “If it sees itself as a good country and a strong country—the way I would say the overwhelming majority of Americans did between 1945 and 1965—and if it is seen by others in the same way, it will feel confident in playing a large role in the world. If it sees itself as a good though weak country (one present-day image of ourselves), or as wicked and strong (another), or as wicked and weak, there will be a tendency to retrench and withdraw.”

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There exists a bedeviling paradox for foreign-policy realists: When America determines to mind its own business it invites the kind of atrocities Americans find hard to ignore. And so Barack Obama’s flight from global stewardship comes to ground with an apparent nerve-gas massacre of innocents outside Damascus. The Bush-weary intelligentsia that twice voted for the man who promised disengagement from troubled regions is now disturbed. “[T]he United States and other major powers will almost certainly have to respond much more aggressively than they have so far,” reads a New York Times editorial from Thursday. And American reproach goes beyond events in Syria. The Kremlin’s anti-gay crackdown has inspired activist Americans to focus their energies on bringing change to a foreign land. The “who are we to say?” outrage at Bush-style interventionism is giving way to “how can we just stand here?” frustration over Obama-style aloofness. 

If it’s taken five years of George W. Bush’s being out of the spotlight for Americans to recover a sense of global do-goodism, that’s unjust to the 43rd president, but the return of clarity is welcome all the same. “There is no question that the image the United States holds of itself must affect its role in foreign affairs,” wrote Nathan Glazer in a July 1976 COMMENTARY essay. “If it sees itself as a good country and a strong country—the way I would say the overwhelming majority of Americans did between 1945 and 1965—and if it is seen by others in the same way, it will feel confident in playing a large role in the world. If it sees itself as a good though weak country (one present-day image of ourselves), or as wicked and strong (another), or as wicked and weak, there will be a tendency to retrench and withdraw.”

Today, many Americans see themselves as having done something good in electing and reelecting Barack Obama (whatever the merits of the case may be). And if anything, the popular fear is that we’ve become too strong militarily (again, putting aside the validity of the argument). So we seem to have shifted into some version of the good-and-strong precondition to “playing a large role in world affairs.” That the president whose election facilitated this shift doesn’t see it that way is an unfortunate irony, but hardly a long-term hindrance to the exercise of American power in service of American ideals.

You should not underestimate the effect of popular opinion in U.S. foreign policy. Civil advocacy, as on behalf of gays in Russia today, has a long history of shaping events for the better beyond our borders. Immigrant lobbies, missionary groups, and trade organizations have all spoken up, acted, and changed the course of history in other countries. The American urge to actively do good in the world is not a matter of party or ideology, but a reflection of our national ethos. The understandable wish to recoil from the world is usually a short-lived response to great trauma abroad. Such was the case after both World Wars, the Vietnam War, and the Iraq War.

Boycotting vodka and calling for action against the perpetrator of mass murder are, of course, a very long way from launching popular wars for freedom. Nor is any lone voice calling for such wars. In fact, questions regarding how to do good—in Syria, Egypt, Russia, and beyond—are more fraught than they used to be. Bad guys are everywhere and allies are in short supply; this is largely a function of our five-year break from global affairs. But it is becoming evident that Americans are at once growing increasingly uncomfortable with the state of the world and more comfortable in their right (their obligation) to do something about it. 

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Can Christie Win With the Bush Formula?

Chris Christie appeared at the recent meeting of the Republican National Committee in Boston to tell them about how his administration in New Jersey is a model for how Republicans can both govern and win elections. If it seemed familiar, it should, since he used his prime time television spot at last summer’s GOP convention to make some of the same points. But if there is any model that Christie is following these days, it appears to be the one dreamed up by Karl Rove that led George W. Bush to the presidency. Christie’s establishment of a national fundraising network was the lede of a story on him in yesterday’s New York Times. That’s an important element of his gubernatorial reelection that shows just how formidable a presidential contender he could be in 2016. But the even more significant development is the aspect that bears a striking resemblance to George W. Bush’s campaign for reelection as governor of Texas in 1998 and his subsequent successful run for the presidency. As the Times reports:

Senior Republicans who are familiar with Mr. Christie’s strategy say it is most closely modeled after Mr. Bush’s bid in 1998 for re-election as governor of Texas. The parallels are clear. Mr. Bush was considered a shoo-in for re-election to the governor’s office, but he and Mr. Rove became determined to win over Hispanic and black voters to demonstrate the governor’s broad appeal to a national audience. Mr. Bush won that race, with 68 percent of the vote, which included more than a third of the Hispanic vote, offering him a powerful credential when he ran for president two years later as “a different kind of Republican.”

This summer, Mr. Christie established a bilingual campaign office in Paterson, N.J., and spent $275,000 on a Spanish-language television ad. He has also announced a Hispanics for Christie coalition and is now running even among Hispanic voters against Ms. Buono, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released 10 days ago.

While Christie’s truculent personality will make it a bit harder to sell him to the public as the “compassionate conservative” that Bush was depicted as being, this is exactly the sort of candidate that Republicans who hope to improve on their increasingly poor showings with minorities and independents want. But the question for both Christie and the GOP is whether the party’s conservative base will interpret this outreach as a form of “treason” rather than commonsense politics.

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Chris Christie appeared at the recent meeting of the Republican National Committee in Boston to tell them about how his administration in New Jersey is a model for how Republicans can both govern and win elections. If it seemed familiar, it should, since he used his prime time television spot at last summer’s GOP convention to make some of the same points. But if there is any model that Christie is following these days, it appears to be the one dreamed up by Karl Rove that led George W. Bush to the presidency. Christie’s establishment of a national fundraising network was the lede of a story on him in yesterday’s New York Times. That’s an important element of his gubernatorial reelection that shows just how formidable a presidential contender he could be in 2016. But the even more significant development is the aspect that bears a striking resemblance to George W. Bush’s campaign for reelection as governor of Texas in 1998 and his subsequent successful run for the presidency. As the Times reports:

Senior Republicans who are familiar with Mr. Christie’s strategy say it is most closely modeled after Mr. Bush’s bid in 1998 for re-election as governor of Texas. The parallels are clear. Mr. Bush was considered a shoo-in for re-election to the governor’s office, but he and Mr. Rove became determined to win over Hispanic and black voters to demonstrate the governor’s broad appeal to a national audience. Mr. Bush won that race, with 68 percent of the vote, which included more than a third of the Hispanic vote, offering him a powerful credential when he ran for president two years later as “a different kind of Republican.”

