It’s still freezing in much of country, but it’s springtime for Republican intellectuals.
With the Romney debacle behind them, a number of analysts have gone public with accounts of the party’s failures and ambitious proposals for its reform. Over the last few weeks, Ross Douthat, Michael Gerson and Pete Wehner, Yuval Levin, Ramesh Ponnuru, Jim Pethothoukis, David Frum, and Tod Lindberg have all weighed in on where the GOP should go.
The proposals include promising ideas, such as emphasizing tax and regulatory simplification over income tax cuts, or moving away from hard-line positions on abortion and gay marriage. Nevertheless, these plans are a misleading point of departure for GOP renewal. That’s because their authors remain in denial about the cause of Republicans’ unpopularity: the catastrophic failure of the Bush presidency.
Start with foreign policy. From the 1960s until the 21st century, Republicans reliably enjoyed the trust of the public to manage America’s foreign affairs and protect its national security. The attacks of September 11 gave George W. Bush the opportunity to build on that reputation. Instead, he squandered it by mismanaging the war in Afghanistan and plunging the nation into a disaster in Iraq.
Not every setback was Bush’s fault. Nevertheless, the president bears more personal responsibility for foreign policy than any other issue. In most Americans’ minds, then, Afghanistan and Iraq were Bush’s wars. By the conventional logic of politics, that means that they are Republican wars, too.
Yet Republican reformers are reluctant to admit the obstacle that Bush’s legacy poses to public confidence on foreign affairs. Although they acknowledge that the wars have been unpopular and expensive, they present these facts in the passive voice, as if the deaths of nearly 7,000 Americans were the result of weather or other uncontrollable forces. Here is how Gerson and Wehner describe the loss of the GOP’s foreign policy advantage: “Nor has the decidedly mixed legacy of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade worked to bolster the Republicans’ electoral advantage in the conduct of foreign policy; if anything, the opposite is the case.” Who do they think they’re fooling?
Then there’s the economy. The reformers write eloquently, and correctly, of the need for Republican responses to long-term problems of unemployment, wage stagnation, and rising health-care and education costs. As with foreign policy, however, they are reluctant to acknowledge that the Bush administration did little to reverse these trends, and in some ways exacerbated them. In an otherwise compelling critique of Republicans’ fixation on marginal income tax rates, Ponnuru manages not to mention that the Bush administration regarded tax cuts as a signature achievement. Ordinary citizens have longer memories.
I emphasize foreign policy and the economy because these are areas of Bush’s most dramatic failures. But Bush’s record as an administrative centralizer and critic of Social Security also overshadows Republican efforts in education and entitlement reform. It’s not good enough for Republicans to pledge that things will be different next time. To convince Americans that they’re serious, reformers need to name names about the cause of the public’s justifiable mistrust.
To be fair, the reformers are in a difficult position. They won’t attract converts within the party if they mount a frontal assault on its idols. And they know that Bush and his policies remain popular both with Republicans in office and with many base voters.
What’s more, several of the reformers have professional ties with the Bush administration. Frum, Gerson, and Wehner all worked as speechwriters in the White House. For them, rejection of the Bush legacy amounts to rejection of their own work. That’s not easy for even the most rigorous thinker.
But the reformers’ connections to the Bush administration reflect the GOP’s larger problem: an institutional and intellectual elite dominated by alumni or associates of the Bush administration. As Robert Draper reported in The New York Times Magazine, the RNC committee established late last year to investigate the party’s failings was staffed with the likes of Ari Fleischer, Bush’s press secretary. Such a team is not very likely to ask tough questions — or to recognize unflattering answers. In addition to new policies, Republicans desperately need new personnel.
It takes a long time for political parties to recover from defeat. Since winning suggests that they’re doing something right, it takes even longer to recover from victory. Because it reassured Republicans that aggressive war, fiscal policies that favor the rich, and the ideologically-inspired transformation of beloved domestic programs were fundamentally popular, the re-election of George W. Bush in 2004 was like a drug that relieves symptoms without treating the underlying disease. Conservative intellectuals must help the GOP break its dependence on these dangerous nostrums — and its continuing allegiance to the doctor who prescribed them.
By: Samuel Goldman, Blogger for The American Conservative; Published in The Week, March 5, 2013
After the Republicans gained control of the US Senate in the 2002 election, giving them across-the-board dominance of the legislative and executive branches of the federal government, the key players in the administration of President George W. Bush gathered to discuss fiscal policy.
