Yesterday I wrote some thoughts about the shallowness of the "Is social conservatism ruining the Republican party?" debate. I said it distracts attention from a number of distinctions that merit consideration if we wish to understand people's political allegiances. Today I'd like briefly to consider these distinctions' application to one issue and one man: the Iraq War and George W. Bush.
I will not try to justify any judgment of either, although my opinions will show through; let's save the justifying for another day. What I wish to do instead is offer some broad-brushstroke description of the way Bush and the war have come to be seen, in slow motion and over many years. These brushstrokes are the landscape upon which voters formed many more particular views. Consider what I say in the light of your own observations and ask whether it contains any truth.
I'll organize my comments with reference to the distinctions I introduced yesterday, though the order will be different.
Brand-name voting versus rational-analysis voting.
What I think is that the Iraq War ruined President Bush's brand and President Bush ruined the Republican brand. I think that's what sank us in 2006 and 2008. Sure, there were scandals, there was rampant spending and government bloat, there was a charismatic Democratic nominee, and in the final weeks of the '08 campaign there was a financial crisis that sealed John McCain's fate. But I think it was his fate. It probably would have been the fate of any Republican nominee.
Bush survived the '04 election largely by running a national-security campaign. The memory of 9/11 was fresh and Iraq had not yet descended into the sectarian bloodbath that turned "We can't police a civil war" into a pungent sound bite. (The Golden Mosque bombing, recall, happened in early 2006.) It helped in '04 that the Democrats nominated a man with the warmth and charisma of Massachusetts cod. The WMD hadn't turned up and there was a growing consensus that the war had been fought on a false premise, but the feeling was still: It's a dangerous world, and now is no time to rock the boat.
Then Iraq really went to hell. A perceived mistake became a perceived catastrophe, and most people just wanted to be done with it. They wanted to be done, too, with the man and the party who had brought it to them.
These attitudes were not, in my opinion, the product of rational analysis, because the impulse behind them was more punitive than corrective, more backward- than forward-looking. Was the Iraq War unwinnable in 2006? Manifestly not, as the surge has shown. Was there serious discussion in 2006 of whether the war was unwinnable? Not really. A relative handful of specialists debated the question, but in the main one side asserted yes, the other no, and that was that.
To my mind, this was a frightening thing. It would have behooved us, amidst all the recriminations, to spend some time on questions like these: How does one recognize an unwinnable war? Should we be thinking in binary alternatives - winnable versus unwinnable - or should we be looking at things probabilistically? Should we be making, that is, a cost-benefit analysis - and what is the right analysis here? What are the consequences of this defeat? Does it embolden al-Qaeda? Does it destabilize the region further? How about Iran - will it not gain tremendously from our loss? And that's not to mention the human cost: After what we have put the Iraqis through, should we not demand a very high standard of certainty that the war is in fact unwinnable before abandoning them? But that framework isn't suited to vengeance - and we were out for blood.
Social issues versus moral issues.
Say what you will about Bush's social conservatism, it was nothing new. In fact, it fell short of many social conservatives' expectations. New was: Halliburton blood for oil torture Guantanamo domestic spying extraordinary rendition - plus ample (and amply televised) doses of death death death death death.
Consider the remarkable traction of the slander that "Bush lied, people died." I had variations of it repeated to me by many well-educated non-extremists. None of them could justify it beyond pointing out that WMD stockpiles had not been found in Iraq. If you told them that the administration's claims about Iraqi WMD were consistent with the views of just about every intelligence agency in the world, and that there is a difference between a lie and a mistake, they hardly cared. If you explained that, had the administration really been after Saddam's oil, there were much cheaper ways of getting it, they hardly cared. They just knew Bush was a liar.
It is a special irony that the president who spoke in the most idealistic language since JFK has been branded a tyrant. Criticize his "freedom agenda" if you like, but don't tell me he didn't mean it. Decry his judgment if you like, but don't tell me he is unmoved by suffering. Is there a president in living memory who cried more in public than Bush did? There he was with wounded troops, tearing up; there he was on TV talking about a 9/11 orphan, his lip quivering. Compassionate conservatism, expanded welfare state, funding for AIDS treatment in Africa on a scale that dwarfed Bill Clinton's efforts - but it didn't matter, because everyone just knew Bush was full of malice.
