Ten Lessons From the Bush Administration

There are many things – good and bad alike – to look back on from the Bush Administration, as befits only the 12th man in our history, and only the 7th since 1837, to serve a full 8 years in the Oval Office. Whether we like the task or not, conservatives need to continue defending the successes and good decisions of the Bush years, as the inauguration of Barack Obama will not cause Bush’s critics to relent in their campaign to keep his reputation from recovering and to try to discredit conservative ideas and philosophy with Bush’s unpopularity. But that doesn’t mean we should fail to draw lessons from Bush’s failures.

I’d like to reflect here on ten lessons for future presidents, at least Republican ones, from things that went badly for Bush. (My lessons are different from those of Bob Woodward, who is amusingly unaware that his Lesson #10 would totally eviscerate his Lessons #2 and 4-6, as well as being unaware that saying “[i]nstead of a team of rivals, Bush wound up with a team of back-stabbers with long-running, poisonous disagreements about foreign policy fundamentals” is like saying “instead of a dozen eggs, Bush wound up with twelve eggs.”).

(1) Talk Is Not Cheap

Perhaps the most overarching lesson of the Bush years is that an Administration’s ability to communicate is essential to its ability to get things done. The Bush team suffered a triple play of un-communication. The President was not a good speaker. He could turn in solid performances in big set-piece speeches, and he was never as defenseless a debater as his opponents assumed, but Bush’s day-to-day communications were always a weak spot. The Vice President was an excellent, no-nonsense communicator, but never gave adequate attention to persuading the public, and his effort to restore the executive branch’s ability to keep its internal deliberations secret ended up committing him too often to a course of silence. Eventually, Cheney had become so caricatured that the public tuned him out entirely. And the press shop was often badly run and left out of the loop, most notably under Scott McClellan, a second-rate hack whose efforts to perform the basics of his job were painful to watch. As a result, time and time again, the Administration simply didn’t get its side of the story out.

(2) He Who Controls The Past, Controls The Future

This is a corollary to Lesson #1. The Clinton Administration was extremely good at deflecting questions about the past with the mantra that we need to not stop thinking about tomorrow, move on, etc. This approach worked for Bill Clinton in part because of his unusual political gifts and in part because very few really important decisions were made in the Clinton years, so the public was willing to accept the idea that yesterday’s news was no longer relevant. Bush seemed to emulate Clinton in this regard, preferring to talk about today’s subject to the exclusion of making a forceful case about the recent past – but with almost invariably disastrous results. On story after story – Hurricane Katrina and the decision to go to war in Iraq being the most obvious examples – the Administration permitted its enemies to essentially rewrite history unchallenged, with the end result that a series of storylines about the Administration’s past made it impossible to function in the present. Just because you don’t want to talk about yesterday’s news doesn’t mean other people won’t change it.

(3) Pick People Who Are Loyal To The Cause, Not The Man

Bush’s choices for major staff positions were, as is often the case, a mixed bag, and one that largely (albeit with some exceptions) declined in quality in the second term. But if you run down the list of the best and worst Bush appointees, one thing becomes clear: Bush was much better, more competently and even more loyally served by the people he appointed who were loyal first and foremost to the conservative movement (e.g. Cheney, Ashcroft, Rumsfeld, Tony Snow) than by the people who were appointed mainly for their personal loyalty to Bush and his family (e.g. Gonzales, Miers, Card, McClellan). The reasons for this are not surprising. First, people who are principally loyal to the president’s policy goals rather than to him personally are more likely to be people with well-thought-out convictions. Second, presidential administrations burn people out and often require scapegoats. People who are personally loyal to the president will expect the same in return, and may feel spurned when they don’t get it and lash out; people who are loyal to a larger movement or set of ideals may be equally bitter, but they will consider the big picture of what the team hopes to accomplish before turning on their former bosses. Compare McClellan’s flailing haymakers at his former employer with, say, Rumsfeld, who kept his mouth shut and graciously accepted the role of public scapegoat for the Administration and the Iraq War effort after the 2006 election.

(4) There Are No Small Jobs

Every Administration finds room for some people who are either not especially qualified or not on the team. Presumably, presidents think, or hope, that they can stow a crony in a job where they won’t attract much attention or carry much responsibility, or can pick someone who is popular but not that loyal without risk of blowback. But woe to the president who thinks any appointment carries no risk of adverse consequences.

