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Debating Dubya

April 15th, 2010 at 3:00 pm David Frum | 25 Comments |

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So what IS this Woodrow Wilson thing all about?

Well let’s think it through. Here’s a president who took the United States into a very controversial war, ailment ending in an unsatisfactory peace. In response to a domestic terrorist threat, try culminating in a deadly attack in lower Manhattan, this president adopted draconian domestic security policies. Oh – and his administration concluded with an abrupt plunge into severe recession.

Any parallels come to mind?

What’s taking place on Glenn Beck’s show is a coy conservative self-conversation. Maybe it’s because I’m in China now, but it reminds me of the way Chinese intellectuals in the late 1970s would discuss the first Qin emperor, as a way of debating – and denouncing – Mao Zedong without explicitly mentioning a sensitive subject.

In the case of George W. Bush, however, this elliptical approach to the subject is not only unnecessary, but distorting.

For all his faults, George W. Bush did try to develop a conservatism that could actually win elections and govern successfully in the 21st century. He did not succeed. Yet the problem he identified remains with us, and conservatives must solve it.

The dominant conservative point of view on George W. Bush was that his failures can be explained by lack of willpower. If only he’d been tougher on spending, all would have been well. But that only opens the conversation. George W. Bush was plenty tough, and accepted a more than usual number of political risks. He avoided this one. Why? An answer to that question is the essential precondition to greater Republican success next time.

To achieve greater success will require great realism about both opportunities and constraints. Which means the Bush issue has to be addressed head-on, and in a full way. Conducting the conversation in code is not very helpful, especially when the code contains so much garble.

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25 Comments so far ↓

  • TerryF98

    How about you lead the conversation David?

    There is so much revisionism going on in order to polish the turd that is the Bush Presidency. Please come clean and do some public soul searching about that administration.

    Tell the truth just as it is and let the chips fall where they may. It would be cathartic for the Conservative movement. To just avoid and obscure what happened during the last 10 years is just so Stalinist.

    Please excuse the word ‘turd” there is just no other alternative.

  • kensilber

    Maybe, though the reserved intellectual Wilson doesn’t seem like such a good stand-in for W.

    I suspect Beck focuses on Wilson (rather than FDR or LBJ) at least partly because the history is remote enough that few people will know how much of what Beck says is nonsense.

  • TAZ

    Bush was proof that compassionate conservatism with its massive spending, social engineering, nation building, government expanding and individual rights limiting policies is not doable.

    Not sure where we Republicans signed on to all that hook, line, and sinker but we need to get our minds back.

  • John Frodo

    Bush’s biggest problem is he led with the big I. Ideology and a belief that gut think was better than real think. First a leader needs to be a good administrator, then get the vision thing. Bush vision was tea bag heaven, but in his defense there is no way to administer the impossible.

    If Al Gore had not been defeated by the Supreme court America would still be number one. Bush damaged the world and left the US like the Black Knight in Search for the Holy Grail.

  • Carney

    Frum overlooks the paleo narrative on World War I, which predates and is not motivated by Bush. A large part of the paleo right traces the decline of the West to that war, which dealt a big blow to widespread faith in God, country, and traditional institutions, up to and including centuries-old Christian dynasties. It also de-legitimized Western world supremacy in the form of colonial rule, since the pointless and barbarous bloodletting undermined the West’s claim to having a superior civilization. The disillusionment fostered radicalism such as fascism, Nazi-ism, and communism, and accelerated the feminist movement and other social change (sometimes blamed on the large number of unmarried women whose potential husbands had been killed). They blame modern Political Correctness (which they call “Cultural Marxism”) on the efforts of Marxist scholars attempting to explain and resolve the “problem” of workers from different countries being willing to fight each other in WW1. Thus any involvement in this conflict for these paleos is a major mistake.