This summer, Mr. Christie established a bilingual campaign office in Paterson, N.J., and spent $275,000 on a Spanish-language television ad. He has also announced a Hispanics for Christie coalition and is now running even among Hispanic voters against Ms. Buono, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released 10 days ago.

While Christie’s truculent personality will make it a bit harder to sell him to the public as the “compassionate conservative” that Bush was depicted as being, this is exactly the sort of candidate that Republicans who hope to improve on their increasingly poor showings with minorities and independents want. But the question for both Christie and the GOP is whether the party’s conservative base will interpret this outreach as a form of “treason” rather than commonsense politics.

It should be remembered that many Republicans saw the younger Bush as the establishment’s candidate for 2000, and in many ways that was exactly right. But Bush succeeded in arousing the sympathy of movement conservatives as well as his father’s large donors. That worked because the 43rd president’s social conservative views that placed him to the right of Bush 41 convinced the party’s base that he could be trusted to govern even though he worked hard to show himself as open to constituencies that were not Republican strongholds, like Hispanics. What Bush strategist Karl Rove understood was that if you turn out your base while eating into Democratic majorities in other demographic sectors, that was a formula for victory.

Flash forward 15 years later and Republicans understand that victory in 2016 will rely on the same prescription, but find themselves handicapped by the willingness of much of the GOP base to identify themselves with opposition to immigration reform, a cause that has often spilled over into open prejudice such as that articulated recently by Rep. Steve King. Even more disturbing, an increasingly vocal segment of Republicans aren’t so much dedicated to these views as they are suspicious of anyone who seeks to work with Democrats (or embrace them when they come bearing federal aid money after a hurricane, as Christie did with President Obama last October) or willing to try to work to get Hispanic or black votes.

Christie’s problem thus isn’t so much whether his views are sufficiently conservative—as a pro-life opponent of big labor and budget cutter he should be acceptable to the right on his own terms—as whether his efforts to cast himself as a centrist is itself disqualifying.

Perhaps to some on the right it is, and there’s little doubt that this reputation as well as his commendable attack on isolationist views on security and foreign policy will hurt him with some Tea Partiers. As Seth wrote last week, merely putting Christie forward as more likely to win than other Republicans isn’t a compelling argument. But neither should Christie be discouraged from mimicking the George W. Bush formula. If, like the Texan, he can credibly claim to be a conservative (as perhaps John McCain and Mitt Romney did not) while also demonstrating an ability to beat Democrats on their home turf in New Jersey (something Romney feared to try to do a second time in Massachusetts), then maybe the Bush formula can elect another Republican to the White House.

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Bush Versus the Right on Immigration

It is to be expected that former President George W. Bush’s statement endorsing the immigration reform bill recently passed by the Senate won’t have much impact on the activists urging House Republicans to trash the legislation. The Tea Party movement that grew up in the years after Bush left office was, to no small degree, a reaction to the way the party seemed to crash and burn in the final years of his presidency. The consensus among many in the grass roots was that Bush and many congressional Republicans lost their way in the last decade, becoming advocates for big government in a way that undermined the GOP’s principles while also demonstrating no aptitude for governing.

The party’s resurgence of 2010 was driven by a new brand of Tea Party Republicanism that rejected the supposed legacy of Bush’s tax-and-spend policies almost as much as it did those of President Obama. But just as polls show that the country is reassessing its negative views of the Bush presidency, so, too, should Republicans who believed that kicking the 43rd president to the curb was essential to ensuring their future.

It is in that context that conservative activists should listen to Bush’s terse advice and remember that their views about immigration policy should be separated from the tendency of many on the right to oppose anything endorsed by Obama. Rather than dismissing Bush as a relic of an era of big government Republicanism, they should remember that for all of his faults and the mistakes made during his administration, the last GOP candidate to win the presidency was someone who had a better grasp of the sentiments of middle America than most of those conservatives currently claiming to represent its interests.

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It is to be expected that former President George W. Bush’s statement endorsing the immigration reform bill recently passed by the Senate won’t have much impact on the activists urging House Republicans to trash the legislation. The Tea Party movement that grew up in the years after Bush left office was, to no small degree, a reaction to the way the party seemed to crash and burn in the final years of his presidency. The consensus among many in the grass roots was that Bush and many congressional Republicans lost their way in the last decade, becoming advocates for big government in a way that undermined the GOP’s principles while also demonstrating no aptitude for governing.

The party’s resurgence of 2010 was driven by a new brand of Tea Party Republicanism that rejected the supposed legacy of Bush’s tax-and-spend policies almost as much as it did those of President Obama. But just as polls show that the country is reassessing its negative views of the Bush presidency, so, too, should Republicans who believed that kicking the 43rd president to the curb was essential to ensuring their future.

It is in that context that conservative activists should listen to Bush’s terse advice and remember that their views about immigration policy should be separated from the tendency of many on the right to oppose anything endorsed by Obama. Rather than dismissing Bush as a relic of an era of big government Republicanism, they should remember that for all of his faults and the mistakes made during his administration, the last GOP candidate to win the presidency was someone who had a better grasp of the sentiments of middle America than most of those conservatives currently claiming to represent its interests.

As Bush noted in the interview with ABC News this past weekend, the debate on the right about whether the immigration bill will improve the prospects of the Republicans among Hispanics is beside the point. “Good policy yields good politics, as far as I’m concerned,” Bush said.

Tea Partiers have lambasted the idea of “compassionate conservatism” that Bush ran on in 2000 and 2004 as a failed experiment in which the GOP sought to outdo the Democrats when it came to distributing goodies to the voters. To some extent that critique is right. The expansion of Medicare that provided free prescription drug benefits passed by a GOP Congress and signed by Bush was a fiscal disaster and is rightly cited by conservatives as an example of how the “compassionate conservatives” drove the party into a ditch. But that doesn’t mean that every aspect of Bush’s attempt to reposition the party as one that represented the center as well as the right was incorrect. His spirit of openness—exemplified by his support of immigration reform—was integral to his electoral success and his ability to lead until war weariness and a fiscal collapse (that was brought on by a housing bubble created by Democratic policies as much as those of the GOP) derailed his presidency.