Vice President Dick Cheney wanted to cut taxes for the rich.
Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill was skeptical. According to his recounting of the incident in Ron Suskind’s brilliant book, The Price of Loyalty, O’Neill expressed concern that a trillion dollars worth of tax cuts had already been enacted. O’Neill was no liberal. He liked tax cuts. But with the country rebuilding from the economic slowdown after the 9/11 attacks, and with a war being fought in Afghanistan and another on the horizon in Iraq, O’Neill noted that the budget deficit was increasing. And he argued against Cheney’s position, suggesting that another tax cut was unnecessary and unwise.
“You know, Paul, Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter,” said the vice president. “We won the mid-term elections, this is our due.”
O’Neill was, according to Suskind, left speechless.
But Cheney wasn’t done. He and the Bush-Cheney administration that he served as CEO piled up deficits and debts. Indeed, as The New York Times has well noted, “Under Mr. Bush, tax cuts and war spending were the biggest policy drivers of the swing from projected surpluses to deficits from 2002 to 2009. Budget estimates that didn’t foresee the recessions in 2001 and in 2008 and 2009 also contributed to deficits. Mr. Obama’s policies, taken out to 2017, add to deficits, but not by nearly as much.”
Now, a decade later, Cheney’s party is arguing that deficits matter. A lot. House Republicans are so fretful that they are willing to steer the country toward chaos by refusing the compromises that would avert across-the-board sequester cuts. Other Republicans uncomfortable with sequestration are pushing an austerity agenda that’s better organized than the sequester, but potentially even more painful.
The fact is that deficits are relevant.
So are debts.
Nations must treat them seriously.
But nations do not have to fear deficits, any more than Dick Cheney did on that day in the fall of 2002. And in that sense Cheney was right: deficits don’t matter if they are employed for a purpose. Cheney’s purpose—cutting taxes for the rich—was dubious. But stimulating the economy, expanding access to healthcare, funding state and local governments and protecting seniors on Social Security… these are good, and necessary, purposes.
Spending has value, especially when it is needed. As Bob Borosage of the Campaign for America’s Future reminds us: “The U.S. has witnessed slow growth since coming out of the Great Recession in 2009. The result has been a deficit that has come down from over 10 percent of gross domestic product to a projected 5.3 percent of GDP this year (slightly higher if Congress is sensible enough to repeal the sequester) and a projected 2.4 percent in 2015 (if congressional austerity bombs don’t blow up the weak recovery).”
For Cheney’s political heirs to claim now that the United States is in crisis, or at a “tipping point,” is absurd. For them to refuse to govern until they get their way, throwing one tantrum after another, is irresponsible. For them to see value in sequester cuts that impose real pain on real people is not just crude, it’s economically senseless—and dangerous to the long-term prospects for economic renewal and growth.
President Obama needs to push back against the deficit fabulists. He does not have to echo Cheney’s glib “deficits don’t matter” talk. But he should explain, as economist Dean Baker does, that the ranting and raving about deficits and debts by groups such as Pete Peterson’s Fix the Debt campaign and its co-chairs, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, is “the great distraction.”
America should be focused on the economic challenges that have slowed our economy, and that have caused our government to run up deficits and debts. We need to be focused on putting people to work and growing the economy, not playing sequester games that result in real job losses and create an equally real threat of recession.
When the Fix the Debt crew gather, as Baker has noted, “many of the people most responsible for the current downturn come together to tell us why we should be worried about the deficit at a time when 25 million people are unemployed, underemployed or have given up looking for work altogether and millions face the prospect of losing their homes.”
Our concern as a country should be with shaping the policies and making the investments that find work for the jobless and create the robust economic growth that creates surpluses. That’s far more vital than the focus on fiscal issues and the deficits that Dick Cheney explained—back when he was in power—“don’t matter.”
By: John Nichols, The Nation, March 1, 2013
No doubt President Obama was deeply stung over the weekend to hear Dick Cheney criticize his new national security team. At a Wyoming Republican Party dinner, the former vice president briskly dismissed Obama’s choices as “dismal,” saying that America needs “good people” rather than the “second-rate” figures selected by the president, particularly Vietnam veteran and long-time U.S. senator Chuck Hagel, nominated by the president as Secretary of Defense.
For sage advice on security policy and personnel, after all, there is no living person whose approval could be more meaningful than Cheney. It is hard to imagine a record as profoundly impressive as that of the Bush-Cheney administration, back when everyone knew that he was really in charge of everything important — especially the war on terrorism, the war in Iraq, and the war in Afghanistan.
True, Cheney’s intelligence apparatus failed to capture or kill Osama bin Laden after 9/11 – indeed, failed to prevent the 9/11 attacks, despite ample warnings that began with Bill Clinton’s farewell message in January, 2001 and culminated in a blaring President’s Daily Brief from the CIA in August 2001. True, Cheney’s defense command allowed bin Laden and Mullah Omar to escape following the invasion of Afghanistan, while American and NATO troops slogged through that deadly conflict without a plausible goal or even an exit strategy. And true, the national security cabinet run by Cheney misled the nation into war against Iraq, on false premises, without adequate preparation or clear objectives, at a cost of many thousands of lives and trillions of dollars. And true, too, the ultimate result was to embarrass the United States repeatedly while increasing the regional power of the mullahs in Iran.
How can Obama presume to compare his own record with all of that?
Obviously Cheney’s success cannot be measured by achievement alone. That wouldn’t be fair at all. No, his success resides in the capacity to commit disastrous misconduct and malfeasance in office, and still be taken seriously by the serious people in Washington, D.C.
If only the president were sensible enough to appoint figures of the same caliber as Cheney’s choices in the Bush years – men such as Donald Rumsfeld, whose capacity to deceive the public remains unequaled a full decade after he first declared utter certainty about the whereabouts of Saddam Hussein’s huge, perilous cache of “weapons of mass destruction.”
“We know where they are. They’re in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat,” explained Rummy somewhat inanely. He also assured us that the Iraqi people would warmly welcome U.S. troops, that the war would require a commitment of no more than six months, and that we wouldn’t need to send an overwhelming force of troops to prevail.
Like his old comrade and boss Cheney, Rumsfeld remained perfectly arrogant and absolutely rigid to the end and beyond, even as all his predictions and promises proved tragically hollow. Even when he came under attack by the neoconservative propaganda apparatus, led by Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, for “glibly passing the buck” for administration failures, Rumsfeld never admitted any fault or responsibility. Leaving office in disgrace, he spent years composing a farrago of falsehoods to be published between hard covers, seeking to justify his reign of error — and topped the bestseller lists following a triumphant tour of television and radio.
Now there was a first-rate Defense Secretary. President Obama, please take note.
By: Joe Conason, the National Memo, February 11, 2013
Chuck Hagel was not at all supportive of the 2007 Bush/Cheney troop “surge” in Iraq, and at his confirmation hearing this morning, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) seemed to characterize it as a make-or-break issue for the former senator’s confirmation. http://youtu.be/aN5_O6TJL6c
For those who can’t watch clips online, McCain noted Hagel criticizing the surge policy at the time as the “most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam.” McCain demanded to know “Were you correct in your assessment?” When Hagel deferred to “the judgment of history,” McCain continued to hammer away, demanding, “I want to know if you were right or wrong.”
Watching the exchange, it might seem as if Hagel is being evasive, or at least defensive, about a misstep on his record. But the larger context is important.
For McCain, the surge worked, ergo, anyone who questioned the policy is necessarily a fool who lacks credibility on foreign policy, national security, and the use of military power. In reality, conditions in Iraq may have improved in 2008 and 2009, but there were a variety of factors — including the Sunni Awakening, which pre-dated the surge, and a ceasefire announced by Shiite militia leader Muqtada Sadr — that contributed to the decline in violence. To argue that “surge = success” demonstrates a lack of depth.
But more important in this instance is McCain pretending to have credibility. “I want to know if you were right or wrong”? That’s not a bad question, necessarily, but I’d love to hear McCain himself try to answer it.
This guy wants to launch a fight over who was correct about the war in Iraq? Seriously?
I’m reminded of this amazing Frank Rich piece from 2009.
[McCain] made every wrong judgment call that could be made after 9/11. It’s not just that he echoed the Bush administration’s constant innuendos that Iraq collaborated with Al Qaeda’s attack on America. Or that he hyped the faulty W.M.D. evidence to the hysterical extreme of fingering Iraq for the anthrax attacks in Washington. Or that he promised we would win the Iraq war “easily.” Or that he predicted that the Sunnis and the Shiites would “probably get along” in post-Saddam Iraq because there was “not a history of clashes” between them.