    Many paleos go further and say outright that the Central Powers were the good guys – traditional, conservative regimes that kept radicalism in check, whereas Republican France and the USA under Wilson represented disruptive, revolutionary forces that opened a Pandora’s Box of destructive and radical change. Since the Central Powers could never have lost the war without US involvement, Wilson is blamed for World War 2, the Soviet Union, etc.

    There are many critiques of this that are possible, but I don’t think Frum is fully aware of or properly grappling with this. It’s not all about W.

  • James Cody

    “The dominant conservative point of view on George W. Bush was that his failures can be explained by lack of willpower. If only he’d been tougher on spending, all would have been well. But that only opens the conversation. George W. Bush was plenty tough, and accepted a more than usual number of political risks. He avoided this one. Why? An answer to that question is the essential precondition to greater Republican success next time.”

    The problem is that you’ve loaded your question with facts that, I would argue, are not correct. It wasn’t a lack of willpower, and it wasn’t because he avoided the issue of spending or caved in to his party or Congress or whomever. He led it. He fought for Part D — and he fought for it hard — because he thought it would win him votes. He fought for a massive increase in defense spending without explaining how we would pay for it and without justifying that much of an increase was necessary (an increase was necessary, but that much?). He fought for liberating Iraq by saying oil would pay for it and keeping it off-budget for his entire presidency rather than finding a way to pay for it.

    As for the things that he supposedly fought for, but simply didn’t have willpower (I seem to recall he made noises about taking on agriculatural subsidies and highway spending, for example), I don’t think it was lack of willpower, it was that he really just didn’t care. Look, conservatives are against deficit spending — in the abstract sense, if you ask them that specific question, they would say yes, they oppose deficits. But if they have a choice between a balanced budget or massive tax cuts, they’d take the tax cuts without flinching. And if they have a chance between Part D, new spending to win votes, fulfilling the wishes of campaign contributors, etc, they’ll do that instead of balance the budget, again without flinching.

    It’s not lack of willpower. It’s that they just don’t care. Moreover, maybe Dems don’t make deficits priority number one, but it seems to me they do care about it more than Republicans. I mean, can you imagine Republicans even trying to pay for a $1 trillion program? Compare Bush’s defense buildup, Part D, and Iraq to ObamaCare. Even if you think ObamaCare involves budget gimickery (I don’t), they really did try, and a lot of it really is real, even if not all of it shows up. Republicans, tho, would just pass the plan, then call it a day.

  • DFL

    Events trigger political surges, not political planning. In 1929, the Democrats seemed to be farther from power than at anytime since 1865. The stock market collapsed in October, the Depression soon enveloped the world, and the Democrats crushed the Republicans in four straight elections. In 1979, the Tories of Britain were propelled into office less due to the Thatcher program but because Labour was discredited. Ronald Reagan would have never been elected in 1980 had not Jimmy Carter been such an incompent and the Democrats considered to be a failed party with failed programs. The Republicans of the 2010s will rise or fall on how the American people judge Barack Obama and the Democratic Party and not because of any sort of ideological retooling. “Modernizing”, whatever that means, is almost besides the point.

  • chriscurrey

    The key word in your essay Mr. Frum is “realism,” and today’s GOP has a severe deficit of realism.

    One last point: Mr. Frum, you are debating Glenn Beck. With all due respect, the guy does not play with a full deck. Nothing productive or instructive comes out of debating a guy who puts in the same sentence socialism, communism, Nazism, Jihadism, and Islamism. I am afraid that if you keep listening/watching to him, you will have an aneurysm.

  • thefamilymd

    Finally, someone correctly used the phrase “with all due respect” when, in fact, the writer doesn’t intend to be respectful to the target. I respect that.

  • Chekote

    I have been trying to have an coversation about the Bush years and I have met nothing but resistence. It doesn’t matter whether I try to have the conversation on conservative blogs or at my Republican clubs. People just don’t want to hear it. The Republican party is still at the denial stage of the change curve.

