News & Politics

The Disastrous Rule of a Mayberry Machiavelli

Bush ran as a moderate, tacked right and governed ineffectually -- before 9/11. Since then he has become the most radical American president in history, and arguably the worst.
The following is an excerpt from How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime (Princeton University Press, 2006).

No one predicted just how radical a president George W. Bush would be. Neither his opponents, nor the reporters covering him, nor his closest campaign aides suggested that he would be the most willfully radical president in American history.

In his 2000 campaign, Bush permitted himself few hints of radicalism. On the contrary he made ready promises of moderation, judiciously offering himself as a "compassionate conservative," an identity carefully crafted to contrast with the discredited Republican radicals of the House of Representatives. After capturing the Congress in 1994 and proclaiming a "revolution," they had twice shut down the government over the budget and staged an impeachment trial that resulted in the acquittal of President Clinton. Seeking to distance himself from the congressional Republicans, Bush declared that he was not hostile to government. He would, he said, "change the tone in Washington." He would be more reasonable than the House Republicans and more moral than Clinton. Governor Bush went out of his way to point to his record of bipartisan cooperation with Democrats in Texas, stressing that he would be "a uniter, not a divider."

Trying to remove the suspicion that falls on conservative Republicans, he pledged that he would protect the solvency of Social Security. On foreign policy, he said he would be "humble": "If we're an arrogant nation, they'll view us that way, but if we're a humble nation, they'll respect us." Here he was criticizing Clinton's peacemaking and nation-building efforts in the Balkans and suggesting he would be far more restrained. The sharpest criticism he made of Clinton's foreign policy was that he would be more mindful of the civil liberties of Arabs accused of terrorism: "Arab-Americans are racially profiled in what's called secret evidence. People are stopped, and we got to do something about that." This statement was not an off-the-cuff remark, but carefully crafted and presented in one of the debates with Vice President Al Gore. Bush's intent was to win an endorsement from the American Muslim Council, which was cued to back him after he delivered his debating point, and it was instrumental in his winning an overwhelming share of Muslims' votes, about 90,000 of which were in Florida.

So Bush deliberately offered himself as an alternative to the divisive congressional Republicans, his father's son (at last) in political temperament, but also experienced as an executive who had learned the art of compromise with the other party, and differing from the incumbent Democratic president only in personality and degree. Bush wanted the press to report and discuss that he would reform and discipline his party, which had gone too far to the right. He encouraged commentary that he represented a "Fourth Way," a variation on the theme of Clinton's "Third Way."

In his second term, Clinton had the highest sustained popularity of any president since World War II, prosperity was in its longest recorded cycle, and the nation's international prestige high. Bush's tack as moderate was adroit, shrewd and necessary. His political imperative was to create the public perception there were no major issues dividing the candidates and that the current halcyon days would continue as well under his aegis. Only through his positioning did Bush manage to close to within just short of a half-million votes of Gore and achieve an apparent tie in Florida, creating an Electoral College deadlock and forcing the election toward an extraordinary resolution.

Few political commentators at the time thought that the ruthless tactics used by the Bush camp in the Florida contest presaged his presidency. The battle there was seen as unique, a self-contained episode of high political drama that could and would not be replicated. Tactics such as setting loose a mob comprised mostly of Republican staff members from the House and Senate flown down from Washington to intimidate physically the Miami-Dade County Board of Supervisors from counting the votes there, and manipulating the Florida state government through the office of the governor, Jeb Bush, the candidate's brother, to forestall vote counting were justified as simply hardball politics.

The Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore, by a five-to-four margin, perversely sanctioned not counting thousands of votes (mostly African-American) as somehow upholding the equal protection clause of the 15th Amendment (enacted after the Civil War to guarantee the rights of newly enfranchised slaves, the ancestors of those disenfranchised by Bush v. Gore). In the majority opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia argued that counting votes would cast a shadow on the "legitimacy" of Bush's claim to the presidency. The Court concluded that the ruling was to have applicability only this one time. By its very nature, it was declared to be unprecedented. Never before had the Supreme Court decided who would be president, much less according to tortuous argument, and by a one vote margin that underlined and extended political polarization.

