Commentary Magazine


Topic: George W. Bush

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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Public Perceptions About Bush Matter

My colleague Peter Wehner picked up the rhetorical gauntlet flung in the face of George W. Bush by Walter Russell Mead and did much to vindicate the tarnished honor of the administration in which he served so honorably. Like Pete, I think the 43rd president has gotten a raw deal in most respects from the court of public opinion and will ultimately be vindicated by history, if not the mainstream media.

Pete went to some length to answer the charge that Bush’s eight years in office was “a political disaster for the president’s party” and that it generated a “headwind of well-merited public distrust” for Republicans. There is a strong case to make against Mead’s assertion that the public distrust he speaks of was “well merited.” But the idea that there is much point arguing about whether it was a “political disaster” in terms of the GOP’s current dilemma strikes me as a waste of time, if not utterly futile. The accumulated weight of a profligate GOP Congress, the bad optics of Katrina, the casualties in Iraq and the financial crisis that struck the country in the fall of 2008 created an image of the Bush administration that might be unfair but is nonetheless indelible. It may be never too early to correct the historical record on all of these issues, as Pete and the other writers he referenced have done, but the relevance of this exercise to the politics of 2013 or even 2016 is limited. It may be the duty of the historian to try and chip away at the narrative that Bush failed, but to argue that the perception of this record is not a heavy burden for Republicans to carry or that it can be undone by refighting the political battles of 2001 to 2008 is a mistake. Mead’s critics may be right about the history, but they can only be said to be correct about the politics if their argument is that deeply engrained public perceptions shouldn’t count. Unfortunately, they do.

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My colleague Peter Wehner picked up the rhetorical gauntlet flung in the face of George W. Bush by Walter Russell Mead and did much to vindicate the tarnished honor of the administration in which he served so honorably. Like Pete, I think the 43rd president has gotten a raw deal in most respects from the court of public opinion and will ultimately be vindicated by history, if not the mainstream media.

Pete went to some length to answer the charge that Bush’s eight years in office was “a political disaster for the president’s party” and that it generated a “headwind of well-merited public distrust” for Republicans. There is a strong case to make against Mead’s assertion that the public distrust he speaks of was “well merited.” But the idea that there is much point arguing about whether it was a “political disaster” in terms of the GOP’s current dilemma strikes me as a waste of time, if not utterly futile. The accumulated weight of a profligate GOP Congress, the bad optics of Katrina, the casualties in Iraq and the financial crisis that struck the country in the fall of 2008 created an image of the Bush administration that might be unfair but is nonetheless indelible. It may be never too early to correct the historical record on all of these issues, as Pete and the other writers he referenced have done, but the relevance of this exercise to the politics of 2013 or even 2016 is limited. It may be the duty of the historian to try and chip away at the narrative that Bush failed, but to argue that the perception of this record is not a heavy burden for Republicans to carry or that it can be undone by refighting the political battles of 2001 to 2008 is a mistake. Mead’s critics may be right about the history, but they can only be said to be correct about the politics if their argument is that deeply engrained public perceptions shouldn’t count. Unfortunately, they do.

Even if we concede that Pete is right about every single point he makes and I agree with just about all of them (the creation of the Medicare prescription drug plan is one point on which I think then-representative and now-Senator Pat Toomey’s principled conservative dissent from the administration’s idea was correct), the negative perceptions of Bush’s presidency is a fact. If far more Americans blamed Bush for the weak economy of 2012 than the man who had been running the country for four years then that is not the sort of thing that can be corrected with scholarly debate. Like the fallacious notions that Herbert Hoover and his Republican predecessors created the Great Depression and that Franklin Roosevelt’s policies solved the problem, it may take decades for the smears of Bush to fade from public consciousness. Yet even now I fear more Americans probably believe the depiction of the Depression and the New Deal found in the musical play “Annie” than the brilliant debunking of these myths in the books of Amity Shlaes.

Bush’s problem and those of his Republican successors remains that a liberal mainstream media and a popular culture dominated by the left tend to have more to say about the prevailing narrative about political issues than conservative thinkers. Complaining about this can be a satisfying occupation, but if Republicans want to win the 2014 midterms and take back the White House in 2016 they’d be well advised to avoid that trap.

My disagreement with Mead (who, to be fair, concedes that Bush has not been treated fairly and deserves more credit than he has received) is not so much with his evaluation of Bush as with his belief that Republicans need to spend much time critiquing the last GOP administration or defending it. They’d be well advised to avoid either of these endeavors except to point out that they represent a new generation of Republican leaders that shouldn’t be confused with the GOP-run Congress that was voted out in 2006 and facing different challenges than George W. Bush.

To argue in this fashion isn’t to claim the perception of Bush is correct, but to say that it is a fool’s errand for Republicans to go to the polls identifying themselves with him or nominating someone who cannot escape the association, such as his younger brother Jeb. The verdict of public opinion on Bush may not be accurate, but at this point it is not capable of being altered by further debate. If what Mead is really saying is that Republicans must move on from Bush and not repeat his political mistakes then even those who of us wish the 43rd president were given his due cannot really disagree.

The debate about the Bush administration belongs to the historians now and we can only hope that they will eventually get it right. But if Republicans are going to win elections anytime soon they need to move on and concentrate on defending their principles and pointing out Obama’s failures, rather than seek to vindicate their former leader.

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Walter Russell Mead’s Shallow and Misleading Attack on the Bush Legacy

Walter Russell Mead has written a post arguing that the Bush administration was a “first class political disaster” for the Republican Party. The Bush presidency was “not a success,” according to Mead, and Republicans need to deal with the failures, “real and perceived,” and do so “openly and honestly.” 

“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,” Mead informs us. But having declared the vital role fluency should play in public debate, Mr. Mead proceeds to demonstrate his own ignorance on a range of matters.

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Walter Russell Mead has written a post arguing that the Bush administration was a “first class political disaster” for the Republican Party. The Bush presidency was “not a success,” according to Mead, and Republicans need to deal with the failures, “real and perceived,” and do so “openly and honestly.” 

“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,” Mead informs us. But having declared the vital role fluency should play in public debate, Mr. Mead proceeds to demonstrate his own ignorance on a range of matters.

The University of Texas’s Will Inboden does a fine job responding to Mead on foreign policy, so I’ll focus on what Mead calls the “multiple policy failures of the Bush years,” which include “two long unfinished wars, a botched hurricane, no significant domestic reform, frozen immobility on immigration, deficits out of control, the middle class in deepening trouble, the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression.”

