Question Day: Why Was George W. Bush a Disaster?
Thanks, everyone, for a fun question day. Alas, that's all I have time for. I'll try to respond to the ones I didn't get to in the comments under the Question Day announcement from this morning. Meanwhile, here's the last one.
From longwalkdownlyndale: "[W]hy do you think George W. Bush was such a disaster as president? There are a lot of ideas out there that it was a personal/character thing (he's stupid etc.) but do you think there was structural reason behind it?"
The structural part of it, I think, was largely in his nomination in the first place. I do think Bush was ill-equipped to be president. As I read him, he was smart enough, but unusually uninterested in government and public affairs -- outside of a competitive streak that served him well in elections but didn't do much for him in office. He was also unusually inexperienced for a presidential candidate. Yes, I know Barack Obama had two fewer years in statewide office, but Obama also had legislative experience and, more to the point, Obama had always been interested in the world of politics and government. There's very little evidence that Bush had such a passionate interest. (Besides, Obama's relative lack of experience is properly seen as a bad thing.) I've argued that ambition is a good thing in a president, and I don't think Bush had enough of it. Moreover, as much as Republicans like to make fun of the "community organizer" thing, at least it was real-world work experience. Bush hadn't really had the normal opportunities to learn from early career successes and failures; by all accounts, he mostly drank his way through them.
So why did Republicans nominate him? It's a really good question, and one that as far as I can tell has never been answered satisfactorily. It's pretty clear that Republican governors bought into the idea of his candidacy, and that was pretty much the end of it. But why?
My suspicion is it goes back to the post-policy Republican Party -- although Bush was certainly not a post-policy candidate; his "compassionate conservative" agenda was substantive. But Republicans either couldn't agree on what their leaders should be doing once elected, or mostly didn't care. At least beyond the tax cuts that the nomination process made sure Bush would produce.
So what I suspect happened is that the governors looked at Bush and saw a guy who wouldn't cause ideological problems and seemed electable. Those qualities were in relatively short supply; even in those pre-Tea days a lot of Republicans were taking extremist positions, making them risky general election candidates. Meanwhile, governors and other Republican elites didn't have a slate of policy demands that would be imperiled by an incompetent president.
Of course, electing a bad president turned out to be a bad idea for Republicans, as the 2006 and 2008 elections showed. Absent the effects of the Sept. 11 attacks, the 2002 and 2004 elections might have proved the case against Bush even sooner.
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(Jonathan Bernstein covers U.S. politics for Bloomberg View. He is co-editor of "The Making of the Presidential Candidates 2012." Follow him on Twitter at @JBPlainblog.)
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