  • Oldskool

    I think the discussion the Right needs to have involves things like honesty, integrity, shame and accountability. Somewhere along the way they decided those things weren’t as important as doing whatever it takes to skew the polls and win elections.

    So when Mitch McConnell steps up to the mic and tells bald-faced lies about the upcoming bank bill, it’s doesnt even rate a shrug from other members of his party. And when we elect a president partly on his promise to change our health care system, they have no qualms spending endless hours lying about it on Fox so they can insist the majority of people are against it, ignoring that it’s one of the reasons he was elected.

    Either you argue your beliefs with a set of ground rules based on decency or you don’t, and right now they don’t. So they need to decide exactly who they think they’re helping when they behave as a party who chooses party over country at every turn.

    I myself believe they consciously made that decision long ago which is why they need people like Frum to call them out on it and be as relentless as the liars.

  • Chekote

    Oldskool

    Because Dems NEVER lie or distort. :roll:

  • JonF

    Any American that is nostalgic for the rule of the Hohenzollerns, Hapsburgs and Romanovs (let alone the Ottomans and the Manchu) is nuttier than a fruitcake. Not only is the whole American tradition, right and left, founded on anti-monarchism since the genetleman of 1776 flipped King George the middle finger– but our British forebearers also taught their kings to sit down and shut up if they wanted to keep their heads attached to their shoulders.
    I could respect an argument made that maybe it would be better if we had a nice dowdy old lady like Liz II to serve as an apolitical head of state and let the President take his unmajestic lumps. But come on– if you think WWI was a calamity then the next fact you need to accept is that the two Kaisers, the Tsar and the Sultan bear a huge burden of responsibility for those guns of August. Nor would Russia have suffered the Communist catastrophe had the country not been ruled by a family of first rank a-holes.

  • TheRightsWriter

    This entry seems too clever by half. I’ve not seen Glenn Beck shy away from criticizing George W. Bush by name when he felt it warranted.

    Beck attacks Wilson because he wants to expose modern Progressives by lashing their putative forebears. Although the accumulation of power in the hands of the federal government has inspired pitched debate since the days of Jefferson and Hamilton, many trace its 20th century origins to such things as the progressive income tax, the ICC, the Pure Food and Drug Act, and the direct election of senators.

  • COProgressive

    David, from China, wrote;
    “If only he’d been tougher on spending, all would have been well. But that only opens the conversation. George W. Bush was plenty tough, and accepted a more than usual number of political risks. He avoided this one. Why? An answer to that question is the essential precondition to greater Republican success next time.”

    “If only he’d been toughter on spending,”. He wasn’t tough on spending at all. For the first 6 years of his reign of error Bush’s Veto pen was lost in the back of his desk draw. The Republican congress, called the “Rubber Stamp” congress when it was really the other way round, just spent like drunken sailors and the “Rubber Stamp” came from the Oval Office. Bush talked a good conservative line, but never followed it.

    Then there was the puppetmaster with his hand up Bush’s jacket pulling the foreign policy strings to put in place the Neo-Nitwit plan of world domination by enforcing “Pax America” in the ME only thinly vailing the Imperialist lusting of the “base” of the good ol’ oil boys from Tejas dividing up the Iraqi oil field before the first Kaboom of Shock & Awe was ever heard.

    For “true” conservative to learn from the reign of error of George Bush, they must learn to never, never ever put up a weak, in so many ways, puppet of a candidate and then steal the election again.

    The presidency of George Bush set back the conservative movement by a generation, at least.

  • COProgressive

    Oldskool @ 5:29 PM wrote;
    “So when Mitch McConnell steps up to the mic and tells bald-faced lies about the upcoming bank bill, it’s doesnt even rate a shrug from other members of his party.”

    It’s not a lie if it’s in Frank Luntz’s “Magic Phrases” talking points memo. It’s just a stretch of the truth, a stretch so far that the truth is unrecognizable to the untrained.