There’s much to unravel in this litany, starting with Mead’s claim that the Bush deficits were “out of control.” Wrong. The budget deficit during President Bush’s tenure averaged 2 percent, which is well below the 50-year average of 3 percent.

But Bush inherited a surplus, critics will respond. To which the answer is: Yes, but by January 2001, when Bush was inaugurated, the budget surpluses were evaporating as the economy skidded toward recession (it officially began in March 2001). Combined with the devastating economic effects of 9/11, when we lost around 1 million jobs in a little over 90 days, the surplus went into deficit.

And here’s what else Mead fails to mention: In the aftermath of the March 2001 recession, America experienced six years of uninterrupted economic growth and a record 52 straight months of job creation that produced more than 8 million new jobs. During the Bush presidency, the unemployment rate averaged 5.3 percent. We saw labor-productivity gains that exceeded the averages of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Real after-tax income per capita increased by more than 11 percent. And from 2000 to 2007, real GDP grew by more than 17 percent, a gain of nearly $2.1 trillion.

Keith Hennessey, in a data-heavy analysis that contrasts well with Mead’s, concludes:

George W. Bush, a wartime President, had a smaller federal government and lower taxes relative to the economy than each of his three predecessors, historically small deficits, no tax increases, and 5.3% average unemployment. He vetoed a farm bill and two health bills for spending too much. He proposed structural and incremental reforms to Social Security and Medicare that set up the current entitlement reform debate.

Mr. Mead mentions none of this, perhaps because they pose inconvenient facts to his thesis. In any event, it’s hardly a record of failure.

Ah, you might say, but what about the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression, which happened during Bush’s watch?

The reasons for the 2008 financial crisis were quite complicated, but surely much of the blame–and probably a majority of the blame–rests with those (Democrats) who blocked reforms that would have mitigated the effects of the housing crisis, which led to the broader financial crisis. As Stuart Taylor, hardly a loyal Bush supporter, put it in 2008:

The pretense of many Democrats that this crisis is altogether a Republican creation is simplistic and dangerous. It is simplistic because Democrats have been a big part of the problem, in part by supporting governmental distortions of the marketplace through mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, whose reckless lending practices necessitated a $200 billion government rescue [in September 2008]. … Fannie and Freddie appear to have played a major role in causing the current crisis, in part because their quasi-governmental status violated basic principles of a healthy free enterprise system by allowing them to privatize profit while socializing risk.

For the record, the Bush administration warned as early as April 2001 that Fannie and Freddie were too large and overleveraged and that their failure “could cause strong repercussions in financial markets, affecting federally insured entities and economic activity” well beyond housing. Bush’s plan would have subjected Fannie and Freddie to the kinds of federal regulation that banks, credit unions, and savings and loans have to comply with. In addition, Republican Richard Shelby, then chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, pushed for comprehensive GSE (government-sponsored enterprises) reform in 2005. These efforts at reforming Fannie and Freddie were blocked by Democrats such as Christopher Dodd and Representative Barney Frank, along with the then-junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, who backed Dodd’s threat of a filibuster. It’s also important to point out that the steps Bush took to stabilize the financial system–which were made under enormous pressure and increasing turmoil–basically worked, sparing us from even worse consequences.

Now let’s turn to Mead’s claim that Bush achieved no significant domestic reform. Nonsense. The No Child Left Behind Act was among the most important reforms to education in decades. Six years after NCLB became law, 4th-grade students achieved their highest reading and math scores on record, and 8th-grade students achieved their highest math scores on record. African-American and Hispanic students posted all-time highs in reading and math, and the achievement gap has narrowed.

Then there’s the Medicare prescription drug plan, which allows private drug plans to compete against each other to provide coverage for beneficiaries. Because competition was injected into the system, the average premiums in 2008 were 40 percent lower than the original estimates. Overall, the projected spend­ing for the program between 2004 and 2013 is 37 percent lower than orig­inally expected–a reduction of about $240 billion. During the Bush years free-market principles were also extended to the Medicare Advantage program and Health Savings Accounts. This approach to health care issues, it’s worth noting, is the animating feature behind the bold Medicare reform plan put forward by Representative Paul Ryan.

On “a botched hurricane:” Mead makes no mention of the staggering incompetence of then-New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Governor Kathleen Blanco, neither of whom ordered a mandatory evacuation in time while the latter (Blanco) actually blocked federal efforts to aid New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina. Despite this, others have pointed out that we witnessed one of the largest rescue operations in history in which roughly a quarter of a million residents were moved out of a flooded city within a week, which is actually a fairly impressive achievement. But none of this is supposed to matter.

I’m not sure what “frozen immobility” on immigration reform is supposed to mean. President Bush was a strong, vocal champion of immigration reform, which encountered congressional opposition and never became law. But the reform was wise and necessary, and the power of it endures. For example, the core of Bush’s immigration reform (with some amendments) is being resurrected by, among others, Senator Marco Rubio. I suspect that what we’ll find is that Bush was ahead of his time on the matter of immigration.

I’ll now take up the issue of Iraq, which is supposedly an indelible mark against America’s 43rd president. It’s quite true that serious mistakes were made leading up to the war and in the aftermath of major combat operations, and I’ve written about them. So, in fact, has President Bush. But a more sophisticated summary than Mead’s, about the effects of the surge and the state of things in Iraq after the Bush presidency, can be found in this column by Charles Krauthammer:

when [Obama] became president in January 2009, he was handed a war that was won. The surge had succeeded. Al-Qaeda in Iraq had been routed, driven to humiliating defeat by an Anbar Awakening of Sunnis fighting side-by-side with the infidel Americans. Even more remarkably, the Shiite militias had been taken down, with U.S. backing, by the forces of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. They crushed the Sadr militias from Basra to Sadr City.

Al-Qaeda decimated. A Shiite prime minister taking a decisively nationalist line. Iraqi Sunnis ready to integrate into a new national government. U.S. casualties at their lowest ebb in the entire war. Elections approaching. Obama was left with but a single task: Negotiate a new status-of-forces agreement (SOFA) to reinforce these gains and create a strategic partnership with the Arab world’s only democracy.

He blew it.

I wonder if Walter Russell Mead understands the irony of his analysis. He’s encouraging Republicans to seriously grapple with the Bush era, which is entirely reasonable. But he does so in a way that is itself deeply unserious. Recapitulating Chris Matthews’s talking point about the Bush presidency doesn’t add to our understanding of anything; it merely gives wings to silly caricatures.

