Is Bush The Empty Suit, Or The Man In Charge?
We’ve had George W. Bush as our leader now for four long years. The conventional wisdom among his detractors, including many on the left and here at The Left Coaster is that Bush is an empty suit, powered by monied interests to do their bidding, with a VP and Defense Secretary calling the shots overseas. The alternate viewpoint, in a bit of legacy-polishing by his aides and friends, is that Bush is very well-read and engaged in what is going on, and is a hands-on manager who knows his facts and doesn’t like “yes-men.” As hard as that version of Bush may be to swallow, that is exactly the persona that Karl Rove and Andy Card are peddling to the media now with Richard Wolfe’s Newsweek story this week. Let me add some commentary to each of these versions, as well as on a NYT piece today that reports the growing influence of Dick Cheney now in domestic policy as well.
First, the conventional wisdom of Bush’s detractors that he is not a smart guy is incorrect in my mind. Bush is intellectually lazy, on things that he doesn’t care about. I do believe that Bush can only focus on several things, and doesn’t have the ability or interest in multi-tasking, but this doesn’t make him stupid. It is clear from reading the various books about him and Rove that he, just as much as Rove, digs into and manages the political decisions and agenda. He leaves it to Rove to be the mechanic, but I do think that Bush very much is the driver of the car. As for Cheney, Lis Bumiller of the NYT reports today that Cheney will be more and more involved in domestic policy in the second term, pushing the White House agenda on Social Security and taxes beyond where the GOP caucuses want to go. Does this mean that Cheney is in control? No. It means that Cheney and Bush are in agreement on the agenda and how far to push. Both agree with the tactic of pushing hard beyond what others think is practical, and to them this is a style of leadership.
Bush and Cheney are conservatives at heart, and although Bush was an empty slate on foreign policy in 2000 and has allowed Cheney and Rummy to fill in his blanks, he now is in agreement with the imperialistic and unilateral approach favored by both of them. This is why Condi was the perfect foreign policy choice in a second term, because she will be the classy-looking irrelevant face out in front of a policy that relies on her for little. Bush and Cheney agree about what to do with the tax system, what to do in the Middle East, what to do on Social Security, and on all of these other issues. So any chatter from the likes of Bumiller or others who think they know Bush well misses the point that it isn’t so much that Cheney is taking a bigger role or is in charge now of domestic policy as well as foreign policy. It is simply that Bush and Cheney work as a team, both way out there to the right on these issues, and that Cheney pushes the envelope and plays the enforcer where he can, allowing Bush to pull it back in when he has to cut deals. This is why Democrats cannot negotiate against themselves either by moving to the middle just to get deals with Bush. Bush and Cheney both start out way to the right and wait to see how far to the middle the Democrats start out and then narrow the range of negotiation accordingly.
As for the alternate version of Bush fed to Richard Wolffe of Newsweek, we are being asked to believe that he is involved in policy detail, is well-read, doesn’t like “yes-men” but instead likes “can-do” people, and cares about our soldiers. I think there is more truth to this version than we know, that isn’t altogether inconsistent with elements of the conventional wisdom. Let’s go point-by-point:
Wolffe says that Bush is engaged in policy and knows the details. He cites an example where Bush called a GOP congressman to get his vote on the Medicare drug bill, and this was supposed to be indicative of his level of engagement in the debate. Again, it is highly possible for Bush to be well-versed on several of his major initiatives at one time, but if you accept the version that Wolffe is running with on the Medicare drug bill, then it runs contrary to the spin from the White House that Bush wasn’t involved enough (“He’s not an actuary”) in that bill to be a party to the deception foisted upon Congress about the bill’s actual cost. I think Bush does know plenty about his major initiatives and approved the plan of withholding information from Congress because of his view, and that of Cheney, that Congress should be as irrelevant as possible and kept in the dark.
Wolffe says that instead of wanting “yes-men” around him, Bush wants “can-do” people instead. Wolffe is right, and misses the point at the same time. The people around Bush in the second term all share his and Cheney’s view of Congress and the world, so whether or not they are “yes-men” is irrelevant. I agree that Bush wants can-do people around him. He is clearly a “just get it done and take care of it” kind of guy, as evidenced by Abu Ghraib, but that presupposes that things are on his radar screen in the first place. Obviously, 9/11 wasn’t on his radar screen, nor did he see a need to kick butt and ramp up activities after the August 6, 2001 PDB was given to him because the woman who is about to become Secretary of State didn’t tell him this was important. So surrounding yourself with a bunch of like-minded can-do people isn’t the virtue that Wolffe and others may think it is.
Wolffe makes his biggest mistake however in thinking that Bush is losing sleep over the troops and Rummy’s performance. As evidenced by the Hersh story in the New Yorker, Rummy is doing the job because he and Cheney are imperialists seeking a clear projection of American power throughout the world by any means possible, including the monopolization of intelligence and ongoing unilateral action regardless of our capacities and regardless of how ill-advised and destabilizing these actions may be. Rummy is a can-do guy who is in lockstep with Cheney and now Bush’s adopted world view. I’m sure that Bush may be discomforted at times about our losses in Iraq, but not because he actually feels for the families. He is discomforted because the troops to him are simply the tools to implement the mission and worldview, and an overconcern by the media or his opponents on troop losses simply presents an obstacle to achieving the goals.
Wolffe points out that Bush has abandoned the social conservatives already and their agenda on gay marriage bans, which was in fact signaled over the weekend by Bush himself. This again should not be surprising because like others in Bush’s adult life, people and their causes are the means to Bush’s ends. Rove needed the social conservatives to come out in droves for the election in order to put Bush over the top, because his base from 2000 would not have been enough to overcome the anti-Bush vote in 2004. The real question will be what the consequence of this abandonment will be for the GOP in the 2006 midterms and in getting Bush’s agenda passed if the social conservatives see that their moral values concerns were nothing more than political playthings in Bush and Rove’s world.
The truth is that Bush and Cheney will be their most dangerous domestically in the next twelve months. They know they can only count on Congress that long before the midterms take their toll and the lame duck status takes over. As for foreign policy, given the preference for imperialistic and unilateral action, these guys, surrounded by can-do underlings of a like mind will be dangerous for the entire term.