The constitutional system had ruptured, but it was widely believed by the political class in Washington, including most of the press corps, that Bush, who had benefited, would rush to repair the breach. The brutality enabling him to become president, while losing the popular majority, and following a decade of partisan polarization, must spur him to make good on his campaign rhetoric of moderation, seek common ground and enact centrist policies. Old family retainers, James Baker (the former Secretary of State who had been summoned to command the legal and political teams in Florida) and Brent Scowcroft (elder Bush's former national security adviser), were especially unprepared for what was to come, and they came to oppose Bush's radicalism, mounting a sub rosa opposition. In its brazen, cold-blooded and single-minded partisanship, the Florida contest turned out in retrospect to be an augury not an aberration. It was Bush's first opening, and having charged through it, grabbing the presidency, he continued widening the breach.

The precedents for a president who gained office without winning the popular vote were uniformly grim. John Quincy Adams, the first president elected without a plurality, never escaped the accusation of having made a "corrupt bargain" to secure the necessary Electoral College votes. After one term he was turned out of office with an overwhelming vote for his rival, Andrew Jackson. Rutherford B. Hayes and Benjamin Harrison, also having won the White House but not the popular vote, declined to run again. Like these three predecessors Bush lacked a mandate, but unlike them he proceeded as though he had won by a landslide.

The Republicans had control of both houses of the Congress and the presidency for the first time since Dwight Eisenhower was elected. But Eisenhower had gained the White House with a resounding majority. He spent his early years in office trying to isolate his right wing in the Congress, quietly if belatedly encouraging efforts to censure Senator Joseph McCarthy. Eisenhower greeted the Democratic recovery of the Congress in 1954 with relief and smoothly governed for the rest of his tenure in tandem with Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson. The outrageous behavior of the Republicans during the brief period in which they had held congressional power and unleashed McCarthy was a direct cause of their minority status for 40 subsequent years. But the Republicans who gained control of the Congress in 1994 had not learned from their past.

The Republican radicals in charge of the House of Representatives remained unabashed by their smashing failures of the 1990s. They were willing to sacrifice two speakers of the House to scandals of their own in order to pursue an unconstitutional coup d'état to remove President Clinton. (It was unconstitutional, strictly speaking, because they had rejected any standards whatsoever for impeachment in the House Judiciary Committee in contradistinction to the committee's exacting standards enacted in the impeachment proceedings of President Nixon.) Now these Republicans welcomed the Bush ascension as deus ex machina, rescuing them from their exhaustion, disrepute and dead end. They became Bush's indispensable partners.

Immediately upon assuming office, Bush launched upon a series of initiatives that began to undo the bipartisan traditions of internationalism, environmentalism, fiscal discipline, and scientific progress. His first nine months in office were a quick march to the right. The reasons were manifold, ranging from Cheney and Rumsfeld's extraordinary influence, Rove's strategies, the neoconservatives' inordinate sway, and Bush's Southern conservatism. These deeper patterns were initially obscured by the surprising rapidity of Bush's determined tack.

Bush withdrew from the diplomacy with North Korea to control its development and production of nuclear weapons. Secretary of State Colin Powell, after briefing the press that the diplomatic track would continue, was sent out again to repudiate himself and announce the administration's reversal of almost a decade of negotiation. Powell did not realize that this would be the first of many times his credibility would be abused in a ritual of humiliation. Swiftly, Bush rejected the Kyoto treaty to reduce greenhouse gases and global warming, and presented a "voluntary" plan that was supported by no other nation. He also withdrew the U.S. from its historic role as negotiator among Israelis, Palestinians and Arabs, a process to which his father had been particularly committed.

In short order, Bush also reversed his campaign promise to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and canceled the federal regulation reducing cancer causing arsenic levels in water. He joked at a dinner: "As you know, we're studying safe levels for arsenic in drinking water. To base our decision on sound science, the scientists told us we needed to test the water glasses of about 3,000 people. Thank you for participating." He appointed scores of former lobbyists and industry executives to oversee policies regulating the industries they previously represented.