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This Day in History (and Current Events)

Today is the ninth anniversary of one of the key documents in the history of the “peace process”: the April 14, 2004 letter from President Bush to Prime Minister Sharon, reiterating a “steadfast commitment” by the U.S. to “defensible borders” for Israel, and recognizing that Palestinian refugees would return to a Palestinian state, not to Israel. In Tested by Zion, his invaluable account of the Bush administration and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Elliott Abrams describes how carefully considered the letter was: there were “many drafts, as words, phrases, and paragraphs came in and went out.” At the end, “the headline was clear: There would be no return to 1967 and Israel could keep the major settlement blocks.”

The letter was more than a statement of U.S. policy. It was part of a deal. One of the most troublesome signs of the new approach adopted by President Obama in 2009 was the repeated refusals by administration spokespersons to answer whether the U.S. was bound by the letter. At 22, I stopped counting the number of times the question was asked and not answered, as the administration signaled Israel that the prior U.S. commitment was no longer reliable. But last week, on his return visit to Israel seeking to re-invigorate the “peace process,” Secretary of State Kerry was asked about it again.

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Today is the ninth anniversary of one of the key documents in the history of the “peace process”: the April 14, 2004 letter from President Bush to Prime Minister Sharon, reiterating a “steadfast commitment” by the U.S. to “defensible borders” for Israel, and recognizing that Palestinian refugees would return to a Palestinian state, not to Israel. In Tested by Zion, his invaluable account of the Bush administration and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Elliott Abrams describes how carefully considered the letter was: there were “many drafts, as words, phrases, and paragraphs came in and went out.” At the end, “the headline was clear: There would be no return to 1967 and Israel could keep the major settlement blocks.”

The letter was more than a statement of U.S. policy. It was part of a deal. One of the most troublesome signs of the new approach adopted by President Obama in 2009 was the repeated refusals by administration spokespersons to answer whether the U.S. was bound by the letter. At 22, I stopped counting the number of times the question was asked and not answered, as the administration signaled Israel that the prior U.S. commitment was no longer reliable. But last week, on his return visit to Israel seeking to re-invigorate the “peace process,” Secretary of State Kerry was asked about it again.

At an April 9 press conference in Tel Aviv, Bow Shapira from Israeli TV (Channel 1) told Kerry he wanted to ask about “a guarantee from the past”–the 2004 Bush letter, which he described as “telling that blocs of settlements can stay, cannot [be] removed from the territory.” His question about the guarantee was straightforward: “well, does it exist?” Kerry responded in part as follows:

I remember that commitment very well because I was running for president then, and I personally have supported the notion that the situation on the ground has changed, and obviously, we’re talking about blocs that are in a very different status. I’m not going to get into telling you what ought to happen with respect to any particular piece of geography today because that’s for the parties to decide in their negotiation. But I have certainly supported the notion publicly myself that we need to deal with the ’67 lines, plus the swaps that reflect some of the changes that have taken place since then.

It is not surprising that Kerry remembered the commitment so well. He appeared on “Meet the Press” on April 18, 2004–four days after the Bush letter was issued–and was asked directly about it by Tim Russert:

MR. RUSSERT: On Thursday, President Bush … said that Israel can keep part of the land seized in the 1967 Middle East War and asserted the Palestinian refugees cannot go back to their particular homes. Do you support President Bush?

SEN. KERRY: Yes.

MR. RUSSERT: Completely?

SEN. KERRY: Yes.

Kerry’s response to the Israeli reporter last week is significant, because he recognized: (1) that the Bush letter was in fact a commitment, subsequently endorsed by both the Senate (95-3) and the House (407-9) in concurrent resolutions; and (2) that he supported it at the time, in unambiguous terms.

But it is indicative of the continuing problem President Obama created with his refusal in 2009 to endorse the Bush letter that an Israeli reporter felt it necessary to ask whether the U.S. commitment exists. The president has been attempting to assure Israelis with his have-your-back, all-options-on-the-table rhetorical commitments, but they remember that in the past he did not feel constrained to respect even a written commitment to Israel. 

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The Battle Over the Surge

In the past I’ve written about Walter Bagehot’s ability to understand the subtleties and ambiguities of public argument and the temptation commentators face to turn decisions into a zero-sum game, as if every policy is obvious and all the arguments line up on one side and none on the other.

My own experience is that things are quite different when you serve in the White House, when the decisions one faces are often complicated, when good arguments can be made on behalf of competing policies, and decisions have to be made on incomplete information based on uncertain assumptions.

An excellent illustration of what I have in mind can be found in this piece by Michael Gordon in Foreign Policy. Based on newly revealed transcripts, it presents the competing views in 2006 of the State Department and the National Security Council over the so-called surge strategy in Iraq.

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In the past I’ve written about Walter Bagehot’s ability to understand the subtleties and ambiguities of public argument and the temptation commentators face to turn decisions into a zero-sum game, as if every policy is obvious and all the arguments line up on one side and none on the other.

My own experience is that things are quite different when you serve in the White House, when the decisions one faces are often complicated, when good arguments can be made on behalf of competing policies, and decisions have to be made on incomplete information based on uncertain assumptions.

An excellent illustration of what I have in mind can be found in this piece by Michael Gordon in Foreign Policy. Based on newly revealed transcripts, it presents the competing views in 2006 of the State Department and the National Security Council over the so-called surge strategy in Iraq.

As Gordon puts it:

Much of the discussion … was dominated by [Secretary of State] Rice’s argument that the United States should abandon a strategy in which “nothing is going right” and instead focus on “core interests” like fighting al Qaeda and contesting Iranian influence. Instead of trying to stop the burgeoning sectarian violence, Rice suggested, the American military might concentrate on averting “mass killings” — attacks on the order of Srebrenica, the 1995 massacre in which more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were killed.

But [NSC Advisor Stephen] Hadley and his aides on the National Security Council were pushing in the opposite direction and making the case for sending more troops.

It’s now obvious that those who favored the surge were correct and those advocating the alternatives–whether withdrawal or a “light footprint” counterinsurgency or retreating to bases to “ride out” the sectarian violence–were not. Yet even those who believed at the time that the surge was clearly the correct strategy also had to concede that the arguments marshaled by Secretary Rice and her top aides were serious ones and worth taking into account. Were sectarian demons that had been unleashed now uncontainable? Were we beyond the point when no application of forces was likely to make a discernible difference? Had the Sadirist elements defeated the more moderate Shia ones?  

