Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Running into the 1988 Presidential election, Bloom County -- for those of you who were even more children than I at the time, a left-leaning comic strip penned by, what else, an Austinite -- took to calling the two major party nominees the Wimp and the Shrimp. The joke -- with respect to one of only three one-term Presidents of the twentieth century -- took aim at the elder Bush's penchant for genteel, Rockefeller Republicanism; love of bipartisanship; and general image of softness, compared to the giant who came before him.

Little did we know that the truth of that image would come back to haunt us throughout the man's presidency, culminating (but hardly ending) in that great bipartisan moment in which President Bush (1) decided that everyone who'd read his lips scant years before had been suffering from mass dyslexia.

One of the great worries many of us had in 2000 -- aside from the fear that we'd soon have an android in charge of the nuclear codes, and that his alien masters would overrun us all -- was that the Wimp's wimpiness was congenital, and a dominant gene. This did not overly concern me, because, first, any idiot -- and George W. Bush is not an idiot -- could figure out what cost his father the Presidency; and, second, I watched the younger Bush absolutely annihilate that old crone Ann Richards, and not gently, either. Sure, he liked the bipartisan game, but he knew where the long knives were kept.

I maintain that I was right, but to a point; and the beginning of my error is the beginning of the explanation for the absolute fecklessness of the last two and a half years of President Bush's last term.

It is a commonplace analysis that the Bush Administration is actually a tale of two Presidencies: The first was staffed with Executive officers who could each have been President; remarkable for an attitude Hell-bent on establishing Republican dominance for a generation; characterized by a poorly communicated, but determined efforts to make absolutely certain that another September 11 never happened; and willing to pull out knives for use in impromptu surgery on the Democrats. The second term has been filled with Executive officers more notable for loyalty than competence; political missteps a-plenty; a squandered Congress; and even more sporadic attempts to fight, and marshal support for, a war that the Administration still holds vital. The difference, the common wisdom holds, is that the Bush administration (1) was too wounded by Katrina, (2) had lame-duck written on it in December 2004, (3) burned too much political capital on Harriet Miers and a badly prosecuted Iraq War, and/or (4) discharged too many good Executive officers for mere sycophants.

I say this is a mistaken analysis, if not in first premises, then certainly in its underlying understanding of the Bush Administration. I would submit that President Bush's administration has suffered from two, related, but not identical, problems.

First, although the left side of the political spectrum likes to imagine that President Bush and his administration are filled with relentless knife-fighters willing to cut any femoral to win, the unfortunate truth of the matter is that they're willing to play hardball on a tiny number of issues, and to give ground more or less everywhere else. While this might have been a viable governing strategy fifty years ago, the times have changed -- whether those times changed with Nixon, Reagan, or Clinton depends on your political perspective and your tendency to romanticize the past (and your party's involvement in it) -- and they have changed in such a way as to make bipartisanship on large issues more or less impossible. Because this Bush subscribes to his father's view of governance -- electioneering is for election time, governing is for everything else -- he has been wholly unprepared to deal with the world as it exists now. In other words, the single insight of the Clinton Administration worth noting for Republicans -- the need for a permanent campaign in today's media environment -- was and is not so much missed by this Administration as it is utterly repugnant to their way of doing things.

Think about it: Candidate Bush actually touched the third rail of Social Security reform. He suggested, let us be frank, privatization. He ran on it. He clearly wanted it. He talked about it. And come election time, he hammered on it. Then, when he finally had a Congress to work with; when he finally had his shot at ending the biggest boondoggle coming down the pike at us ... the term of art is "communications failure." Normal humans call it "silence." As a result, the Democrats -- then the minority, so for them, it's always campaign time -- campaigned against it. Republican Congresscritters, one of the latest evolved subphyla of invertebrates, naturally rolled over and played dead. In other words, the election campaign long over, Bush played soft, expected executive pronouncements (with the strength of a majority mandate behind him) to carry the day; the Democrats campaigned; and on the election of Which Social Security Option Wins, the Democrats won.

Any conservative -- any libertarian, any fusionist, any Republican -- with skin in the game has a similar tale to tell: A barnstorming, sincere Bush who charges out in front on a given issue, swinging for the fences come election time; followed by a quiet, almost passive Bush come governing time. Pick an issue; it's there.