Then lo, who should appear but a messiah? It was Barack Obama's genius to offer, not an alternative platform, but an alternative brand sold as a secular religion. "Hope" and "change you can believe in" would in other elections have been banalities, but in this election, context became content, and the content was contrastive: roughly, the Prince of Darkness versus the Light of the World.
Of course, Obama had some help.
Influencers versus influenced.
The elites and intellectuals (as defined yesterday), far from being immune to Obama's stylistic seduction, were uniquely susceptible to it. Much more than the public at large, they look down on Bush's Texas twang, his dropped g's, his "nucular," his Evangelical Christianity, his lapel pin. They prefer the ethics of the ACLU and the English of law professors.
That preference is relevant to understanding the psychotic hatred many of them directed at Sarah Palin. Sure, she made mistakes - but weren't they listening to Joe Biden's gaffes? His making up of facts in the vice-presidential debate? Biden, however, has trained himself to talk like them. Palin bears the cultural markers of a W. - the dropped g's, the "nucular," the Evangelical Christianity. If you hated him, you hated her in equal measure, and then you hated her a little more for reminding you of him.
That the influencers tended to see Bush as a jingoistic, fundamentalist idiot rather than a worthy adversary with whom they had profound disagreements inevitably influenced their presentation of his policies. They are supposed to specialize in nuance and subtlety; the assessment of a war fought against an appallingly cruel autocrat, on the basis of flawed but sincerely believed intelligence, would seem to cry out for such virtues. Their narrative instead combined the nuance of an infomercial with the subtlety of a morality play. Again, think what you will of Bush's policies - but don't tell me you arrived at a thoughtful view of them by reading the fulminations of Paul Krugman and Frank Rich.
The influencers convinced the public that the war had been a mistake but failed to get it thinking about how the mistake should be managed. They convinced the public that the war had been wrong but failed to get it thinking about whether we could right the wrong. And when the tide turned - when Iraq stabilized, and we started to win after all - they offered the public a yawn.
I have much sympathy for our 43rd president. I think a good, maybe even a great man has been vilified. It's fine with me if you disagree. But it is not fine with me, and it should not be fine with you, and it is not good for any of us, that the discourse surrounding this man has been so foolish.
I've dwelt on the foolishness because I think it is relevant to what I said yesterday about communication: about the need to justify our beliefs from the ground up, in a way comprehensible and persuasive to those who don't already hold them.
I am fond of Bush's colloquial, unpretentious English, and law professors bore me to death - but Bush is not a gifted extemporaneous speaker. Would the received wisdom about the war be quite what it is had it been justified with the suave articulacy and command of detail of a Mitt Romney? I can't know, but I suspect not.
Bush also seems to have made a decision to put on an air of certainty, even as the public's doubts grew. I recall his saying, in response to a question about this certainty, that the commander-in-chief must appear strong and confident for the sake of the troops. (I paraphrase.) That seems right, to a point. But the president must also reassure the people he leads that he understands their concerns. Here too I think Bush fell short.
After the failure to find WMD in Iraq, he might have done much more to control the terms of debate. He might have explained - again and again and again - that the war's justification depended not only on what Saddam had done, but on what Saddam might do. He might have said this in regular press conferences, not occasional speeches. He might have personally announced the intelligence discoveries in post-war Iraq, which left no doubt that Hussein intended to reconstitute his WMD programs as soon as U.N. sanctions were lifted. He might have talked in concrete terms about the strategic stakes, the price of losing. He might have told the public: "Look, we've made some great big mistakes, but they were honest mistakes, and we still need to win, and this is how we'll do it" - and he might have told them this long before the '06 midterm rout.
In March of 2003, the American people had a very clear idea of why they were going to war, and that idea was: WMD. When the question became instead whether to stay at war, they never heard anything like the best possible affirmative answer. Giving the best answer is all the more important when you're up against cultural gatekeepers who despise you and the policy you're justifying puts a lot of blood on TV. Neutralizing those disadvantages would have been beyond the power of any president, but I think Bush could have done better, and I think we should learn from his mistakes.
All right, that'll do for today. Return tomorrow, if you'd like, for the final installment of these ramblings, in which I'll tell about my uncomfortable relationship with opinion journalism.
By Jason Lee Steorts
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online