Which brings me to my second point. When asked by ABC’s William Lawrence to look back over the first two years of his presidency, John Kennedy said this:

I would say that the problems are more difficult than I had imagined them to be. The responsibilities placed on the United States are greater than I imagined them to be, and there are greater limitations upon our ability to bring about a favorable result than I had imagined them to be. And I think that is probably true of anyone who becomes President, because there is such a difference between those who advise or speak or legislate, and between the man who must select from the various alternatives proposed and say that this shall be the policy of the United States. It is much easier to make the speeches than it is to finally make the judgments, because unfortunately your advisers are frequently divided. If you take the wrong course, and on occasion I have, the President bears the burden of the responsibility quite rightly. The advisers may move on to new advice.  

It is in the nature of things that in America, the president is the individual who has to sort through competing counsel and decide which course of action to take. The surge was, as Gordon points out, a fateful one for George W. Bush, and in this instance Bush embraced a new war strategy in Iraq that required him to jettison the counsel of his most trusted foreign policy advisor (Secretary Rice, who eventually embraced the surge strategy), to say nothing of the views of most members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; General George W. Casey, Jr., then the commander of U.S. Forces in Iraq; John P. Abizaid, the commander of U.S. Central Command; military analysts; the entire Democratic Party; much of the Republican Party; most of the foreign policy establishment; the Iraq Study Group; and public opinion. It was a remarkable moment in presidential leadership. 

It’s also fair to say, I think, that as much of the world seems to be spinning out of control–with ill-advised decisions by President Obama having undone many of the gains in Iraq and worrisome-to-ominous developments occurring in Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Georgia, North Korea, Mali, Sudan, Russia and elsewhere–President Bush’s successor is learning the hard way that it’s easier to make the speeches than it is to make the judgments.

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The New York Times’s War on Wolfowitz

The 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq unfortunately has provided the occasion for some who ought to know better to propagate bizarre myths about the war. In this regard, the New York Times editorial board is in a class by itself. In an editorial today, “Ten Years After,” the Times casually writes: “In 2003, President George W. Bush and Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary, used the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, to wage pre-emptive war against Saddam Hussein and a nuclear arsenal that did not exist.”

It is perhaps a sign of how far gone into the land of fantasy the Times editorialists actually are that they could write a sentence like this and not have anyone fact check their assertion. Was it really the case that the Iraq War was the result of a plot by President Bush and, of all people, the deputy secretary of defense? Weren’t there some other, rather more important figures in the Cabinet who supported the invasion too–not only the president but also Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice?

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The 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq unfortunately has provided the occasion for some who ought to know better to propagate bizarre myths about the war. In this regard, the New York Times editorial board is in a class by itself. In an editorial today, “Ten Years After,” the Times casually writes: “In 2003, President George W. Bush and Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary, used the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, to wage pre-emptive war against Saddam Hussein and a nuclear arsenal that did not exist.”

It is perhaps a sign of how far gone into the land of fantasy the Times editorialists actually are that they could write a sentence like this and not have anyone fact check their assertion. Was it really the case that the Iraq War was the result of a plot by President Bush and, of all people, the deputy secretary of defense? Weren’t there some other, rather more important figures in the Cabinet who supported the invasion too–not only the president but also Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice?

More significantly, wasn’t the war authorized by both houses of Congress? Perhaps the Times editorialists have forgotten that the Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against Iraq was approved in October 2002 by a vote of 296-133 in the House and 77-23 in the Senate. This was a war that had bipartisan support, winning the backing of 82 Democrats in the House and 29 in the Senate.

Among those who backed this undertaking were, inter alia, Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Kerry, Secretary of Defense Hagel, former Secretary of State (and possibly future presidential candidate) Hillary Clinton, and then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. Their position–that we had to be willing to use force against Saddam Hussein–was overwhelmingly popular, backed by over 70 percent of those surveyed.

The Times is right that, no matter the vote in Congress or the state of public opinion, President Bush ultimately bore responsibility for the invasion because he was commander-in-chief. But, news flash, Paul Wolfowitz was only the No. 2 official in the Department of Defense. Not only was he not in the chain of command (which runs from the president to the secretary of defense to the combatant commander), he was often ignored by his boss, Donald Rumsfeld. So why on earth, out of all the possible candidates in Washington, would the Times ascribe 50 percent of the responsibility for the invasion of Iraq to Wolfowitz?

The obvious explanation, although the Times editorialists don’t use the word, is that this is an attempt to resuscitate the old canard about how the “neocons lied us into war.” That is the kind of nonsense you expect to hear from the likes of Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul. Shame on the Times editors–they should know better.

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Liberal Bias Central to Obama Media Edge

Politico writers Jim Vandehei and Mike Allen are on to something with their feature published today about President Obama’s mastery of the mainstream media. Their conclusion that the president and his staff have broken new ground in manipulating journalists and shaping favorable coverage of the administration is so obvious that it is almost inarguable. As I have argued several times over the past four years, no president since John F. Kennedy has enjoyed the sort of advantage or lack of serious scrutiny that the president has received. Vandehei and Allen are right when they point out that the calculated leaks and softball interviews combined with a command of social media and other methods that limit press access have combined to build the Obama juggernaut that won him re-election as well as give him an edge in any battle with Congress.

Yet Vandehei and Allen’s insistence that this has nothing to do with the conservative belief that “a liberal press willingly and eagerly allows itself to get manipulated” ignores some of the same facts that they amass in discussing the way the president has played the “puppet master” with the media. No matter how smart the strategies employed by the White House, the president’s ability to skate through four years without getting seriously challenged by the mainstream media would not have been possible if most of those being played were not willing accomplices. Due credit must be given to the administration’s ability to take advantage of technology as well as their brilliant if unscrupulous game playing with journalists. But without the liberal bias of most of the mainstream outlets that let the president play them like a piano, he would come across as a bully and a demagogue rather than the reasonable nice guy seen in those “60 Minutes” interviews he loves to give.

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Politico writers Jim Vandehei and Mike Allen are on to something with their feature published today about President Obama’s mastery of the mainstream media. Their conclusion that the president and his staff have broken new ground in manipulating journalists and shaping favorable coverage of the administration is so obvious that it is almost inarguable. As I have argued several times over the past four years, no president since John F. Kennedy has enjoyed the sort of advantage or lack of serious scrutiny that the president has received. Vandehei and Allen are right when they point out that the calculated leaks and softball interviews combined with a command of social media and other methods that limit press access have combined to build the Obama juggernaut that won him re-election as well as give him an edge in any battle with Congress.

Yet Vandehei and Allen’s insistence that this has nothing to do with the conservative belief that “a liberal press willingly and eagerly allows itself to get manipulated” ignores some of the same facts that they amass in discussing the way the president has played the “puppet master” with the media. No matter how smart the strategies employed by the White House, the president’s ability to skate through four years without getting seriously challenged by the mainstream media would not have been possible if most of those being played were not willing accomplices. Due credit must be given to the administration’s ability to take advantage of technology as well as their brilliant if unscrupulous game playing with journalists. But without the liberal bias of most of the mainstream outlets that let the president play them like a piano, he would come across as a bully and a demagogue rather than the reasonable nice guy seen in those “60 Minutes” interviews he loves to give.