  • LauraNo

    I announced to the room (don’t recall if anyone was in it!?) when Gore ‘conceded’, that nothing good could possibly come from stealing an election in America. Bush never stood a chance. He was ‘lucky’ that 9/11 happened on his watch or I bet he wouldn’t have gotten anything done. But then he messed that up too…

  • sinz54

    TAZ: Bush was proof that compassionate conservatism with its massive spending, social engineering, nation building, government expanding and individual rights limiting policies is not doable.
    Too many variables.

    The only thing the Bush presidency taught us was a lesson we already learned from the LBJ administration and the Vietnam War: A difficult war that drags on in stalemate will negate any achievements from that Administration.

    We’ll never know how LBJ or Bush would have been regarded, if it weren’t for the tragedies of their two respective wars–and the economic problems resulting from those wars.

  • sinz54

    Chekote: I have been trying to have an conversation about the Bush years and I have met nothing but resistence. It doesn’t matter whether I try to have the conversation on conservative blogs or at my Republican clubs. People just don’t want to hear it.
    The military is disproportionately Republican (especially the officer corps).

    It’s very difficult to get families whose men and women served in Iraq and/or Afghanistan to face up to the fact that those wars were botched. That would mean that their men and women were risking their lives unnecessarily. It’s much easier to accept the fiction that our troops were “stabbed in the back” by the Left.

    From what I’ve seen on Redstate.com and other conservative forums, you can criticize Bush on Medicare Part D or “amnesty” for illegal aliens as much as you want, and you won’t get much of an argument from them. But if you start sounding like an antiwar protester, all those military types and their families are going to either walk away from you or slam you.

    COProgressive:

    Despite what you and the rest of the loony Left may claim or think, the true reasons for the Iraq War had very little to do with oil. Believe me, oil would have made more sense than the actual reasons that men like William Kristol (who ain’t no oil millionaire) and academics like Laurie Mylroie (who ain’t even a politician) demanded we invade Iraq. And as it turned out, Iraq, far from handing over their oil to us, has remained a member of OPEC, where they continue to screw us over along with the rest of their oil sheik buddies.

    To paraphrase Talleyrand: The war was worse than a crime. It was a blunder.

  • MI-GOPer

    DavidF, with this column you have completed your conversion into the perfect farLeft tool and fool.

    Shame on you. You couldn’t be more wrong or more desperate… even with those 30 pieces of Obama State Dept silvered coins clinking in your pockets as pay for services rendered to the Obami. Redemption is beyond your skill set.

  • Blumstein

    ***For all his faults, George W. Bush did try to develop a conservatism that could actually win elections and govern successfully in the 21st century. He did not succeed. ***

    If he’d actually been conservative he might have had more success. Instead he acted like a radical – invading and occupying foreign countries, creating huge budget deficits, doing little to secure the border, pushing zero down payment mortgages to promote minority homeownership.

  • TerryF98

    Well F**k me! MIGoper is back from the grave, now with a hyphen. What will become of his alter ego “Independent” and where is GOProud?

  • Carney

    LauraNo, Bush passed No Child Left Behind, with significant Democratic support, before 9/11. And the 2000 election was so close that if Gore had somehow pulled out a FL recount win, I guarantee that that “victory” would have been just as, if not more, tainted.

  • CAPryde

    “If he’d actually been conservative he might have had more success. Instead he acted like a radical – invading and occupying foreign countries, creating huge budget deficits, doing little to secure the border, pushing zero down payment mortgages to promote minority homeownership.”

    Bush shouldn’t get sole blame here. Republicans controlled Congress for six years, and they were on-board with all of these activities. That’s why it’s hard for me to believe Mitch McConnell when he talks about fiscal responsibility and how he wants to reduce the deficit.

  • Oskar

    Meester Veelson and Jorge Arbusto-what a pair! Just look at the 1916 and 2004 electoral maps-practically identical except for California and a few other states. Both pushed this nation into bloody and evil wars under sactimonious pretenses while acting as though they were carrying out God’s will.