As his top priority Bush pushed for passage of a large tax cut that would redistribute income to the wealthy, drain the surplus that the Clinton administration had accumulated, and reverse fiscal discipline embraced by both the Clinton and prior Bush administrations. The tax cut became Bush's chief instrument of social policy. By wiping out the surplus, budget pressure was exerted on domestic social programs. Under the Reagan administration, a tax cut had produced the largest deficit to that time, bigger than the combined deficits accumulated by all previous presidents. But Reagan had stumbled onto this method of crushing social programs through the inadvertent though predictable failure of his fantasy of supply-side economics in which slashing taxes would magically create increased federal revenues. Bush confronted alternatives in the recent Republican past, the Reagan example or his father's responsible counter-example of raising taxes to cut the deficit; once again, he rejected his father's path. But unlike Reagan, his decision to foster a deficit was completely deliberate and with full awareness of its consequences.

Domestic policy adviser John DiIulio, a political scientist from the University of Pennsylvania, who had accepted his position in the White House on the assumption that he would be working to give substance to the president's rhetoric of "compassionate conservatism," resigned in a state of shock. "There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus," DiIulio told Esquire magazine. "What you've got is everything -- and I mean everything -- being run by the political arm. It's the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis ... Besides the tax cut ... the administration has not done much, either in absolute terms or in comparison to previous administrations at this stage, on domestic policy. There is a virtual absence as yet of any policy accomplishments that might, to a fair-minded non-partisan, count as the flesh on the bones of so-called compassionate conservatism."

After just four months into the Bush presidency, the Republicans lost control of the Senate. Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont, who had served for 26 years as a moderate Republican in the House and the Senate, left his party in response to Bush's radicalism. "In the past, without the presidency, the various wings of the Republican Party in Congress have had some freedom to argue and influence and ultimately to shape the party's agenda. The election of President Bush changed that dramatically," Jeffords said on May 24, 2001. Overnight, the majority in the upper chamber shifted to the Democrats.

Bush spent the entire month of August on vacation at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. His main public event was a speech declaring federal limits on scientific research involving stem cells that might lead to cures for many diseases. Bush's tortuous position was a sop to the religious right. On August 6, three days before his nationally televised address on stem cells, he was presented with a Presidential Daily Brief from the CIA entitled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike Inside U.S." CIA director George Tenet later told the 9/11 Commission on Terrorist Attacks on the United States "the system was blinking red." The Commission reported: "The President told us the August 6 report was historical in nature ... We have found no indication of any further discussion before September 11 among the President and his top advisers of the possibility of a threat of an al Qaeda attack in the United States."

By September 10, Bush held the lowest job approval rating of any president to that early point in his tenure. He appeared to be falling into the pattern of presidents who arrived without a popular mandate and lasted only one term. The deadliest foreign attack on American soil transformed his foundering presidency.

The events of September 11 lent Bush the aura of legitimacy that Bush v. Gore had not granted. Catastrophe infused him with the charisma of a "war president," as he proclaimed himself. At once, his radicalism had an unobstructed path.

Bush's political rhetoric reached Manichaean and apocalyptic heights. He divided the world into "good" and "evil." "You're either with the terrorists or with us," he said. He stood at the ramparts of Fortress America, defending it from evildoers without and within. His fervent messianism guided what he called his "crusade" in the Muslim realm. "Bring them on!" he exclaimed about Iraqi insurgents. Asked if he ever sought advice from his father, Bush replied, "There's a higher Father I appeal to."

After September 11, the American people were virtually united in sentiment. Support for the Afghanistan war was almost unanimous. "The nation is united and there is a resolve and a spirit that is just so fantastic to feel," said Bush. But two weeks after he made this statement, in January 2002, his chief political aide, whom he called "The Architect," Karl Rove, spoke before a meeting of the Republican National Committee, laying out the strategy for exploiting fear of terror for partisan advantage. "We can go to the country on this issue because they trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America's military might and thereby protecting America," said Rove. His strategy was premised on the idea that Republicans win elections by maximizing the turnout of their conservative base; his method was to polarize the electorate as much as possible. Rove's tactic was to challenge the patriotism of Democrats by creating false issues of national security in which they could be demonized. September 11 gave his politics of polarization the urgency of national emergency.

Sidney Blumenthal, author of "How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime (Princeton University Press, 2006)," writes a column for Salon and the London Guardian.