Much of the debate over the immigration bill this summer will focus on its strengths and weaknesses, but the real issue isn’t so much the details as whether Republicans have lost faith in the idea that, as Bush said, “I think it’s very important to fix a broken system, to treat people with respect. And have confidence in our capacity to assimilate people.”

Strip away a lot of the sophistry and misleading statistics that are put forward by some of the bill’s critics and what you see is a basic lack of confidence in that capacity and a lack of faith in the country’s future as its population changes. The nativist tone of many of the arguments used against the bill isn’t just a function of that lamentable tendency on the part of some on the right to deplore and to futilely attempt to halt the rise in the Hispanic population as it is a desire to keep out foreigners who wish to work in the United States. That is, as Peter Wehner noted earlier today, not just wrong but completely contrary to the spirit of Republicanism as articulated by its iconic leaders Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan.

The assumption on the part of many on the right is that Bush is ancient history and should be ignored. Though the president’s mother, former First Lady Barbara Bush, was right when she said, “we’ve had enough Bushes” in the White House, Republicans do need to remember that they will never grow their party or win back the White House by allowing isolationism or nativism to dominate their thinking.

As one conservative critic wrote at National Review Online today, immigration has been an issue since 1789, but while he was right about that what he failed to point out is that those who hitch their wagon to the Know Nothing strain of our political tradition always lose in the end.

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Obama Looking for Love in Wrong Places

After a miserable May in which he found himself beset by a trio of scandals, President Obama sought solace in foreign policy this month. But June hasn’t proved to be much better for the president as a disastrous meeting with the president of China was followed by an equally problematic confrontation with Russia’s Vladimir Putin at the G-8 summit in Ireland. Nor was he likely to do better elsewhere in Europe, where he was once held in high esteem. Today’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin only emphasized the contrast between the ecstatic reaction he received there from a huge audience in 2008 and the tepid response he got today to a laundry list of foreign policy proposals including a call for reductions in nuclear weapons that will likely go nowhere. As even the president’s cheering section at the New York Times noted today in an astonishingly frank assessment of the failure of Obama’s foreign policy initiatives, the president has been looking for love in all the wrong places abroad and now finds himself alienated from allies, despised by America’s foes and saddled with friendships with Middle East Islamists that are as embarrassing as they are unproductive.

The string of foreign policy setbacks on the heels of a domestic meltdown shows that Obama is already deep into the usual second term malaise suffered by presidents who won reelection. But the problem here isn’t just a run of bad luck. As the Times discusses, Obama has trouble relating to foreign leaders and has made some astoundingly bad choices in selecting those to whom he became close. The bad chemistry not only makes for silly photo ops, like the awkward confrontation with Putin that was a clinic in how to read bad body language. Nobody expects an authoritarian like Putin to favor America or its policies. But what we are witnessing again this week is a president who is unable to muster significant foreign support for his policies or to mend fences with friends. That Obama’s election was greeted abroad with joy only makes it that much more noticeable that his former fan base no longer has any use for him. Where once we were told that Obama would end America’s isolation, now even the Times is willing to concede that George W. Bush was a better diplomat:

Mr. Obama differs from his most recent predecessors, who made personal relationships with leaders the cornerstone of their foreign policies. The first George Bush moved gracefully in foreign capitals, while Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush related to fellow leaders as politicians, trying to understand their pressures and constituencies.

“That’s not President Obama’s style,” said James B. Steinberg, Mr. Clinton’s deputy national security adviser and Mr. Obama’s deputy secretary of state.

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After a miserable May in which he found himself beset by a trio of scandals, President Obama sought solace in foreign policy this month. But June hasn’t proved to be much better for the president as a disastrous meeting with the president of China was followed by an equally problematic confrontation with Russia’s Vladimir Putin at the G-8 summit in Ireland. Nor was he likely to do better elsewhere in Europe, where he was once held in high esteem. Today’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin only emphasized the contrast between the ecstatic reaction he received there from a huge audience in 2008 and the tepid response he got today to a laundry list of foreign policy proposals including a call for reductions in nuclear weapons that will likely go nowhere. As even the president’s cheering section at the New York Times noted today in an astonishingly frank assessment of the failure of Obama’s foreign policy initiatives, the president has been looking for love in all the wrong places abroad and now finds himself alienated from allies, despised by America’s foes and saddled with friendships with Middle East Islamists that are as embarrassing as they are unproductive.

The string of foreign policy setbacks on the heels of a domestic meltdown shows that Obama is already deep into the usual second term malaise suffered by presidents who won reelection. But the problem here isn’t just a run of bad luck. As the Times discusses, Obama has trouble relating to foreign leaders and has made some astoundingly bad choices in selecting those to whom he became close. The bad chemistry not only makes for silly photo ops, like the awkward confrontation with Putin that was a clinic in how to read bad body language. Nobody expects an authoritarian like Putin to favor America or its policies. But what we are witnessing again this week is a president who is unable to muster significant foreign support for his policies or to mend fences with friends. That Obama’s election was greeted abroad with joy only makes it that much more noticeable that his former fan base no longer has any use for him. Where once we were told that Obama would end America’s isolation, now even the Times is willing to concede that George W. Bush was a better diplomat:

Mr. Obama differs from his most recent predecessors, who made personal relationships with leaders the cornerstone of their foreign policies. The first George Bush moved gracefully in foreign capitals, while Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush related to fellow leaders as politicians, trying to understand their pressures and constituencies.

“That’s not President Obama’s style,” said James B. Steinberg, Mr. Clinton’s deputy national security adviser and Mr. Obama’s deputy secretary of state.

If Obama can’t get his way on economic issues with China, or on Syria or Iran with Europe, it’s not exactly a surprise. The list of foreign leaders who apparently can’t stand the former apostle of hope and change is getting longer every day.

Obama came into office determined to pick fights with Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and succeeded in creating a crisis in U.S.-Israel relations that he has spent the last two years seeking to fix. He has always had problems with Germany’s Angela Merkel but now is also in trouble with France’s Francois Hollande, in spite of the fact that he looked to the new French president as an ally against the German chancellor.

But the real key to America’s foreign policy woes in the age of Obama is not so much the enemies that Obama has made as it is his choice of friends.

