Monday, September 21, 2009

He Could Have Been Worse

In an attempt to put the best face on the clustastrophe that was the presidency of George W. Bush, Ross Douthat comes out with a refreshing strain of apologia: the worst mistakes of the Bush presidency were fixed by George W. Bush.

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.

This leaves him in an unusual position where the judgments of future generations are concerned. On foreign policy, Bush looks a lot like Lyndon Johnson — but only if Johnson, after years of unsuccessful escalation, had bequeathed Richard Nixon a new strategy that enabled U.S. troops to withdraw from Vietnam with their honor largely intact. On economic matters, he resembles Herbert Hoover — but only if Hoover, after presiding over the stock market crash of 1929, had engineered an economic response that nipped the Great Depression in the bud.


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.

How about this for an even better blueprint: don’t invade a country based on lies and personal revenge and don’t hand the keys to the economy over to charlatans in the first place.

It takes a special kind of chutzpah for Mr. Douthat to expect us to be grateful that the Bush presidency could have been a whole lot worse had it not been for the Bush presidency.