After I read Ross Douthat’s column this morning, I tweeted that I was nominally on board with his attempt to massage George W. Bush’s reputation.
Three hours, two cups of coffee, and a nice helping of sense later, I think I can safely say that my original assessment was a little…off. First, here’s Douthat in his own words:
America has had its share of disastrous chief executives. But few have gone as far as Bush did in trying to repair their worst mistakes. Those mistakes were the Iraq war — both the decision to invade and the conduct of the occupation — and the irrational exuberance that stoked the housing bubble. The repairs were the surge, undertaken at a time when the political class was ready to abandon Iraq to the furies, and last fall’s unprecedented economic bailout.
Both fixes remain controversial. But for the moment, both look like the sort of disaster-averting interventions for which presidents get canonized. It’s just that in Bush’s case, the disasters he averted were created on his watch. […]
And perhaps his best decisions, on the surge and the bailout, were made from the bunker of a seemingly-ruined presidency — when his approval ratings had bottomed out, his credibility was exhausted and his allies had abandoned him.
This is not a blueprint that future presidents will want to follow. But the next time an Oval Office occupant sees his popularity dissolve and his ambitions turn to dust, he can take comfort from Bush’s example. It suggests that it’s possible to become a good president even — or especially — when you can no longer hope to be a great one.
I’m not sure how much of this is the fault of the medium rather than the messenger, but I don’t think Douthat quite grasps the gravity of President Bush’s mistakes. The Iraq War wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill piece of unfortunate, but easily corrected, policy. It was – and is – a strategic and humanitarian disaster of the highest order. Over the course of six years, the United States has squandered trillions of dollars, destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives and done almost irreparable damage to Iraq’s social fabric. In retrospect, the surge was a welcome breath of pragmatism from the Bush administration, but even with that (limited) success in mind, it’s incredibly difficult to say that President Bush “fixed” anything.
The same goes for the financial crisis. While there’s plenty of blame to go around for the collapse of the housing market and subsequent collapse of the financial system, it’s fair to say that the Bush administration deserves a fair amount of blame for stoking the “irrational exuberance” that in turn stoked the housing bubble. What’s more, the twin collapses have yielded a tremendous amount of suffering, especially among the poor and working-class. Since the recession officially began in December 2007, the country has had a net loss of about 5 percent of its non-farm payroll, the brunt of that borne by the most economically insecure members of our society. The bailouts and TARP were certainly good moves by the administration, and should be recognized as such despite their flaws, but again, to say that those make up for the initial failures is a bit of a stretch.
And I guess that’s my main complaint with Douthat’s column. To borrow a phrase from President Bush, what Douthat has written is a classic example of the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” Saying that we should applaud President Bush for taking steps to salvage his disastrous presidency is like praising a roommate for cleaning up a bit after trashing the apartment. Not only should the place never have been trashed to begin with, but cleaning up after oneself is a matter of course and not particularly praiseworthy.
Update: I left out a pretty critical part of the Douthat column.