As the Times rightly recalls, a big part of the deep chill with Putin—with whom the supposedly confrontational cowboy Bush managed to maintain cordial relations and open communications despite deep differences on the issues—is the way Obama went out of his way to cultivate Dmitry Medvedev, the functionary that Putin put into the Russian presidency while he was term-limited out of the office. Even foreign policy novices knew that Medvedev was a cipher but, as the Times notes, Obama decided he was the man America needed to cultivate:

Mr. Obama spent nearly four years befriending Mr. Putin’s predecessor, Dmitri A. Medvedev, hoping to build him up as a counterweight to Mr. Putin. That never happened, and Mr. Obama now finds himself back at square one with a Russian leader who appears less likely than ever to find common ground with the United States on issues like Syria.

Even a foreign policy neophyte would have known that no good would come of such a foolish initiative but Obama, who even told Medvedev that he would have more flexibility to help Russia after being reelected, now finds himself with a Russian rival that is not only opposed to his policies but bearing a personal grudge.

Similarly, Obama bragged openly that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was his best foreign buddy and thought his close relationship with the Islamist would bear fruit in Middle East peace as well as help on Syria and Iran. But not only has Erdoğan made peace between Israelis and Palestinians even less likely and undermined sanctions against Iran, his repression of peaceful demonstrators protesting the drift to authoritarianism in Turkey gives the lie to Obama’s pose as a friend of freedom. His embrace of Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi, whose push for total power for his Muslim Brotherhood government was eased by Obama’s support, is just as much of an embarrassment.

After less than five years in office, it’s not just that European idealists are disillusioned with Obama because he has chosen to continue and even expand Bush’s counter-terrorism policies while still trying to pretend to be different. What we witnessed at the G-8 and virtually every other foreign encounter of this president is a man who is in completely over his head. Far from fixing the country’s problems abroad, he has worsened them with arrogant dismissals of friends, weakness that has encouraged enemies and friendships with leaders that no American president should embrace. Abroad, this isn’t just a case of second term blues; Barack Obama’s incompetence is a problem that keeps getting worse.

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Laura Ingraham and Me (Round Two)

Laura Ingraham and I had some differences over a number of political matters that made their way into print (see here and here). Laura asked me to appear on her program, which I did this morning. You can listen to our conversation here.

We discussed my post on Phyllis Schlafly, Laura’s response to it, immigration, the Iraq war, and the Bush legacy. I should say that Laura was a very gracious and fair-minded host–and while our differences on some issues remain, I appreciated her generosity of spirit in having me on, and in how she conducted the interview. And whether one agrees with Laura or with me on the issues we discussed, I think you’ll agree with my assessment of her.

Laura Ingraham and I had some differences over a number of political matters that made their way into print (see here and here). Laura asked me to appear on her program, which I did this morning. You can listen to our conversation here.

We discussed my post on Phyllis Schlafly, Laura’s response to it, immigration, the Iraq war, and the Bush legacy. I should say that Laura was a very gracious and fair-minded host–and while our differences on some issues remain, I appreciated her generosity of spirit in having me on, and in how she conducted the interview. And whether one agrees with Laura or with me on the issues we discussed, I think you’ll agree with my assessment of her.

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Responding to Laura Ingraham

My former Reagan administration colleague Laura Ingraham is unhappy with me. In a post on her website, Ingraham is livid that I criticized longtime conservative activist Phillis Schlafly for her remarks related to immigration. What I wrote was not just wrong; it was “appalling and disgusting.” 

That’s a rather silly charge to make, since my criticisms of Ms. Schlafly were not personal; they had to do with differences over a substantive policy matter. Ingraham believes it’s terribly unfair that I said Schlafly has lost the “ambition to convince” when it comes to the GOP appealing to Hispanics. But how else can one interpret these comments by Schlafly: “The Hispanics who come in like this are going to vote Democrat. And there is not the slightest bit of evidence that they are going to vote Republican. The people the Republicans should reach out to are the white votes – the white voters who didn’t vote in the last election.” What makes Ingraham’s comments even more curious is that she largely aligns herself with my argument, having written, “I think there’s more hope in attracting Latino voters than [Schlafly] does.”

So do I.

But where Ingraham’s arguments become most confused is in her angry attacks against George W. Bush, anyone who worked for President Bush, and the entire Bush family. (It should be pointed out that Ms. Ingraham showed an almost supernatural ability to contain her disdain for President Bush when she was invited to meet with him in the White House. Who knew that underneath her good manners and supportive words lay a seething volcano?) 

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My former Reagan administration colleague Laura Ingraham is unhappy with me. In a post on her website, Ingraham is livid that I criticized longtime conservative activist Phillis Schlafly for her remarks related to immigration. What I wrote was not just wrong; it was “appalling and disgusting.” 

That’s a rather silly charge to make, since my criticisms of Ms. Schlafly were not personal; they had to do with differences over a substantive policy matter. Ingraham believes it’s terribly unfair that I said Schlafly has lost the “ambition to convince” when it comes to the GOP appealing to Hispanics. But how else can one interpret these comments by Schlafly: “The Hispanics who come in like this are going to vote Democrat. And there is not the slightest bit of evidence that they are going to vote Republican. The people the Republicans should reach out to are the white votes – the white voters who didn’t vote in the last election.” What makes Ingraham’s comments even more curious is that she largely aligns herself with my argument, having written, “I think there’s more hope in attracting Latino voters than [Schlafly] does.”

So do I.

But where Ingraham’s arguments become most confused is in her angry attacks against George W. Bush, anyone who worked for President Bush, and the entire Bush family. (It should be pointed out that Ms. Ingraham showed an almost supernatural ability to contain her disdain for President Bush when she was invited to meet with him in the White House. Who knew that underneath her good manners and supportive words lay a seething volcano?) 


Ms. Ingraham repeatedly invokes the mantra “How dare ex-Bushies” criticize Schlafly. After all, Ingraham is saying, George W. Bush and all those associated with him are not true conservatives, having undermined conservatism at every turn. So what is Ingraham’s specific indictment against Bush?