The poster boy for this problem was Mike Brown as the head of FEMA. Brown had basically no relevant experience when he was hired into a lower-level FEMA position early in the Bush years, and he appeared to all observers to be doing his jobs well enough without incident that when he got promoted to head of the agency, nobody raised a peep, least of all the Democrats who screamed bloody murder over far more qualified picks like Ashcroft. Bush may well have reasoned, if he gave the Brown appointment much thought, that FEMA’s job isn’t all that hard – basically show up, hand out supplies and cut checks – and it really didn’t matter who ran the place. During Katrina, after all, it was the Coast Guard that had the really critical job among the federal agencies, and did it splendidly. Of course, not only did FEMA perform terribly under stress, a failure exacerbated by the chronic mismanagement of state and local government by the New Orleans Democrats, but Brown himself became a national icon of incompetence.

Or consider the two main hat tips to bipartisanship in Bush’s original team – Democratic Congressman Norman Mineta as Secretary of Transportation and Bill Clinton’s CIA Director, George Tenet. Mineta’s job, which involved supervising airport security policies, hardly seemd in early 2001 like it would be a flashpoint for controversy, and Tenet was a veteran bureaucratic operator. Both ended up being long-time thorns in Bush’s side, with Tenet embroiled in controversies over both the pre-9/11 and pre-Iraq War intelligence and Mineta pushing for insanely counterproductive restrictions on identifying potential threats among airline passengers.

Then there’s William Donaldson. Donaldson, a septaugenarian moderate/liberal New York Republican and long-time Wall Street veteran with a sterling resume, was fairly widely well-received by the media, liberals and industry alike as Bush’s appointee to head the SEC in 2003, replacing the embattled Harvey Pitt. There’s been a lot of heat and very little light generated by liberal efforts to blame the credit crisis on “deregulation” of the private sector, but as I have noted before, most of the critics founder either on an absence of specifics, a misunderstanding of the capabilities of regulatory bodies to understand a business’ risks better than its own people, or in the case of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and Community Reinvestment Act regulation, serious obfuscation of the government’s role.

That said, the one deregulatory decision that contributed to the crisis and that can fairly be laid at the feet of the Bush Administration was made not by a conservative true believer but by Donaldson, a man almost uniformly regarded as more pro-regulation than Pitt or Chris Cox: the 2004 decision to relax the net capital rule for the big broker-dealers. This rule change, which permitted the broker-dealers to invest more money with less capital and thus make up the difference by borrowing money to invest, contributed only marginally to the credit bubble itself (although allowing more leveraged investments does expand the amount of credit outstanding), but contributed significantly to the bust at the end, as the most heavily leveraged firms were most seriously impaired by even small declines in the value of their mortgage-backed securities. It was the damage to those institutions that spread the wave of panic into the credit markets.

The April 2004 rulemaking was not controversial – the media didn’t cover it (they were too busy with Abu Ghraib), Congress and the blogs didn’t fume about it, it passed the SEC with the unanimous support of the Commission’s Democratic and Republican members. (It wasn’t a secret, though – it was published in the Federal Register and noted by securities practitioners, including my own law firm in a publicly available memo to clients). Only a single gadfly commenter from Indiana even objected. And of course, neither Cox nor anybody in Congress tried to reverse the rule. Still, the decision made by Donaldson and the other SEC Commissioners ended up contributing accelerant to the flames. Bush presumably picked Donaldson because he hoped that he would take the SEC out of the newspapers – but that didn’t keep the SEC there.

(5) You Can Never Recapture A Moment

In the spring of 2005, the GOP stood in as commanding a position as it has held since before FDR: a freshly re-elected president, an entrenched majority in the House, 55 Republican Senators. There had been hiccups in the transition to Bush’s second term (Bernie Kerik), there were scandals beginning to pick up steam (Jack Abramoff) and there were already looming efforts to organize opposition to Bush’s Social Security plan, but by and large the opening weeks of the second term were an optimistic time. January and early February 2005 saw the first national elections in Iraq, a post-Arafat election in the Palestinian Authority, and democracy on the march in Lebanon (the Cedar Revolution following the February 14, 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri), and the Ukraine, all in keeping with the ambitious scope of President Bush’s Second Inaugural Address.

The moment didn’t last, and by September Bush was in ruins following Hurricane Katrina, never to recover. Iraq suffered a series of reversals that accelerated after the February 2006 bombing of the golden mosque. Further setbacks weakened the GOP in late 2005 and early 2006, ranging from Harriet Miers to the Dubai Ports controversy. The moment when Republicans had the wind at their backs was gone.

And during that moment, in the spring of 2005, what did they accomplish? Not nothing – that Congress did pass a number of bills of note – but not anything resembling the kind of ambitious agenda, capped by Social Security reform, that the moment justified. Bush never even introduced legislation to move his plan forward. And instead, nearly a month – most of March 2005 – was swallowed up by the Terri Schiavo controversy, culminating in the passage of federal legislation dealing with Schiavo’s case on March 21 and her death at the hands of the State of Florida on March 31.

