Artur Davis: Yet Another Way of Looking at George Bush

The world is still waiting for an unpredictable take on George W. Bush, whose dedication of his presidential library has spawned mostly commentary that can be pegged from knowing the writer’s pedigree: liberals who downgrade Bush for a war he could have declined and a recession he arguably could have avoided, but cite his relative moderateness as proof that today’s Republican Party is caught in a fever; hard-core conservatives lamenting that Bush spent promiscuously and short-changed social issues, and appointed the Obamacare-saving John Roberts; and center-right conservatives observing that Bush at least understood the value of a conservatism that appealed beyond the Republican base. (a point that I have made in past columns on Karl Rove and Jeb Bush).

I’ll forego those arguments for now to make another observation that Bush’s admirers and detractors gloss over: Bush happens to be the rare president who made a practice of being indifferent to the legacy building implications of his office. He said as much on several occasions (and was ridiculed for it) and his comments reflected a mindset which governed largely in the moment with no pretense of a signature governing vision.  Consider the many plays this ad hoc style played out.

Where Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan had specific and in their case diametrically opposed conceptions for the long term relationship between the world’s military superpowers, Bush’s foreign policy was really just a stop-gap. He bought into the intelligence that Iraq was a budding security threat, wiped its leadership out, and spent five years massaging the results with little trace of a broader strategic design (the neo-conservative rhetoric about democratizing the Middle East never got much more than lip service from Bush, who easily accommodated the region’s other autocratic regimes).   While Ronald Reagan actively sought to dismantle the framework of liberalism, and Bill Clinton and Barack Obama openly attempted to redefine their party and their opposition, Bush seemed notably uninterested in weaving a long term or even distinct short-term ideological blueprint. His signature domestic victory, No Child Left Behind, was technocratic and did not lean hard to the left or the right; the prescription drug benefit was similarly ambidextrous: insubstantial and loophole filled on one hand, the first expansion of Medicare in forty years on the other.  And once the drug benefit passed, he barely mentioned it, much less tried to expand it into a template for how a conservative reformer might tackle health care in its broader dimensions.

davis_artur-11Even when Bush overreached, as I argued then and would still argue now, in the way he waged the war on terror, it should not be forgotten that the bulk of what he sanctioned happened in the shadows, without Bush ever outlining in any concrete way a new formulation of American interrogation or surveillance policies. When “caught”, the Bush team, more often than is remembered, either reined themselves in or minimized the scope of their departure from preexisting laws. And Obama’s wholesale adoption of those same techniques, only substituting drones for torture, makes them already look more like another chief executive pushing for more authority than some uniquely Bush based doctrine.

It’s worth remembering that Bush actually tried to preserve an assault weapons ban, but never spoke of it; tried to roll back farm subsidies while doling out new oil subsidies; pinched pennies in specific agencies without even faking a grand deficit reduction strategy. The absence of any memorable Bush speeches on domestic policy is not entirely a function of his famous inarticulateness, but reflects the fact that so few Bush initiatives kept his own administration’s attention.

That ever shifting nature left Bush looking like neither the movement, conviction based politician, the grand strategist, nor the savvy tactician looking to broaden his party’s electoral base. To his critics, this is all proof of, take your pick: either unprincipled leadership or ineptitude in plotting bold masterstrokes. But there is also a way of understanding Bush’s style as self-consciously managerial, more aimed at resolving specific tensions as they presented themselves, and modest about changing the overall trajectory of national policy.

The liabilities of such an approach are all over Bush’s record. They are contained in his failure to get in front of warnings about the potential of pseudo-private institutions like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to distort the home lending market, or to restrain Wall Street’s recklessness in seeing in that distortion the opening to make a killing. They surface in the missed opportunities to lay any groundwork for his failed (and in the pattern of many non-Iraq Bush initiatives, quickly abandoned) reforms of immigration law and Social Security. The ill-conceived reconstruction in Iraq stands out as another side-effect of Bush’s tendency to blunder into dead-ends without a long range game plan.

But there is one other feature of the Bush approach worth noting and respecting. Ross Douthat hints at it in a recent column: Bush at least had the wherewithal to reorient his administration when it seemed to have stumbled into a crater, a correcting instinct that led to the surge as well as the formulation of TARP in late 2008. A presidency with grander international ambitions might have resisted the other side of the surge, which was the devolution of authority back to an Iraqi government that looked weak. A more ideologically confident administration might have been too dogmatic to throw out the playbook, and to keep revising TARP’s structure and objectives to win congressional approval and pacify skittish markets. Both instances of presidential flexibility can be viewed as virtues of Bush’s managerial tendencies. And there is a related reason that the Obama Administration had so few qualms about replicating Bush’s approaches in war-fighting and stabilizing the capital markets: they were not at all a product of an ideological brand that a president of another party would have normally resisted making his own.

Bush’s failure to paint with broader philosophical strokes, or to tie together his approaches into a vision of government (“compassionate conservatism” was a 2000 centerpiece hardly mentioned in the next eight years) has such obvious costs that it is practically the antithesis of what most consultants war-gaming 2016 would urge on their candidates. But one facet of 2012 shouldn’t be overlooked. Mitt Romney’s best night, the debate where he decimated Obama, happens to be the one moment where he was positively Bush-like: his description of his governorship echoed Bush’s war stories in 2000 about forging deals with Democrats, his nods toward a more targeted health-care effort, his concessions on the unfairness of some corporate tax breaks and ultimately his “whatever works we are open to trying it” rendition of his economic agenda left Obama flummoxed for an hour and a half. What an irony that a president who ran against Bush’s shadow got spooked when he saw himself face to face with what looked for a moment like Bush’s ghost.

(Cross-posted from


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