Thursday, September 15, 2005

OVER AT POLITICAL ANIMAL, Kevin Drum has a question about Pres. Bush's taking personal responsibility for mistakes made in responding to the need for hurricane relief.

... Liberal pundits gasped in dismay because Bush famously refuses to ever admit mistakes or take responsibility for things that go wrong. This was a moment for history!

But here's the question: is Bush really very different from any other president in this regard? Harry Truman and his famous stopped buck aside, taking responsibility for specific mistakes is not exactly something that most politicians are noted for.

As a matter of curiosity, I did a Nexis search in the Washington Post for "Clinton w/10 'take responsibility.'" I got 44 hits, and of those only two were actually examples of Clinton taking responsibility for some kind of mistake. The first was Waco, an incident he was initially criticized for because of the perception that he had allowed Janet Reno to take the fall, and the second was Monica Lewinsky, which was dragged out of him only after months of subpoenas and grand jury testimony. Even granting that the criticism over Waco might have been unfair, neither of these is exactly a sterling example of buck stopping.

Are there other examples? This is a genuine question, since Nexis searches aren't perfect and neither is my memory. And I'm not talking about generic apologies for historical injustices, I'm talking about accepting responsibility for specific failures of his administration. Did Clinton do this any more than Bush has?

I'm not sure what Kevin means when he says that "liberal pundits gasped in dismay. ..." The comments I've seen so far from liberal bloggers were gasping in shock, and making sarcastic jokes (myself included), because of that Bush reputation for never owning up to mistakes. It could be just an unintended word choice.

But getting to the substance of Kevin's question, he makes a good point. I think he's right that politicians are not famous for acknowledging error or taking responsibility for disastrous lapses in judgment. That said, Bush's presidency is different.

How? Well, for starters, Bush has consistently pitched his presidency to one highly defined constituency: the far right. Bush supporters are not all wealthy white Republicans; Thomas Frank's "What's the Matter With Kansas?" showed us that. But they do all have one thing in common: an extraordinary fanaticism on issues of foreign, economic, and domestic social, policy.

Every other president in recent history has either governed from the center, or has been at least somewhat responsive to pressure from other sectors of society. In fact, Bill Clinton made an art of trying to please everyone. Of course, he didn't succeed ultimately in pleasing anyone; but he was not seen as someone who could never change his mind or respond to political pressure.

That is why Clinton was not accused of never acknowledging error or apologizing for mistakes: not because he was good at admitting mistakes, but because he was perceived as being more flexible in general. When you take the position from the get-go that you are right and everyone who disagrees with you is wrong (and unpatriotic to boot), then your refusal to back down or apologize or say, "I made a mistake" is greatly magnified.

The first Pres. Bush lacks his son's ideological and religious fanaticism. Even though he was certainly quite conservative enough, thank you very much, he was capable of making decisions from a pragmatic, and not a crusader's, point of view. One example would be his decision not to overthrow Saddam Hussein after the Persian Gulf War. Bush 41 was able to foresee the consequences of such an act. He also was able to brook dissent within his administration; Secretary of State James Baker was instrumental in persuading the elder Bush against regime change in Iraq:

Not many people foresaw the postwar difficulties the administration has endured in Iraq. Of the few who did, two stand out, both lions of the Republican Party.

One was President George H.W. Bush. The other was his secretary of state, James A. Baker.

"Incalculable human and political costs" would have been the result, the senior Bush has said, if his administration had pushed all the way to Baghdad and sought to overthrow Saddam Hussein after the U.S.-led coalition ousted the Iraqi army from Kuwait during the Persian Gulf war in 1991.

"We would have been forced to occupy Baghdad and, in effect rule Iraq," Bush wrote. "The coalition would have instantly collapsed. ... Going in and thus unilaterally exceeding the United Nations mandate would have destroyed the precedent of international response to aggression we hoped to establish.

"Had we gone the invasion route, the United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land. It would have been a dramatically different — and perhaps barren — outcome."

So it's also fair to say that other presidents did not make mistakes of the scale and magnitude Bush 43 has. It's easier to get away with not openly admitting errors in judgment or action when those errors do not have catastrophic consequences.

Bottom line: Maybe George W. Bush really is different from any other president in this regard.

No comments: