“If we’re going to have a nuclear holocaust, I’m going to the buffet first” – National Review 2008 Post Election Cruise – part 7

Full disclosure, I have been a fan of George Bush for a long time, and I am reluctant to offer criticism of his presidency, even when deserved. I knew this particular session would be difficult for me to listen to personally, but I’m going to try and report in a balanced manner. We will see if I’m successful.

The best way to sum up the session was a comment I overheard after it was over,

Notice that the people who were closest to him, have the best things to say about the strength of his character.

Deroy Murdock opened up with a very well thought out summary of his presidency, which linked back to Bush’s first inauguration speech, where he used words beginning with the letter “C” to highlight his agenda and philosophy. Deroy has a list of 6 “C” words to use in summarizing the last 8 years.

Credit – He deserves credit for a range of issues that he got right. These include the war on terrorism, Iraq, Supreme Court justices, and taxes.

Carter – Like Carter did to the Democrats, Bush has served to weaken our movement through the wholesale expansion of government and growth of federal spending.

Core – Bush doesn’t have a core set of principles that define his conservatism.

Christian – This isn’t a criticism of his faith, but of following of the principle of “turn the other cheek”. His unwillingness to fight back and defend his policies only served to weaken him.

Communicate – Both his personal style, and the incompetent public relations team that he assembled, were ineffective in conveying and defending his policies.

Crawford – It is time for him to go back there.

Obviously, it was quite a harsh assessment. It was echoed by David Freddoso, who had given me a preliminary taste of his dislike for the Bush presidency the night before, over drinks,

The Bush people knew how to win and election, but they don’t know how to govern.

As the author of “The Case Against Barack Obama”, David offered the opinion that in the end, we may be saying the same thing about Obama. When discussing Obama he opined,

Obama goes through life like Mr. McGoo. It is an odd case of cognitive dissonance for someone so intelligent.

While Deroy and David were the harshest critics on the panel (and noticeably those with the least personal experience with the President), others were more mixed in their assessments.

Mona Charen

Mona Charen believes that we will soon miss George W. Bush very much, similar to Tiberius choosing Caligula as his successor to guarantee that he would be missed. She also believes that we, as a country, will be famous for our ingratitude at being kept safe for the last 7 years. However, she also leveled criticism of Bush’s inability to communicate the right message, or even the politically adroit one. An example was given of the signing ceremony for the ban on partial birth abortion, where he was flanked by all men. This gave Planned Parenthood the visual fodder for their campaign asking women if they were going to let “these white men decide the fate of your body?” He could have easily instead staged the ceremony with women holding infants.

Going forward, our motto needs to be “no more Mr. Nice Guy”.

We can’t afford to lose the battle over policy perceptions, by refusing to engage due to a desire for comity and bi-partisanship. The final point that she made was that Bush was very poorly served by Colin Powell and Richard Armitage during the Valerie Plame fiasco. They were criminally disloyal to him, and have largely escaped any criticism or punishment.

Pat Toomey

Pat Toomey evaluated Bush’s economic legacy, calling it a “mixed bag”. The good was Bush’s effective policies on trade and his successful efforts on tax cuts. He was the best supply-sider since Reagan. The bad was the removal of too many people from the tax rolls, limiting the market for tax cuts as effective economic policy. The ugly was the expansion of entitlements and spending with No Child Left Behind and the prescription drug bill. He offered the following warning as we choose our next candidate (and I think this also applies to our last candidate),

Beware any politician who can’t articulate a core philosophy of personal liberty and small government.

Next Ed Whelan evaluated Bush’s legacy regarding the courts. He pointed out that the Miers fiasco inadvertently ended up helping Alito by making it harder for the moderates to oppose his nomination. He also reminded us that going 2 for 2 in the Supreme Court is a pretty good legacy, since Reagan went 1 for 3 (Scalia vs. O’Connor and Kennedy) and Bush 41 went 1 for 2 (Thomas vs. Souter).

(Thanks to Ed Whelan for sending me a correction. I had misquoted him above.)

Finally, there were a couple of panelists that had worked in the administration, including Bill McGurn (former Bush speechwriter and now with the Wall Street Journal). He took Deroy’s criticism on directly, saying the credit that Bush deserves makes for a damn good legacy. Very few Presidents leave office with a legacy like the one Deroy cited. He also disagreed with Mona and Deroy regarding communications.

He gave many speeches about the rational for the war, and tried to get ahead of the WMD stockpiles issue. Those speeches were ignored in the press’s quest to get Bush to admit he had made a mistake. In my opinion, the left will never forgive him for not losing this war, when they called it lost.

He also defended the term “Compassionate Conservatism”, which had been disparaged by the panel. He does not want to surrender the word to the left, since fundamentally conservatism is the philosophy of compassion.

Shannen Coffin was also on the panel, the former chief legal advisor to Dick Cheney. He joked that in the Vice President’s office, they would say, “We put the conservatism in compassionate conservatism.” He was asked the likely recipients of presidential pardons and felt that Scooter Libby has a decent chance of getting one. He also is doubtful that the convicted border agents will receive one, and declined to elaborate on the reasons. He was also sharply critical of the Plame investigation,

Scooter Libby is an example of the dangerous Democrat trend to criminalize political differences.

Ed Whelan followed up by hoping that the President will be able to give a blanket pardon to all involved in the prosecution of the war on terror to avoid any possibility of political reprisals. While the left will howl in anger over this, ultimately the Obama administration will thank him for it, since it will remove a serious distraction that would detract from their agenda.

John O'Sullivan

John O’Sullivan provided insight into the international attitudes toward Bush. He started by pointing out that international hatred toward America is really overstated. People who hate America all want to come to America, benefit from our economy, and be treated by our doctors. Anti-Americanism is simply a political philosophy that can’t even stand up to simple inconvenience, much less serious threat. He noted that there is enormous international interest in our electoral process itself because it shows that in America, unlike their countries, the people really do rule. He also provided this interesting assessment of the Bush Presidency,

In the end, Bush strengthened conservatism by showing that it is an independent force capable of fighting and winning against the full might of the Presidency and the political establishment.

Fred Thompson

Finally, Fred Thompson offered his assessment, in his typical down-home style,

Now I agree with everything that has been said here, but I didn’t see any conservatives taking to the streets to complain.

His top concern going forward is entitlements, and is worried about the effect those underfunded obligations will have on our economic future. He is also fearful that this economic crisis will end up being “Bush’s Crisis”, after the Obama administration exacerbates the problem and extends the length by making it worse. He also believes that the “Bush Lied, People Died”, meme is the “most historically evil mischaracterization ever levied against a President.” Finally, he offered his opinion on Bush’s ultimate legacy,

Historians don’t write about health plans and educational policies. They write about acts of political courage taken for the benefit of the country, by making decisions in the face of withering criticism.

Return to Part 6.

Part 8 looks at the future of conservatism.