Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Worst President Ever?

Josh Marshall at TPM has a discussion going on between himself and Matt Yglesias over whether or not George W. Bush is the worst president in modern history, and TPM Cafe writer Mark Schmitt joins in the fray.

Not to keep you waiting in suspence too long, but Mark is clearly in the ‘yes’ camp. And while I think I agree with Mark on that general judgment (as well as the issue of Bush’s treatment of the career civil service), I agree with him even more on the issue of Ronald Reagan.

Matt says that President Bush is actually slightly better than Ronald Reagan, as presidents go. But having lived through the Reagan presidency, even at a relatively young age, I just can’t come close to seeing that. Like Schmitt, I don’t mean to get nostalgic about the gipper. But for all my disagreements with various of his policies, Reagan was a far better president than George W. Bush on almost every measure I can think of.

As someone whose politics are on the center-left, I think he was better simply because he wasn’t nearly as conservative as President Bush. But that’s obviously a fairly situational sort of judgment.


On key points during his presidency, Ronald Reagan was capable of shifting gears. Again, not to idealize the man. But he was capable of seeing that outcomes hadn’t matched up to expectations and changing policy or, in other cases, capable of seeing that basic facts had changed and that policies and even something approaching world-views must change accordingly.


Reagan had the ability, simply, to change his mind. You might say it’s the ability to allow the facts to overcome your mind or as our secular saint, President Lincoln, put it, far more eloquently, the ability to ‘disenthrall ourselves.’

And that is an ability the current occupant of the White House entirely lacks — a fact which is on display now as he again crosses the country arguing that black is white and up is down.

President Bush represents something different from the normal sloshing back and forth between liberalism and conservatism. He’s a radical. He’s set on a destructive course, laced with corruption and fed by extremism. And he mistakenly believes that stubborness and ignorance constitute a virtue he calls ‘leadership’.

I don’t think there’s much question that President Bush is the most conservative president in modern American history. But the issue is not his conservatism; it’s his radicalism and destructiveness, his willingness to wreck the state. ‘Worst ever’ covers a lot of ground. But I think there’s a good argument to be made that he is.

What compounds this is the willingness of so many good people who otherwise would recognize this radicalism and reject it were it not for the poisonous atmosphere that has pervaded the political discourse for the last fifteen years. (Throwing around the “worst president ever” label doesn’t help.) Too many have left aside the idea of the common good for the whole country and aligned themselves with radical and intractable points of view to the point that being willing to accept or discuss other points of view is held up as a weakness. John Kerry lost a lot of ground when he was man enough to admit that he had second thoughts about the war in Iraq, and I know a lot of people — liberal and conservative — who are privately willing to concede that their opponents’ points might be right but dare not admit it publicly.

The longer we live in a world of absolutes and fearmongering against those of us who are willing to acknowledge the fact that we might be wrong, the harder it will be to remember — and live up to — what Lincoln said in 1862:

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.