Any analysis of the president’s media advantage must start with the understanding that his historical status as the first African-American president has given him far more leeway than any of his recent predecessors when it comes to scrutiny from the mainstream press. The broadcast networks as well as the liberal-leaning cable channels have treated Obama and his family as being above criticism. This has created a Camelot effect unseen in Washington since the days when the press was ignoring JFK’s personal immorality while turning his family into national icons.

The White House has ruthlessly exploited that willingness to portray the president in the sort of stained-glass light usually reserved for statesman of the past. But, as Politico rightly points out, they have doubled down on it by limiting access to the working press — even those from generally friendly liberal outlets — and going directly to the public via social media and White House-created content. That has been combined with cleverly staged leaks to journalists who then dutifully do the administration’s dirty work for it on a host of issues. All this allows the president to pose as the voice of reason on domestic issues and to generally avoid any pointed scrutiny on foreign affairs even when — as in the Benghazi fiasco — the duty of the press to focus on his lack of answers would seem obvious.

Politico is right that among those most frustrated by this are members of the White House press corps who may be liberals but are still eager to do their jobs. However, the only reason this has worked so well is the willingness of the editors and publishers who employ those frustrated reporters to roll over and play dead for the president. The unavoidable fact that Vandehei and Allen do their best to ignore is that the hamstringing of the working press’s ability to hold the president accountable dovetails nicely with the editorial stands of the vast majority of those outlets. That limits the time and space they are willing to give their staffers who might wish to push harder on an administration that is so careful about limiting access.

Just as important to the success of the White House’s puppetry is the eagerness of much of the liberal press to play ball with the president when given the opportunity to do so. As Steve Kroft of “60 Minutes” admitted, the reason why Obama loves to go on the CBS show is that he knows he won’t be “made to look stupid” or be subjected to the same “gotcha” kind of questions for which that television institution was so well known in the decades when it established its long since undeserved reputation as the gold standard of broadcast journalism. Though few other liberal hacks have been as honest about their bias as Kroft, the same rule applies to virtually every outlet that has been granted the same kind of access such as the recent Obama puff piece published in The New Republic.

It barely needs to be said that had the George W. Bush administration tried the same tactics as Obama has employed, it wouldn’t have worked a fraction as well. That is not just because Bush was not as comfortable in playing the role of inaccessible puppeteer as his successor. His administration, like everyone that preceded it, had its own strategies for coping with the press and did its best to outwit those tasked with holding it accountable that were not always unsuccessful. The Obama administration didn’t invent leaks even if it has perfected them into something approaching an art form.

But the difference is that the White House press corps as well as their editors and publishers were never prepared to lie down for Bush in the way they have done with Obama. The Bush team could never look for the sort of softball interviews that Obama’s staffers know to rely upon. They also knew that any tactical victories it might achieve in getting their message across would be countered and often wiped out by the liberal institutional bias of the networks and newspapers that Obama never has to worry about. No matter how much the Bush White House would have leaked to the New York Times, there is no way that would have generated the kind of fawning coverage the Grey Lady has given Obama.

That’s why the lessons of Obama’s press strategies are of only limited utility to Republicans. They can learn from the methods he uses to go directly to the public without the filter of the media. His command of social media and smart use of content created by the White House should be emulated by every politician who wants to win. But no conservative will ever be able to manipulate the media the way Obama does because of the simple fact that the liberal press will not allow it as they do with Obama. This doesn’t mean Republicans are doomed to perpetual defeat, but it does remind them that they have a steeper hill to climb than their Democratic counterparts. As much as the GOP has to get into the 21st century when it comes to technology, the liberal press will never give them the free passes it hands out to the Obama White House every day of the week.

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Should Democrats Always Lead During War? Part Two

As I wrote in part one of this post, liberal hypocrisy about the anti-terror policies of the George W. Bush and Obama administrations has made clear that partisan affiliation seems to play a large role in the way Americans think about the wars the country has become embroiled in over the last half century. Just as anti-war sentiment about Vietnam mushroomed after Richard Nixon replaced Lyndon Johnson in the White house, it evaporated about the war on terror when Obama replaced Bush. After 2009, the outrage about Guantanamo and abuse of terrorists was no longer a potent political weapon for Democrats to pound a Republican target and simply faded from view. Four years after Obama first took office, it is now clear that his administration has not only kept most of Bush’s terror war infrastructure in place but has arrogated to itself power that its predecessor never thought to assert for itself. Yet few outside of the far left seem to think it is a problem.

Democrats ought to be ashamed of this but few seem to be blushing about their hypocrisy. Some may rationalize their behavior by saying that only their side can be trusted to lead wars that America should be fighting and that men like Obama can be relied upon to behave responsibly while Bush and Cheney could not. Yet there is nothing in the record of the past two administrations that backs up a conclusion that would draw any broad moral distinction between their records in fighting against Al Qaeda or the Taliban. The slaughter from that the drones have caused is something that conservatives think is justified by the need to fight an ongoing war against Islamists terrorists. But it makes the measures undertaken by Bush and Cheney — that were widely blasted by Democrats as a threat to American liberty — appear restrained. The question is, how will this undeniable pattern impact the chances that the U.S. will use force to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat.

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As I wrote in part one of this post, liberal hypocrisy about the anti-terror policies of the George W. Bush and Obama administrations has made clear that partisan affiliation seems to play a large role in the way Americans think about the wars the country has become embroiled in over the last half century. Just as anti-war sentiment about Vietnam mushroomed after Richard Nixon replaced Lyndon Johnson in the White house, it evaporated about the war on terror when Obama replaced Bush. After 2009, the outrage about Guantanamo and abuse of terrorists was no longer a potent political weapon for Democrats to pound a Republican target and simply faded from view. Four years after Obama first took office, it is now clear that his administration has not only kept most of Bush’s terror war infrastructure in place but has arrogated to itself power that its predecessor never thought to assert for itself. Yet few outside of the far left seem to think it is a problem.