There’s a lot to sort through, and much of it is jumbled. But let’s deal with it as best we can. For starters, Ingraham says the Bush administration “drove so many people away from conservatism.” But that assertion is wrong, as this Gallup poll demonstrates. When George W. Bush won the presidency, 38 percent of the country identified itself as conservative (half of that figure identified itself as liberal). The number of self-identified conservatives fluctuated between a low of 37 percent and a high of 40 percent during the Bush presidency. The country’s political ideology during the Bush years was quite stable. And Republicans during the Bush years became substantially more conservative, less moderate, and less liberal.

As for Ingraham’s claim that most Americans consider the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to be “pointless”: For the entire Bush presidency the number of Americans who said it was a mistake to send troops to Afghanistan never rose above 34 percent, according to the Gallup organization. Public support for the Iraq war did drop–but it increased after Bush embraced a new counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq (the so-called surge), one of the most impressive demonstrations of presidential leadership in our lifetime. It’s also worth pointing out that Ingraham aggressively supported both conflicts, including in Iraq (see here, here, here and here). For most of the last decade she got the point of both wars–and was highly quite critical of those who did not. 

Ms. Ingraham complains that Bush “refused to enforce immigration law as the people demanded.” Back to reality: Under Bush we saw substantially increased border security, he ended “catch and release,” and illegal immigration declined virtually every year Bush was in office. Ms. Ingraham also excoriates Bush for fighting for “amnesty for illegal aliens.” Actually, Bush didn’t support amnesty for illegal aliens. Amnesty means to exempt from penalty, and Bush’s policies required penalties for those who break the law but wanted to apply for citizenship. What Ingraham doesn’t mention is that the one president who did sign legislation granting full-scale amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants was her political hero (and mine) Ronald Reagan. In a 1984 presidential debate, in fact, Reagan went so far as to say, “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and have lived here, even though sometime back they may have entered illegally.” The mind reels at the critical things Ingraham would say about Bush if he had actually had Reagan’s record on amnesty. 

For the purposes of this discussion it might be helpful to stay with the Bush-Reagan comparison, since Reagan is the gold standard for conservatives and ranks among the greatest presidents in our history. It’s therefore illustrative to take the issues Ingraham has selected and measure Bush’s actual policies and achievements against Reagan, if only to put them in a real (as opposed to a make-believe) context.

Ingraham charges that Bush “ran up huge budget deficits.” False. The budget deficit during Bush’s tenure averaged 2 percent of GDP, which is well below the 50-year average of 3 percent and considerably below what it was under Reagan (when it went as high as 6 percent of GDP and averaged 4.2 percent).

On spending: over the last 40 years and eight presidencies, only two presidents have kept spending below 20 percent of GDP in even a single year: George W. Bush did it in six of his eight fiscal years; Bill Clinton in four. During fiscal years 1981-88, the Reagan years, federal spending averaged over 22 percent of GDP. As Keith Hennessey has pointed out, “even at its highest point during the Bush tenure, spending as a share of GDP was still lower than the lowest year of the Reagan Administration.”

Ms. Ingraham has long had something of an obsession with Harriet Miers, who was never seated on the Supreme Court. But both Anthony Kennedy and Sandra Day O’Connor were. Unlike Antonin Scalia, Reagan’s greatest Supreme Court appointment, Kennedy and O’Connor turned out to be fairly problematic from an originalist perspective and both refused to overturn Roe v. Wade. (Schlafly called Roe v. Wade “the worst decision in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court” and said that it “is responsible for the killing of millions of unborn babies.”)

As for the “ex-Bushies” who “practically destroyed the GOP”: George W. Bush won both presidential campaigns he ran in. During his tenure the GOP reached its high-water mark of influence, when it controlled the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives. And in 2002, Republicans regained their majority in the Senate and added seats in the House–only the second election in American history in which a president’s party gained seats in both the House and Senate in the first midterm election. The GOP didn’t maintain that position, losing 29 House seats in 2006 (one more than the historic average). There’s no question that in Bush’s second term he encountered political difficulties that he didn’t face in his first term. But a fair-minded reading of the record makes it clear that Ingraham’s claims are ludicrously exaggerated.

What Ingraham has done is to string together a series of incorrect and misleading assertions, even as she consistently overlooks Bush’s conservative achievements on taxes (he cut them several times and unlike Reagan, never raised them) and growth (during the Bush years America experienced six years of uninterrupted economic growth and a record 52 straight months of job creation), culture of life and marriage issues, the Second Amendment, support for Israel, missile defense, withdrawing from the ABM Treaty, and his anti-terrorism policies, to name just a few. Keith Hennessey also points out that Bush “proposed structural and incremental reforms to Social Security and Medicare that set up the current entitlement reform debate.” 

What appears to have occurred is that Ingraham’s anti-Bush animus, whatever its origins, has crippled her ability to think clearly about him or his record.

I’ll close by making a broader point. Much of the left has come to symbolize an ad hominem impulse in American politics–the habit of replacing reasoned arguments with personal attacks. It’s a shame that Ingraham–whom I’ve known for years and have always had a cordial personal relationship with–has taken to employing this tactic. Rather than offer a calm and informed dissent to what I wrote, she has instead opted to post a piece that is sloppy and unserious. It’s a shame, since intemperate minds are an obstacle to conservative success.

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Compare Obama Scandals to W., Not Nixon

The Obama administration’s scandal trifecta has caused some Republicans and even some media figures to start throwing the most dreaded comparison you can throw at a president: Richard Milhous Nixon. But though Democrats understand that the politicization of the IRS will, at the very least, energize their opponents next year, they’ve also rightly understood that at this stage talk about Nixon is, at best, premature. Thus when the White House sent out one of the president’s inner circle yesterday to do all five Sunday news talk shows, their strategy for surviving the scandals was clear. After the worst week of the Obama presidency, senior advisor Dan Pfeiffer played the one card that has always worked for the Democrats in the last few years: alleged Republican extremism. To listen to Pfeiffer, instead of the president needing to be accountable to the country for what’s been happening, it’s the GOP that owes the country an apology for preventing Obama from implementing his policies by prioritizing the scandals.

Turning the tables on your opponents is always a useful tactic, especially if it is done as shamelessly as this. After all, the same media that has turned on the president in the last week spent the previous four years lapping up this stuff. But if Pfeiffer’s boss thinks he can live through this siege of bad news merely by repeating the same media strategy he’s been employing all along, he’s mistaken. Talk about Nixon or impeachment doesn’t hurt Obama. But what he and his advisors are missing is that the most dangerous comparison to him right now is a president with whom they are much better acquainted: George W. Bush.