Gallons of ink and even more pixels have been spilled attacking the people who thought there was something morally intolerable about starving a defenseless woman to death without, at a minimum, unambiguous evidence that this was in accordance with her wishes. I’m not going to demonize the ‘oogedy-boogedy’ social conservatives for that conviction; I tend to agree that for the Schiavo case in particular, what they did was the right thing. And we can debate another day whether as a matter of federalism, the opponents of starving Mrs. Schiavo should have accepted that the federal government doesn’t always intervene in state government even when individual state officials may be making a grave mistake.

But what is clear in hindsight is the lack of perspective involved in drawing the public’s attention away from issues affecting many thousands or millions of Americans to a controversy over a single innocent life, however precious. Conservatives will likely need decades of labor to recapture the opportunities we had in March 2005 – and too many of those opportunities were spent in a futile quest to save the life of one woman who was dead by month’s end.

2005 wasn’t the only wasted moment. There’s also what I consider the greatest policy misstep of the Bush years: the failure to ask Congress, in the fall of 2001 when Bush was enjoying an inherently transient ability to get whatever he wanted from Democrats in Congress, to ask for an expansion of the active-duty military. The Administration was, it is true, taking on an enormous number of tasks that fall, so it can’t be said that the moment was wasted, but that would have been the time to look down the road, see that the logic of the War on Terror would inevitably require more manpower in potentially multiple theaters of combat, and start building the depth to handle that contingency. The Democrats, of course, would have demanded that a request for more military spending on troops be matched by tax hikes (their answer to everything), and perhaps Bush had bad memories of how his father signed off on tax hikes in exchange for support in the first Gulf War. But Democratic demands to raise taxes in the shaky, traumatized economy of late 2001 could not have gone over well; that’s a fight he should have been willing to have. A few years later, with wars already in progress in Iraq and Afghanistan, the political moment to get bipartisan support for a larger active military was not feasible (although a consensus on that front did eventually form later on).

(6) Don’t Pick Fights You Are Not Willing To Lose

This is a point I have made before at greater length: there are some political battles that are worth losing, because if you lose you stake out a popular and/or principled position that lets you tell a distinct story with the voting public. And when you pick those battles, the very fact that you are willing to go down swinging can deter your opponents from massing resistance. But too often, the Bush Administration instead picked fights that were only worth the battle if it won – and that, of course, only encourages your opponents to defeat you. Harriet Miers was the obvious example: having neither a base among conservatives nor genuinely broad-based non-ideological appeal, Miers brought no political benefit to Bush unless she sailed through the confirmation process, which of course she did not. Immigration was another – had Bush’s comprehensive bill passed, he would at least have been able to tell every faction, from pro-amnesty Mexican groups to border hawks, that he finally resolved a lot of pending proposals and got them something. That was the theory, at least; but by fighting and losing the battle, the GOP got the worst of both worlds, as its border-security faction alienated Latino voters without doing anything to prevent Democrats from subsequently passing such legislation and taking all the credit for it. (The Dubai Ports deal is another example.)

(7) There Are No Points For Going Halfway

In a similar vein, the Bush Administration often ended up being pilloried for having conservative policies without getting the benefit of actually enacting those policies. If you are going to take the heat for something, do it.

Consider: what if Bush had essentially declared martial law in New Orleans for a few days, shot some looters and forcibly restored order? The howls from his opponents on the left would have been deafening – but while it would have caused people who already hated him to hate him more, such an action might have prevented the more damaging impression of Bush being ineffective, which cost him with people who had previously supported him.

Bush’s North Korea policy is another example. There are three Bush policies towards North Korea. There was the policy that was caricatured by the Democrats, most recently Obama during the 2008 campaign, as being a policy of not talking to North Korea at all. Then there was the policy of the early Bush years of insisting that any talks be multilateral, a choice designed to compel regional actors like China and Japan to be part of the solution. Then there was the policy of the latter Bush years, under which Condi Rice pursued a policy that was effectively indistinguishable to the old Clinton Administration habit of trading favors to North Korea in exchange for empty, unenforceable promises and with no help from its neighbors. If Bush was going to take heat for being a hardliner on North Korea, he should have stayed one.

(8) There Is No Substitute For Boots On The Ground

The Bush Administration’s Iraq policy was, famously, blasted by the critics for years for allegedly not having enough troops; some of those critics felt vindicated when the ‘surge’ increased troop levels and achieved dramatic success. Others complained about the disbanding of Saddam’s army, which left us with a shortage of Iraqi troops that has only recently been rectified. Still others argued that we have long had too few American troops in Afghanistan.