Democrats ought to be ashamed of this but few seem to be blushing about their hypocrisy. Some may rationalize their behavior by saying that only their side can be trusted to lead wars that America should be fighting and that men like Obama can be relied upon to behave responsibly while Bush and Cheney could not. Yet there is nothing in the record of the past two administrations that backs up a conclusion that would draw any broad moral distinction between their records in fighting against Al Qaeda or the Taliban. The slaughter from that the drones have caused is something that conservatives think is justified by the need to fight an ongoing war against Islamists terrorists. But it makes the measures undertaken by Bush and Cheney — that were widely blasted by Democrats as a threat to American liberty — appear restrained. The question is, how will this undeniable pattern impact the chances that the U.S. will use force to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat.

It should be remembered that George W. Bush punted on Iran during his second term. Bush outsourced Iran diplomacy to America’s European allies but those efforts were a complete failure. But Bush reacted to that fiasco with patience that he had not showed on Iraq. Bush not only was uninterested in U.S. action but also flatly vetoed any Israeli unilateral strikes on nuclear facilities. He appeared to conclude that adding a third conflict to the unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was impossible.

Obama doubled down on his predecessor’s outreach to Iran even though he spoke of it as if Bush had never tried diplomacy. But after four years of failed engagement, he now finds himself facing the reality that at some point in the next four years he will have to choose between accepting a nuclear Iran and fulfilling his pledges never to allow Tehran to get a nuke. The Iranians may be forgiven for thinking Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel to the Pentagon is a signal that he will never use force against them. But given the dire implications of an Iranian nuke for U.S. security, the stability of the entire Middle East as well as the existential nature of this threat to the state of Israel, it may well be that the president will have no choice but to think about attacking Iran.

Republicans may be skeptical that Obama will ever summon the will to do what needs to be done on Iran but if he does, one part of the equation that will make up that decision is the certainty that he can do so without fear that the much of the mainstream media and his liberal base will oppose him. Unlike any Republican president put in the same predicament, Obama can assess the need to launch strikes on Iran’s nuclear targets without having to worry about his left-wing constituency seeking to paralyze the country with anti-war protests or to defund the war.

If there is any consolation for Republicans in losing the last presidential election it should be this. No matter how obvious the case for force against Iran might be a President Romney would have had a difficult time uniting the country behind an effort to act to forestall the Iranian nuclear threat. The sickening hypocrisy of both the administration and the left makes it clear that if Obama were to strike Iran, he will likely have the support of both parties in a way that neither Romney, George W. Bush or any Republican could ever have hoped for.

That this is so doesn’t speak well for Democrats or liberals. Their partisan prejudices render them incapable of long supporting any war or anti-terror effort when the Republicans are in charge in Washington. Any Republican who starts a war labors under the handicap that the left will view their motives as impure and treat efforts to carry the war against the enemy by all means necessary as somehow illegitimate. Barack Obama has learned that for all of the criticism he has endured from his opponents, outside of libertarian outliers, Republicans will always salute the flag and back just about any war even when they hate the president.

Though this is something that is to be lamented, let us hope that it helps give Barack Obama the confidence to do what needs to be done on Iran once he accepts, as eventually he must, the truth about his feckless diplomatic efforts. 

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Should Democrats Always Lead During War? Part One

Tina Brown stated the obvious when she observed on Bill Maher’s show that had George W. Bush used drone attacks in the same manner as Barack Obama has done he would have been impeached a long time ago. As Pete Wehner wrote last week in a post that both Max Boot and I agreed with, a thick stench of hypocrisy hangs over the Obama administration. The president who came into office decrying Bush’s actions against terrorists as a disgrace not only later carried out many of the same policies but also doubled down on them in many respects. The large number of drone attacks in which the United States has carried out targeted assassinations of terrorists, including at least one American citizen, as well as many of their family members and bystanders, makes the enhanced interrogations and the prison at Guantanamo that so outraged liberals look like child’s play. Yet most Democrats are not rushing to the barricades the way they did when Bush and Vice President Cheney were widely said to have subverted our constitutional liberties. To the extent that any have articulated a rationale for this turnaround, the best they seem capable of doing is to assert that while Obama can be trusted to use this power, Republicans like Bush and Cheney could not.

This has conservatives fuming and rightly so. But that has not caused most of them to play the same game. Though some of the libertarian wing of the Republican Party led by Rand Paul have attacked Obama for exceeding his power, most in the GOP are backing up the president on his right to carry out the drone attacks even while grousing about his hypocrisy. But after we acknowledge the unfairness of this situation, this is hardly the first time this double standard has raised its head. It is a pattern that has held true for the past half century. Though it is a bitter pill for conservatives to swallow, perhaps its time for them to acknowledge that during prolonged wars the country is always better off if a Democrat is in the White House.

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Tina Brown stated the obvious when she observed on Bill Maher’s show that had George W. Bush used drone attacks in the same manner as Barack Obama has done he would have been impeached a long time ago. As Pete Wehner wrote last week in a post that both Max Boot and I agreed with, a thick stench of hypocrisy hangs over the Obama administration. The president who came into office decrying Bush’s actions against terrorists as a disgrace not only later carried out many of the same policies but also doubled down on them in many respects. The large number of drone attacks in which the United States has carried out targeted assassinations of terrorists, including at least one American citizen, as well as many of their family members and bystanders, makes the enhanced interrogations and the prison at Guantanamo that so outraged liberals look like child’s play. Yet most Democrats are not rushing to the barricades the way they did when Bush and Vice President Cheney were widely said to have subverted our constitutional liberties. To the extent that any have articulated a rationale for this turnaround, the best they seem capable of doing is to assert that while Obama can be trusted to use this power, Republicans like Bush and Cheney could not.

This has conservatives fuming and rightly so. But that has not caused most of them to play the same game. Though some of the libertarian wing of the Republican Party led by Rand Paul have attacked Obama for exceeding his power, most in the GOP are backing up the president on his right to carry out the drone attacks even while grousing about his hypocrisy. But after we acknowledge the unfairness of this situation, this is hardly the first time this double standard has raised its head. It is a pattern that has held true for the past half century. Though it is a bitter pill for conservatives to swallow, perhaps its time for them to acknowledge that during prolonged wars the country is always better off if a Democrat is in the White House.

The idea that partisan affiliation determines an individual’s position on war and peace issues seems to go against the grain in an era in which we have been led to believe that partisan affiliation is declining. Yet there is no way to avoid the conclusion that party labels have more to do with whether there is widespread dissension about American wars than many of us would like to think. Democrats and liberals can only be counted on to support wars that are launched by a member of their party. Yet while Republicans are no slouches when it comes to trashing Democratic presidents, they can generally be counted on to follow the flag and back any war effort no matter who is sitting in the White House.