This also goes a long way to explaining why the second term has seen a more withdrawn, less active President than the first term: Because there is no campaign coming. President Bush was out on the trail in 2002 -- making a critical difference there -- for a whole host of reasons, but undeniably to soften the terrain for 2004. In a development that I'm sure is still breaking a large number of moonbat hearts, there will be no Bush on the ticket in 2008; ergo, there is no need to campaign.

That silence -- that quiescence -- reflects the Bush family's somewhat patrician view of electoral and governing politics; and for that honorable, if somewhat (from today's perspective) daft reason, the Republican Party has one more weight on its back. (Fill in dozens of others as needed.)

Second, the related-but-not-identical problem is that candidate Bush made no secret of the fact that he openly disdained President Clinton's style of governance, which was, charitably, to publicly, loudly emote every time someone fell down and skinned his knee. Essentially, Bush said, you are wasting valuable, limited political capital; that capital must be hoarded for when you are swinging for the fences. If I may continue the baseball analogy -- and I may -- President Clinton's Administration was a story of constant political small ball: Here a hit, there a walk, oops, someone leaned into the pitch, pop fly, end of the inning. President Bush's administration is a story of putting the bat way above your shoulder, taking a lot of strikeouts looking, and when you get one clean over the middle or just a hair low and inside, swinging that bat for all you're worth.

I confess that even now I admire that approach to governance. That doesn't, however, eliminate its obvious flaws. In other words, you'd better damned well connect with one of those balls, preferably with the bases loaded, or you're gonna have a poem written about you and an out achieved by passing the ball over the plate three times.

Now, don't misunderstand: It seems beyond dispute that Bush -- candidate or President -- had a fundamental insight that Clinton -- adulterer or President -- lacked: If you keep wasting your time on small, ugly, inconsequential things, you'll never accomplish anything great. The story of 1993-2001 is nothing more than the story of a massive peace dividend unleashed as a result of the acts of 1981-1989, and a caretaker managing more or less nothing on his own, except a few things that fundamentally cheesed off his party's faithful, and and a handful of inconsequential things that enraged the faithful of his opponents. I say this not as a partisan, but as an honest observer: To what great accomplishment can William Jefferson Clinton point and say, I did that. Me. I wrested the direction of the country in the way I thought it should go, and for that, I am applauded, because I was right?

But behold the effect of playing an all-power lineup: A first term filled with landmark achievements, some awful, some great, some with a jury still trying to figure out who will be foreman; and a second term of strikeouts punctuated by a bare handful of home runs.

The fundamental insight that Candidate, and now President, Bush missed is this: Political capital, while assuredly not infinite, is not precisely finite either. It may be analogized to musculature: If you let it atrophy, you lose it; if you feed and use it, even minimally, you keep it. By failing to expend political capital on small things as well as great -- and there is a balance in this, to be sure -- the Bush administration is like the great warrior who felled his enemies with but a swing of his sword, and who has now gone to fat. He has lost his musculature because he so rarely uses it.

I would submit that in today's media environment, the only way to remain influential -- to retain political capital -- through two terms is to use what you have consistently, whether on offense or defense. Bush's failure to actually fire back at his opponents on a regular basis may or may not make him more noble, but it assuredly has left him enervated before them. Having been bludgeoned on social security reform, and lacking the quick musculature needed to fire back, this administration was gutted -- without basis in truth, but truth doesn't matter in politics or political perception -- by Katrina, and what came after. Lacking the will to constantly engage on the vital nature of the Iraq project, when the President elects to speak on it, he no longer commands a national audience, or even the opening clip on the evening news.

There is implicit in this the lurking suggestion that the modern media environment has made it impossible, or nearly so, to achieve a Presidency filled with great accomplishments; that 24/7 media and new media coverage has accomplished what a bloated bureaucracy could not, and has actually made it impossible for one man to stand successfully atop the Executive Branch. Perhaps this is true; perhaps not. That is something we will have to test with the next President, because the current one is -- sadly for those of us who remain fans of his -- pretty well done.