Mentioning Bush in the same breath as Obama is bound to offend both Democrats and Republicans. The former because they despise W. even more than a GOP demon from the past like Nixon, and the latter because they rightly believe evaluations of Bush as a failed president are unfair and the product of liberal slanders and media bias. But the 43rd president’s second term provides an object lesson in how a president can be done in by an impression of incompetence.

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The Obama administration’s scandal trifecta has caused some Republicans and even some media figures to start throwing the most dreaded comparison you can throw at a president: Richard Milhous Nixon. But though Democrats understand that the politicization of the IRS will, at the very least, energize their opponents next year, they’ve also rightly understood that at this stage talk about Nixon is, at best, premature. Thus when the White House sent out one of the president’s inner circle yesterday to do all five Sunday news talk shows, their strategy for surviving the scandals was clear. After the worst week of the Obama presidency, senior advisor Dan Pfeiffer played the one card that has always worked for the Democrats in the last few years: alleged Republican extremism. To listen to Pfeiffer, instead of the president needing to be accountable to the country for what’s been happening, it’s the GOP that owes the country an apology for preventing Obama from implementing his policies by prioritizing the scandals.

Turning the tables on your opponents is always a useful tactic, especially if it is done as shamelessly as this. After all, the same media that has turned on the president in the last week spent the previous four years lapping up this stuff. But if Pfeiffer’s boss thinks he can live through this siege of bad news merely by repeating the same media strategy he’s been employing all along, he’s mistaken. Talk about Nixon or impeachment doesn’t hurt Obama. But what he and his advisors are missing is that the most dangerous comparison to him right now is a president with whom they are much better acquainted: George W. Bush.

Mentioning Bush in the same breath as Obama is bound to offend both Democrats and Republicans. The former because they despise W. even more than a GOP demon from the past like Nixon, and the latter because they rightly believe evaluations of Bush as a failed president are unfair and the product of liberal slanders and media bias. But the 43rd president’s second term provides an object lesson in how a president can be done in by an impression of incompetence.

Right now, Republicans aren’t satisfied with damning the administration for its incompetent response to the failure to protect diplomats in Benghazi, the IRS scandal or the Justice Department’s spying on journalists. The implications of the lies that were told about Benghazi, the politicization of the IRS and the DOJ’s campaign of intimidation against whistle-blowers go much deeper than that. Indeed, Democrats lately seem to think that putting all of these problems down to stupidity is a safer strategy than the alternative. They believe Americans will forgive the government for not knowing what it is doing a lot quicker than they will deceit or a malevolent manipulation of power.

Perhaps. But what they are forgetting is that what made Bush’s second term so problematic was not so much the allegations about him “lying us into a war” as it was the impression that he lost control of the government. The tipping point was Hurricane Katrina and the attempt to portray that disaster as not only being Bush’s fault but that government agencies were not up to the task of handling the problem. The Iraq war dragged down his presidency not so much because many Americans came to the conclusion it was a mistake but because for a crucial period, the bloodletting seemed to be beyond his control. The financial crisis in the closing months of his term solidified the idea that Bush wasn’t in command and couldn’t fix problems.

Let me specify that I think much of this case against Bush was off base. Indeed, Iraq showed that Bush could take a crisis on and largely fix it, as the surge he adopted in 2007 won the war even if Obama’s subsequent withdrawal may wind up losing it. But the lesson here is that once a president is branded as out of touch and incompetent, not even a war-winning strategy shift can make it go away.

So while Democrats may think they are taking the easy way out by trying to persuade the public that the government just didn’t know what it was doing in these scandals, this is actually a fatal mistake. For a party and a president that are ideologically committed to the cause of big government to play this card undermines everything they stand for. As bad as Bush seemed to be doing, it is even worse for his successor to behave as if he hears about every problem in the media the same as everyone else and that he had nothing to do with any of it.

Pfeiffer and the rest of Obama’s advisers need to understand that rather than the incompetence argument being a plea bargain that will get him off the hook, it is actually an admission that the lame duck portion of this presidency has already begun. Accusing Republicans of being extremists won’t change that verdict.

By the same token, as much as Republicans are right to focus on the lies about Benghazi and the illegality of what the IRS has done, they need to remember just how badly Bush suffered from being labeled as a president who didn’t know what he was doing. Calling Obama a liar may be more satisfying than calling him incompetent, but it is the latter that may do more damage in the long run.

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Bush’s “Decency” Was Always There, but Where Was the Media’s?

As the 2012 presidential election drew to a close, Mitt Romney made the rounds in the important state of Pennsylvania with a closing message: “The president has run a strong campaign, I believe he is a good man and wish him well, and his family well. He is a good father and has been a good example of a good father, but it is time for a new direction. It is a time for a better tomorrow.” Barack Obama is a good man and a good father–this was central to Romney’s campaign theme. As the liberal Mother Jones noted a month prior to Election Day: “Romney’s schtick has been an almost sorrowful acknowledgment that Obama is a good man, an honorable man, but in over his head.”

Romney delivered that message consistently. There may have been plenty of arrant nonsense about Obama’s eligibility from the fever swamps of the right and shameless self-promoters like Donald Trump, but the man who wanted to be president showed the man who is currently president the respect of the office. That is strikingly different from how the Democratic Party’s grandees treated George W. Bush, of course. John Kerry joked about assassinating Bush. Al Gore screamed wild-eyed that Bush “betrayed this country!” Obama himself traded in all sorts of conspiracy theories about Iraq, including the claim that the Iraq War was launched to distract the country from “a rise in the poverty rate.”

I don’t recount this to use the opening of the Bush library today to re-litigate the left’s Bush derangement syndrome–that’s all in the public record. But amid all the recollections and reconsiderations of the Bush presidency today, one in particular caught my attention. The mainstream press coverage of the Bush presidency was not a sober record of history as it developed but rather a daily expression of the Kerry-Gore-Obama attitude toward the president. Yet it’s possible to think that Kerry, Gore, and Obama were being cynical; perhaps they didn’t really believe all the things they said about Bush. But what if the reporters who covered the Bush presidency believed their own propaganda? In what serves as a stinging self-indictment, two Politico writers–both formerly of the Washington Post and one currently the editor in chief of Politico–today have filed a story titled “What we’ve learned about George W. Bush since he left town.”