The roots of the current phenomenon can be traced backed to the Vietnam War. Though the anti-war movement began during the Lyndon Johnson administration and led to his decision not to seek re-election, one of the myths about that conflict is the idea that partisanship had nothing to do with the protests. Throughout Johnson’s presidency and even during the fateful year of 1968 when the campaigns of Eugene McCarthy and then Robert Kennedy exploited anti-war sentiments, polls showed that Johnson’s policies and the war were still supported by comfortable majorities of the American public. Campus protests against the war shocked the nation but the idea that most Americans shared their sentiments at that time was untrue even if there was little enthusiasm for the struggle in Southeast Asia. Republicans backed the war as did a sizeable portion if not a majority of Democrats who still saw the world through the Cold War prism of the need to “bear any burden” in the struggle against Communism that John F. Kennedy had articulated.

It was only after November 1968 that most Democrats, who despised the newly elected Richard Nixon, felt free to join in the anti-war movement. After that point, anti-war demonstrations were no longer limited to college campuses but went mainstream in a way that would have been unimaginable a year earlier. What followed was the conversion of the Democrats from a party that was primarily composed of Cold Warriors to one that would cut off funds to South Vietnam even after Nixon had withdrawn U.S. combat troops.

Democrats may argue that the first Gulf War fought by President George H.W. Bush and the initial popularity of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars under his son disproves this thesis. Though many Democrats voted against the authorization of force against Saddam Hussein after his invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the country was united in support of the troops that won the swift victory in Kuwait. The carping from the left after the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was minimal. There were massive anti-war demonstrations against the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 though when Saddam fell quickly and the coalition forces were initially greeted as liberators, there was silence from the anti-war crowd.

But, as was the case in Vietnam, Democratic willingness to go along with a war that could not be easily concluded in days and weeks was limited. The first President Bush avoided this problem when he shut down the conflict and allowed Saddam Hussein to massacre Iraqi Shiites and dissidents while American forces stood by in liberated Kuwait. But George W. Bush’s decision not to cut and run in either Afghanistan or Iraq led most Democrats to oppose those wars.

It’s important to remember that Bill Clinton authorized missile strikes on terror targets and made terrible mistakes about intelligence such as the milk factory in Sudan that was leveled by an American attack because it was thought to be a terror target without so much as a peep of protest from liberals. Clinton even launched an air war in the Balkans to support the cause of independence for Kosovo without fear of much criticism.

It should be specified that there was much to criticize about the administration’s conduct of the Iraq War but the idea that America was swindled into backing the conflict was always more about partisanship than Bush’s alleged deceptions. Most Democrats had believed in the threat from Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Many also understood that removing Saddam was in America’s interests for other strategic reasons. But it was only when the war proved costly and messy that they bailed on it as neo-liberals who supported the war on terror soon became its critics. Not even the U.S. victory won by the Iraq surge that liberals opposed, was enough to change the minds of most Democrats about Bush’s war. Though many, including Barack Obama, said at the time that Afghanistan was the “good war” America should be fighting rather than Iraq, the enthusiasm on the left for that war disappeared when it was no longer a useful cudgel to be employed against Bush and Cheney. But the main conclusion to be drawn from the transition from a Republican-led war to one led by a Democrat was that the latter had the latitude to carry out his policies without fear of much criticism from the mainstream media or the left that had taken to the streets to defame his predecessor.

In part two of this post, I will further explore the implications of this partisan divide about war and discuss whether it will impact America’s efforts to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat.

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The Untold Story of the Illegal Immigration Debate

While I favor a (difficult but achievable) path to legal status and citizenship for illegal immigrants in America, it also seems to me to be a good idea to build a fence/wall on the southern border, both for substantive and symbolic reasons. That is, I believe doing so would make crossing the border to America both more difficult (as it should be) and signal to undocumented workers that America is a sovereign nation that takes its sovereignty seriously.

Still, we need to bear in mind what the facts of the situation are when it comes to illegal immigration. And here Linda Chavez’s recent essay in COMMENTARY is helpful, including this:

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While I favor a (difficult but achievable) path to legal status and citizenship for illegal immigrants in America, it also seems to me to be a good idea to build a fence/wall on the southern border, both for substantive and symbolic reasons. That is, I believe doing so would make crossing the border to America both more difficult (as it should be) and signal to undocumented workers that America is a sovereign nation that takes its sovereignty seriously.

Still, we need to bear in mind what the facts of the situation are when it comes to illegal immigration. And here Linda Chavez’s recent essay in COMMENTARY is helpful, including this:

illegal immigration actually peaked during the boom of the late 1990s, after which it declined almost steadily except for a one-year increase in 2004, after President Bush raised the issue of granting amnesty to illegal immigrants. Today, illegal immigration is at its lowest since 1972. Indeed, more Mexican immigrants are now leaving the country than coming here, with net immigration from Mexico below zero for the first time since the racially motivated mass deportations of Mexicans (some of them U.S. citizens) during the 1930s. And, though conservatives are loath to acknowledge it, President Obama has deported more illegal immigrants than any president in modern history.

The Obama administration in fact deported a record 410,000 people in 2012–an increase of more than a quarter from 2007.

The largely untold story of the immigration debate, then, is that in the last few years–thanks to the efforts first of President Bush and now President Obama, as well as border state governors–we’ve seen a massive increase in border enforcement. The southern border is as protected as it has ever been. That development, along with a weak economy, has led to a net outflow of people from the U.S. to Mexico. That hasn’t happened in 40 years.  

I mention all that because if you listen to some critics of comprehensive immigration reform, they speak as if (a) nothing has been done to secure the border and (b) the flood of illegal immigrants to America has never been higher. That simply isn’t true. The situation, in fact, is more nearly the opposite.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take reasonable steps to do even more to secure our border. But the debate would be helped if it were informed by the reality on the ground, not claims firmly rooted in mid-air.

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Obama and the “Moral High Ground”

In April 2008, during the Democratic primary season, Barack Obama criticized John McCain for seeming to favor economic policies of the Bush administration that McCain had once opposed. “Well, they may have stopped offending John McCain’s conscience somewhere along the road to the White House, but George Bush’s economic policies still offend my conscience, and they still offend yours,” Obama said.

The Bush tax cuts offended his conscience, and so did the Bush deficits. Well, they may have stopped offending Barack Obama’s conscience somewhere along the road to the White House, you might say, considering the fiscal cliff deal the Obama White House has agreed to. The reason conservatives enjoy pointing things like this out is not to play “gotcha” so much as to remind people why Obama was always so off-putting to non-liberals. To Obama, those who disagreed with him were cast as immoral. They weren’t simply political opponents of Obama’s; they were, to the current president, opponents of all that is good and righteous.