As is often the case with such criticisms, they ignore the downsides of the alternative course of action: more U.S. targets leading to more U.S. casualties, a greater feeling that the U.S. was acting as an occupying power, empowerment of the old Ba’athist oppressors, the centuries-old history of Afghanistan as a graveyard of armies. They also ignore what was or wasn’t feasible at particular points in time; the ‘surge’ was only a small increase in U.S. troop levels (along with new tactics and rules of engagement), but it coincided with the cresting wave of a large increase in the available number of properly trained Iraqi troops.

Yet, there’s also a kernel of truth and one that has broader lessons inside and outside the world of infantry combat: sometimes, there’s no substitute for manpower. The Iraqi boots on the ground did, ultimately, make a huge difference in their own country that we could not have achieved without them. The critics of the invasion as being ‘unilateral’ because of the absence of the French, Germans, Russians and Chinese were always all wet, as they misunderstood why power politics, internal demographics and commercial interests (including bribery) made it impossible for those governments to ever support removing Saddam. But I continue to believe that it really was a failure of U.S. diplomacy that contributed (among other factors) to the unwillingness of Turkey to participate in the invasion. And the absence of the Turks had real impact, as it kept the mobile, mechanized U.S. Fourth Infantry Division from opening a full-blown second front in the heavily Sunni north and thus engaging in open combat many of the people who later became insurgents. And the failure of diplomacy that led to Turkey’s refusal to allow U.S. troops to use Turkish soil as a staging ground was itself the result of a lack of personal contact, as Secretary of State Powell – due in part to illness and perhaps in part as well to a disinclination to leave Washington during periods of bureaucratic infighting – rarely traveled to foreign capitals to meet in person with foreign leaders and gain a first-hand understanding of the conditions.

Finally, of course, there’s Katrina again. If President Bush had cancelled all his other events and personally landed in the flood-affected areas, it wouldn’t have done a thing to improve the conditions – but it would nonetheless have been a powerful symbol, just like his famous bullhorn appearance at Ground Zero, of his solidarity with the people suffering from the hurricane’s effects, and would have left him less vulnerable to the charge of being disengaged or disinterested in their plight.

(9) Spending Matters

This one is more policy specific, but it’s an overarching issue. Bush entered office promising tax cuts without spending cuts, and promising as well a massive expansion in Medicare. That was perhaps plausible enough in the surplus conditions of the late 1990s, but those conditions were never sustainable. Bush’s record of restraining federal spending growth by particular agencies wasn’t always as bad as the image, but his overall record ended up eroding his credibility whenever he invoked traditional Republican rhetoric about the dangers of an overlarge government, and contributed to the loss of the GOP’s Congressional majorities. And as noted above, his inability to restrain domestic spending ended up limiting his national security options as well. The end result will probably require future Republicans to sell a more clear and aggressive plan of spending cuts before future tax cuts can be enacted. Democrats, perhaps, can ignore federal spending restraint as they please (the current group certainly will try), but Republicans get elected to keep it in line.

(10) War Is Never Free

This is perhaps obvious in its most basic form (i.e., the costs of wars to the men who fight them), but it is a lingering reminder nonetheless as a political matter. The first President Bush piled up tremendous, but passing, popularity from the Gulf War. But that’s the exception, not the rule; even highly successful and obviously necessary wars end up consuming much of the attention and political capital a president might use for domestic policy (think of FDR and the New Deal). The relentless assault on the Iraq War by its domestic opponents was ultimately unsuccessful in its stated aim: the war continued, and troops will not be withdrawn rapidly even under a new president who opposed the war. And victory is now at hand, the best efforts of the doomsayers to the contrary. But the political sacrifices made by the Bush Administration to hold the line in Iraq ended up being enormous. The same can be said of the War on Terror more broadly: improvements in surveillance and new interrogation and detention policies needed to be composed; doing nothing was never an option. Yet these efforts led to one public relations setback after another, sometimes inevitably because the information needed to defend the policies wasn’t able to be discussed in public. At home, Republicans who may otherwise have been more restive about the growth of government generally bit their tongues in the 2001-05 period, worried about further damaging an Administration that needed loyal supporters for the war effort, until it was too late. Perhaps there’s nothing that could have been done differently, given the national security decisions that had to be made. But the cause of conservatism at home ended up weakened by the need to put the Right’s chips behind defending the nation.


President Bush made a lot of decisions in eight years, and we’ll be picking over the good and the bad for decades to come. His virtues were often underestimated, though they may grow clearer in contrast to his successor. But had he learned some of these lessons earlier in his presidency, he might have left behind a more durable positive legacy.

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