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As the 2012 presidential election drew to a close, Mitt Romney made the rounds in the important state of Pennsylvania with a closing message: “The president has run a strong campaign, I believe he is a good man and wish him well, and his family well. He is a good father and has been a good example of a good father, but it is time for a new direction. It is a time for a better tomorrow.” Barack Obama is a good man and a good father–this was central to Romney’s campaign theme. As the liberal Mother Jones noted a month prior to Election Day: “Romney’s schtick has been an almost sorrowful acknowledgment that Obama is a good man, an honorable man, but in over his head.”

Romney delivered that message consistently. There may have been plenty of arrant nonsense about Obama’s eligibility from the fever swamps of the right and shameless self-promoters like Donald Trump, but the man who wanted to be president showed the man who is currently president the respect of the office. That is strikingly different from how the Democratic Party’s grandees treated George W. Bush, of course. John Kerry joked about assassinating Bush. Al Gore screamed wild-eyed that Bush “betrayed this country!” Obama himself traded in all sorts of conspiracy theories about Iraq, including the claim that the Iraq War was launched to distract the country from “a rise in the poverty rate.”

I don’t recount this to use the opening of the Bush library today to re-litigate the left’s Bush derangement syndrome–that’s all in the public record. But amid all the recollections and reconsiderations of the Bush presidency today, one in particular caught my attention. The mainstream press coverage of the Bush presidency was not a sober record of history as it developed but rather a daily expression of the Kerry-Gore-Obama attitude toward the president. Yet it’s possible to think that Kerry, Gore, and Obama were being cynical; perhaps they didn’t really believe all the things they said about Bush. But what if the reporters who covered the Bush presidency believed their own propaganda? In what serves as a stinging self-indictment, two Politico writers–both formerly of the Washington Post and one currently the editor in chief of Politico–today have filed a story titled “What we’ve learned about George W. Bush since he left town.”

Here is the fourth item on the list, and an explanation:

• Bush is a personally decent fellow

When he ran for president in 2000, the notion that Bush was on balance a likable guy — if not uniformly respected for his intelligence or preparation for the presidency — was widely assumed.

By 2009, his divisive policies and defiant political style had been so polarizing for so long that much of Bush’s personality and values had become obscured by a toxic cloud.

Since leaving office, he has avoided partisan politics and taken up painting. Several pieces of his art have ended up online, including a self-portrait of him in the shower.

Yes, two veteran political reporters actually wrote this. They never thought much of the former president while he was in office, but then, a few years later, they saw a painting. And you have to love their explanation for why they didn’t think Bush was a “decent fellow” earlier: “much of Bush’s personality and values had become obscured by a toxic cloud.”

And what was that toxic cloud? That would be the political reporting. So we have our answer: the press believed their own miserable propaganda. “Just remember,” George Costanza tells Jerry Seinfeld, “it’s not a lie if you believe it.” It is of course a lie that Bush wasn’t a thoroughly decent person throughout his presidency, so it was crucial for liberals and the press to believe it.

It’s not as though Bush’s obvious decency wasn’t visible to reporters. Ron Fournier, now with National Journal, had covered the Bush presidency, and a couple of days ago wrote about the decency he saw in Bush. The whole thing is worth reading, but one key takeaway, as Fournier gives example after example, is how Bush’s sense of personal decency was clear as day to anyone who interacted with him.

So yes, there was plenty of absurdity coming from the right and leveled at President Obama, and history will not look kindly on the disrespect and indignity of making the president feel compelled to show his birth certificate. Plenty of the attacks on Bill Clinton were–or should have been–out of bounds too. But ask yourself this: can you picture John McCain screaming at the top of his lungs that Barack Obama is a traitor to the country he leads, or jokingly suggesting he should assassinate Obama? And can you imagine political reporters writing four years after Obama leaves office that they never knew he was a personally decent man?

I hope you cannot imagine those things, but that is the reality that George W. Bush endured and absorbed with grace, good humor, unrequited compassion, and above all, yes, personal decency.

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Is Bush Fatigue Real or Imagined?

This is a big week for the Bush family as the opening of George W. Bush’s presidential library and museum on the campus of Southern Methodist University has brought the 43rd president’s legacy into focus. The debate over his record has been fierce but, as Peter Wehner noted yesterday a Washington Post-ABC News poll gave Bush supporters some long-needed comfort as it showed his approval rating was roughly equivalent to that of his successor. Some are interpreting this result as an indicator that the day Republicans had waited for had finally arrived as the public finally realizes Bush’s worth while catching on to Barack Obama’s shortcomings.

The GOP celebration may, however, be a bit premature. One poll does not constitute a trend and one would think that the last presidential campaign would have cured Republicans of their habit of placing their faith in polls that produced results that pleased them. The timing of the survey, which was taken last week in the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, may also have influenced the numbers as it highlighted the one issue—homeland security and terrorism—on which President Bush always scored relatively well even when his popularity was its nadir.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that what we’re seeing in the WaPo poll is at least the beginning of a shift in public opinion about Bush 43. As I’ve written before, the opprobrium with which his presidency has been treated since he left office is largely undeserved. He made his share of mistakes but, as Bush supporters are pointing out this week, his defense of the homeland after 9/11 was his greatest achievement and the keynote of his presidency. If the worm is turning on Bush, this might mean the path is clearing for a third member of the family to try for the White House. That’s the conceit of much of the recent coverage of Jeb Bush, whose obvious interest in a 2016 run is also being highlighted by the big party in Dallas. But any assumptions that the uptick in his brother’s poll numbers mean that there is no Bush fatigue in the country are probably unfounded.

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This is a big week for the Bush family as the opening of George W. Bush’s presidential library and museum on the campus of Southern Methodist University has brought the 43rd president’s legacy into focus. The debate over his record has been fierce but, as Peter Wehner noted yesterday a Washington Post-ABC News poll gave Bush supporters some long-needed comfort as it showed his approval rating was roughly equivalent to that of his successor. Some are interpreting this result as an indicator that the day Republicans had waited for had finally arrived as the public finally realizes Bush’s worth while catching on to Barack Obama’s shortcomings.