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In April 2008, during the Democratic primary season, Barack Obama criticized John McCain for seeming to favor economic policies of the Bush administration that McCain had once opposed. “Well, they may have stopped offending John McCain’s conscience somewhere along the road to the White House, but George Bush’s economic policies still offend my conscience, and they still offend yours,” Obama said.

The Bush tax cuts offended his conscience, and so did the Bush deficits. Well, they may have stopped offending Barack Obama’s conscience somewhere along the road to the White House, you might say, considering the fiscal cliff deal the Obama White House has agreed to. The reason conservatives enjoy pointing things like this out is not to play “gotcha” so much as to remind people why Obama was always so off-putting to non-liberals. To Obama, those who disagreed with him were cast as immoral. They weren’t simply political opponents of Obama’s; they were, to the current president, opponents of all that is good and righteous.

Obama’s “fiscal cliff” deal to extend the Bush tax cuts comes, ironically, the same week he quietly signed an extension of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act–another source of controversy during the Bush administration. Bush’s national security policies did not escape Obama’s moral judgment. In a 2007 speech, Obama said Bush “decided to take the low road” in its response to military threats: “We did not reaffirm our basic values, or secure our homeland. Instead, we got a color-coded politics of fear.”

The fight over FISA was a minor one in the grand scheme of things, but also a symbolic one. Obama staunchly opposed immunity to telecoms that had cooperated with the government–one Bush-era provision of the law. “I am proud to stand with Senator Dodd, Senator Feingold and a grassroots movement of Americans who are refusing to let President Bush put protections for special interests ahead of our security and our liberty. There is no reason why telephone companies should be given blanket immunity to cover violations of the rights of the American people,” Obama had said.

Pretty clear, right? That promise didn’t even make it through to the election.

Immediately upon taking office in 2009, Obama outlined exactly how he would take us from “the low road” to the “moral high ground,” and that included shuttering secret CIA prisons around the globe and ending long-term secret detentions. Upon signing that executive order, the moral preening was rewarded with applause. A new day had dawned. Yet as the Washington Post reported yesterday, Obama has relied on long-term secret detentions “without legal oversight” throughout his first term in office:

Defense attorneys and others familiar with the case, however, said the men were arrested in Djibouti, a close ally of Washington. The tiny African country hosts a major U.S. military base, Camp Lemonnier, that serves as a combat hub for drone flights and counterterrorism operations. Djibouti also has a decade-long history of cooperating with the United States on renditions….

The sequence described by the lawyers matches a pattern from other rendition cases in which U.S. intelligence agents have secretly interrogated suspects for months without legal oversight before handing over the prisoners to the FBI for prosecution.

Perhaps Obama just thinks the “moral high ground” is overrated. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he has only the best interests of the country in mind, and that he is not the morally bankrupt, power-hungry, fear-mongering political opportunist he would accuse others of being if they were to follow his path.

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Does Obama’s FEMA Deserve Applause?

As I wrote earlier today, there is little doubt that part of the reason why President Obama got a bounce of some sort from Hurricane Sandy is the perception that his administration did a much better job dealing with the emergency than President Bush did during Hurricane Katrina. This was largely the result of a complacent media that was content to portray the president as the hero of the occasion after his fly through New Jersey and the seal of approval he got from Governor Chris Christie. But Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, someone who knows a thing or two about what happens in a crisis, isn’t buying it.

Giuliani is frustrated not so much by the political spin of this story as by the spectacle of the citizens of his beloved New York City being left in need while the rest of the country “moves on” from the hurricane. As far as Giuliani is concerned, the actions of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) don’t deserve the laurels they have received from the media and for which the president is given credit. As Politico reports:

“The response since the time the president got all this praise and credit and press ops has been abysmal,” Giuliani said on Fox News Channel’s “America’s Newsroom.” “FEMA is as much a failure now as at the time of Katrina.”

Giuliani, a 2008 presidential candidate, said that he did not “understand” why New York was facing water, generators and gas shortages.

“It’s quite obvious they didn’t pre-plan for water, they didn’t pre-plan for the generators, they didn’t pre-plan for the gasoline,” he said.

He bashed Obama for losing “focus” on the subject.

“The president getting all this credit so early, maybe the first day or two he was paying attention, but the minute he got his credit, the minute he got his pat on his back, we had the same situation as we had in Benghazi,” Giuliani said. “He loses focus. He goes back to being campaigner-in-chief rather than commander-in-chief.”

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As I wrote earlier today, there is little doubt that part of the reason why President Obama got a bounce of some sort from Hurricane Sandy is the perception that his administration did a much better job dealing with the emergency than President Bush did during Hurricane Katrina. This was largely the result of a complacent media that was content to portray the president as the hero of the occasion after his fly through New Jersey and the seal of approval he got from Governor Chris Christie. But Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, someone who knows a thing or two about what happens in a crisis, isn’t buying it.

Giuliani is frustrated not so much by the political spin of this story as by the spectacle of the citizens of his beloved New York City being left in need while the rest of the country “moves on” from the hurricane. As far as Giuliani is concerned, the actions of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) don’t deserve the laurels they have received from the media and for which the president is given credit. As Politico reports:

“The response since the time the president got all this praise and credit and press ops has been abysmal,” Giuliani said on Fox News Channel’s “America’s Newsroom.” “FEMA is as much a failure now as at the time of Katrina.”

Giuliani, a 2008 presidential candidate, said that he did not “understand” why New York was facing water, generators and gas shortages.

“It’s quite obvious they didn’t pre-plan for water, they didn’t pre-plan for the generators, they didn’t pre-plan for the gasoline,” he said.

He bashed Obama for losing “focus” on the subject.

“The president getting all this credit so early, maybe the first day or two he was paying attention, but the minute he got his credit, the minute he got his pat on his back, we had the same situation as we had in Benghazi,” Giuliani said. “He loses focus. He goes back to being campaigner-in-chief rather than commander-in-chief.”

The push back against the narrative of Obama’s brilliant emergency response may be coming too late to alter the public’s view of events. But if it is coming late it is because, unlike the Democrats in 2005 during Katrina, Republicans have been reluctant to inject politics into a natural disaster. But if the plight of the people of New Orleans was all the fault of George W. Bush — even though most of the problems there were more the result of the complete collapse of state and local authority and the abandonment of their posts by first responders, then it is not inappropriate to ask why Obama gets a pass as residents of New York and New Jersey cope with a crisis that is far from under control.

No president deserves to be blamed for bad weather. But the ability of Obama to avoid responsibility for what remains a terrible mess can be directly attributed to his cheerleaders in the news media.

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