What’s more mortifying still is that McCain was just as wrong about Afghanistan and Pakistan. He routinely minimized or dismissed the growing threats in both countries over the past six years, lest they draw American resources away from his pet crusade in Iraq.
Two years after 9/11 he was claiming that we could “in the long term” somehow “muddle through” in Afghanistan. (He now has the chutzpah to accuse President Obama of wanting to “muddle through” there.) Even after the insurgency accelerated in Afghanistan in 2005, McCain was still bragging about the “remarkable success” of that prematurely abandoned war. In 2007, some 15 months after the Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf signed a phony “truce” ceding territory on the Afghanistan border to terrorists, McCain gave Musharraf a thumb’s up. As a presidential candidate in the summer of 2008, McCain cared so little about Afghanistan it didn’t even merit a mention among the national security planks on his campaign Web site.
He takes no responsibility for any of this.
McCain now seems eager to have a conversation about who has credibility on Bush-era wars, even with the benefit of hindsight. It’s one of the more profound examples in recent memory of a politician lacking in self-awareness.
Indeed, as of this morning, McCain actually seems to believe it’s worse to get the surge question wrong than to get the entire war wrong.
“I want to know if you were right or wrong,” McCain said. You first, senator.
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, January 31, 2013
For nearly a decade I have had the privilege of teaching veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, though they have taught me more.
Most of them were Army captains and majors who had done three or four tours of duty. And here’s the most remarkable thing: Not one of these men and women complained about what we asked of them.
They have, however, occasionally objected to the shameful fact that after the first few years of hostilities, these became largely invisible conflicts. In the final stages of the Iraq war and for a long time now in Afghanistan, there has been something close to media silence even as our fellow Americans continue to fight and die.
The ongoing war barely impinges on our daily discussions, and we don’t bother to argue much about our Afghanistan policy. Mostly, we hope that President Obama can keep his promise to bring our troops home.
My Thanksgiving thoughts have often turned toward my military students at Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute and to the thousands like them who have done very hard duty with little notice.
But this year, the gratitude that they inspire has been heightened, perhaps paradoxically, by the news about David Petraeus, his affair and the mess left behind. I won’t add to the mountain of Petraeus commentary, so much of which has been driven by preexisting attitudes toward Petraeus himself, the wars he led or the matter of how we should deal publicly with sexuality.
What has troubled me is how writing on all sides has aggravated the understandable but disturbing tendency to lay so much stress on the role of famous generals that we forget both the centrality of midlevel military leadership and the daily sacrifices and bravery of those in the enlisted ranks who carry out orders from on high.
There is, of course, nothing at all new about celebrity generals, and many of them truly deserved the accolades that came their way. One thinks, for example, of Ulysses S. Grant, who is enjoying a comeback among historians, and Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose subsequent presidency should give Republicans trying to rebuild their party some useful guidance.
But our military has been at its best when it combined two deeply American impulses, one more honored on the right, the other on the left.
We are an entrepreneurial country, and members of our officer corps do extraordinary work when they are given the freedom to think for themselves and to innovate.
We are also a democratic nation, and although the military is necessarily rank-conscious, the U.S. armed forces have traditionally nurtured an egalitarian ethos that cultivated loyalty all the way down. This is one reason reports of rather privileged living by generals are grating, even if none of us begrudges a bit of comfort for those — including people at the top — who give their lives to service.
The entrepreneurial and democratic spirits are important in battle, but they are even more important to the many noncombat tasks that we are now asking our military to undertake. Petraeus’s approach to Iraq depended upon officers who had exceptional political gifts and an ability to improvise as they worked with local leaders. As an Army major serving in Iraq wrote in a memo that was shared with me back in 2007, “We discovered that we were not fighting a military campaign but a political campaign — not too different from what a small-town mayor might do to win reelection back in the U.S.” The surge was as much about this kind of inventiveness as it was about military planning.
We can show our gratitude toward these officers and their troops in at least two ways.
First, as my MSNBC colleague Rachel Maddow keeps reminding us, we need to cut through what the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America calls the Department of Veterans Affairs’ “egregious failure to process the claims of our veterans” in a timely and effective way.
And we need to recognize the contribution that this new generation of veterans can make to our nation. The character of the “Greatest Generation” that fought World War II was established not by the generals or the admirals but by the officers in the lower ranks and the millions of enlisted men and women who carried into civilian life both the skills and the sense of service and community they learned in the war years.
My students taught me that we don’t need to be nostalgic about the Greatest Generation. It’s right here among us.
By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, November 21, 2012