The GOP celebration may, however, be a bit premature. One poll does not constitute a trend and one would think that the last presidential campaign would have cured Republicans of their habit of placing their faith in polls that produced results that pleased them. The timing of the survey, which was taken last week in the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, may also have influenced the numbers as it highlighted the one issue—homeland security and terrorism—on which President Bush always scored relatively well even when his popularity was its nadir.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that what we’re seeing in the WaPo poll is at least the beginning of a shift in public opinion about Bush 43. As I’ve written before, the opprobrium with which his presidency has been treated since he left office is largely undeserved. He made his share of mistakes but, as Bush supporters are pointing out this week, his defense of the homeland after 9/11 was his greatest achievement and the keynote of his presidency. If the worm is turning on Bush, this might mean the path is clearing for a third member of the family to try for the White House. That’s the conceit of much of the recent coverage of Jeb Bush, whose obvious interest in a 2016 run is also being highlighted by the big party in Dallas. But any assumptions that the uptick in his brother’s poll numbers mean that there is no Bush fatigue in the country are probably unfounded.

As former Republican Party chair Haley Barbour told Politico today, the calculations about Jeb’s presidential hopes are inextricably tied up with the whole notion of Bush fatigue. Barbour is probably right when he says, “If Jeb’s last name was Brown instead of Bush, he’d probably be the front-runner for the Republican nomination.”

As a successful former governor of crucial state with a strong conservative record and a history of appealing to Hispanics, he fits the profile of exactly what the GOP is looking for in 2016. Even more than that, as one of the party’s most thoughtful voices on issues like education and immigration, he’s well prepared to make a strong case for himself as someone linked to the party’s future rather than its past.

But as Barbour says, Jeb’s name is Bush, not Brown. And his belief that there is no such thing as Bush fatigue is profoundly mistaken.

No matter how qualified Jeb Bush may be, Republicans understand that, like it or not, his presidential candidacy would inevitably become a referendum on his family’s place in American history. His own statements, both this year and last, defending his brother make it abundantly clear that the issue will follow him around wherever he goes even if he wants to talk about everything else.

Bush fatigue may be declining as the years pass and Bush 43’s accomplishments are recognized and Katrina, the Iraq War and the financial meltdown are no longer in the news. But a Jeb Bush candidacy will serve as an excuse for the left and the media to double down on their past attacks rather than allowing them to fade from our collective memory. Anyone who thinks the same elements that largely control the mainstream media and popular culture that buried the second President Bush under an avalanche of vituperation are not prepared to renew their attacks is underestimating the hatred that he engendered on the left.

During a week when George W. Bush is finally getting a little credit after years of being wrongly slammed as the man who lied us into war and crashed the economy, it may be possible for his family to dream of an unprecedented presidential trifecta. But Republicans should be wary of their ambitions. No matter how strong their arguments about Bush 43’s virtues, one poll doesn’t change the fact that his presidency is still associated with a hurricane, missing weapons of mass destruction, a bloody and inconclusive war and the bailout of Wall Street as the economy tottered. Sadly, Bush fatigue is not a figment of a hostile media’s imagination. GOP hopes in 2016 depend on convincing the American people their party is the hope of the American future after eight dismal years of Obama. Another Bush candidacy is a recipe for GOP disaster.

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The Bush Reappraisal

A front-page Washington Post story by one of the nation’s top political reporters, Dan Balz, points out that a new Washington Post-ABC News poll found 47 percent saying they approve of the Bush presidency–an approval rating today that is equal to President Obama’s. This complicates just a bit the misguided arguments made by Walter Russell Mead the other week and which I rebutted here.

This poll comes out during the week in which the Bush presidential library opens and is an opportunity to put his presidency into a broader perspective. 

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A front-page Washington Post story by one of the nation’s top political reporters, Dan Balz, points out that a new Washington Post-ABC News poll found 47 percent saying they approve of the Bush presidency–an approval rating today that is equal to President Obama’s. This complicates just a bit the misguided arguments made by Walter Russell Mead the other week and which I rebutted here.

This poll comes out during the week in which the Bush presidential library opens and is an opportunity to put his presidency into a broader perspective. 

“Obviously, it’s a big moment for him,” former British Prime Minister Tony Blair told Balz. “It’s a chance for him to explain that his political philosophy encompasses much more than the decisions he had to take after 9/11. We forget this sometimes. . . . This is a much more rounded person with many more dimensions to him than the caricature often portrays.”

Indeed. And apropos a point I made in my exchange with Mr. Mead, former Bush Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten noted that spending during most years of Bush’s presidency was below 20 percent of gross domestic product, the target now established by House Republicans in their budget blueprint. No president since Richard M. Nixon, other than Bill Clinton, can make such a claim, he said.

In fact, over the last 40 years and eight presidencies, only two presidents have kept spending below 20 percent of GDP in even a single year: George W. Bush did it in six of his eight fiscal years; Bill Clinton in four. Barack Obama has averaged 24 percent of GDP spending so far; and even his optimistic budget projections don’t have the U.S. getting close to 20 percent again. Ever. As another reference point: during fiscal years 1981-88, the Reagan years, federal spending averaged over 22 percent of GDP. Just in case anyone is interested in it.

But I wanted to focus on one other comment that former Prime Minister Blair made, which is that Bush continues to believe that the world is safer without Saddam Hussein in power and added: “When you see what is happening in Syria today, the sense of that argument is evident. . . . What it does is just make clear that these decisions are very difficult. If you intervene, it can be very tough. If you don’t intervene, it can also be very tough.”

There is in Blair’s comments both wisdom and nuance, which is often lacking in those who comment on presidents and public officials and who themselves have never been in positions of influence in government. Having been on both sides of things, let me just say it’s easier to tweet about policy than it is to implement policy; and it’s more effortless to comment on unfolding events from the comfort of a television studio or from behind a microphone than to make decisions in the Oval Office.

George W. Bush, over the course of eight eventful years, made literally thousands of decisions. Under enormous pressure and facing tremendous challenges–during his years as president, Bush faced the worst attack on the American homeland in our history, two wars, the worst natural disaster in our history, and a financial collapse unlike any since the Great Depression–he got the vast majority of them right. And every day he was president–even when he got decisions wrong–he dignified the office. As the Bush Presidential Center is dedicated later this week, those things are worth keeping in mind.

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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.

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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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