Since I have half an hour to spare and my Obamacare post has triggered some discussion of GOP presidential hopefuls, I thought I’d chuck out two random musings (or questions) on the next US presidential election.

Was George Bush’s apparent stupidity reassuring to “moderates”?

A lot of hay was made in the shining sun of Bush’s apparent bumbling stupidity[1]. But I wonder if this wasn’t actually reassuring to non-conspiracy-theory-minded “independents” and “moderates” that he could be trusted in power. While worried leftists assumed that his stupidity meant he was a puppet for the evil shadow-govt of Cthulhu-worshipping Republican activists[2], for people less inclined to worry about threats from beyond space and time they might have actually been inclined to think “this dude seems pretty thick, but also like a nice guy, maybe he’ll put a little more faith in his advisors than the previous guy did”? I don’t know to what extent Clinton was beginning to grate on the electorate in 2000, but I have a vague memory of Republican attacks on him invoking the “he’s too smart by half” kind of approach, and certainly in Bush’s re-election campaign in 2004 I remember attempts to portray Kerry as too thoughtful and out of touch. The only thing worse than an incompetent dude in the presidency is an incompetent dude in the presidency who thinks he is smart. Whereas a dumb shmuck who appears humble enough to trust his advisors might actually not be so bad – and back then in 2000 the Republican rhetorical trick of claiming that all government policy-makers and advisors were corrupt and untrustworthy was not yet in full swing, so voters might still have had the idea that government sometimes actually gets things right. In that case, some “independents” and “moderates” might have actually been convinced that Bush could do okay. And sometimes he did: PEPFAR was his Bush’s response to HIV/AIDS in Africa and has been one of the most successful global health interventions in history. It’s my belief that Bush introduced PEPFAR because he wanted an alternative to condom promotion and behavioral interventions that accepted the existence of pre-marital sex, but by consulting with his advisors he actually came up with a policy that worked. Of course, he also consulted with his advisors on Iraq, so he didn’t always have quality advisors … but in 2000 voters were judging presidential candidates at the End of History, and the idea you’d have some thick idiot in the presidency making decisions about multiple wars on foreign soil probably didn’t really seem plausible.

Would a similar thick “man-of-the-people” rescue the Republicans from Clinton?

I don’t think a similar approach would work with current potential candidates (e.g. Paul Ryan). People thought it might work with Sarah Palin (which I think is part of the reason they made her VP for Romney), but it didn’t. I think there’s a simple reason for this: compared to the modern crop of post-tea party idiots, George Bush was not an ideological candidate. “Independents” and “moderates” could vote for him as an alternative to too-lefty, too-smart-by-half Gore on the assumption that he wouldn’t be an idiot in charge of a radical ideology. Sarah Palin, on the other hand – in addition to being brazenly, openly stupid and probably proud of it – is clearly driven by an ideology she only seems capable of understanding on a visceral level. You have to be pretty crazy to think that having someone like that with their finger over the Big Red Button is a good idea[3].

Are Republican leaders completely adrift from their intellectual roots?

During his election campaign Romney made a famous gaffe, talking about the 47% of Americans who don’t pay income tax and calling them moochers. He didn’t intend this comment for public consumption, but put it out there in a conversation on political theory for private backers. I find it interesting that the inheritor of a conservative (US-style) political tradition could be so naive about the intellectual history of his own party as to make this comparison at a theoretical level. It has been the goal of conservative politics since at least Reagan to remove people from the federal income tax system. A “compassionate conservative” like Bush would consider it his or her goal to reduce the proportion of people paying income tax, while ensuring that those taxes that were collected supported a compassionate society. A “movement conservative” from the Reagan era would consider the removal of ordinary Americans from the income tax system to be a goal in and of itself. Under the ideology of movement conservatism these people have been liberated from a form of tyranny. In that conversation, if he had any understanding of conservative history at all, Romney should have been saying something along the lines of “our side of politics liberated a lot of that 47% from paying income tax, and I intend to use that achievement to win their votes” or “I consider it a failure of modern conservative rhetoric that we have failed to win votes from people who we liberated from income tax.” Instead he turns on people who are the beneficiaries of conservative political action, compares them with scroungers, and suggests that they are natural friends of the Democrats because they’re all on welfare, rather than keeping the money they worked to earn as Reagan intended. To me this suggests that modern Republican leaders – even the supposedly moderate ones like Romney – are completely out of touch with their conservative intellectual roots. Given the support Romney received from some quarters of the right for this comment, it also seems that a lot of modern conservative pundits have lost it. In place of reasoned political action from a conservative intellectual tradition, they have fetishized a few symbolic components of that tradition (taxes! freedom!) and deploy them as rhetorical weapons in any debate without any consideration for why they are important to conservative tradition, or what the limits of debate about these topics might be.

It is this intellectual drift which I think makes Republicans vulnerable on healthcare, and so badly unable to handle a post-Obamacare world. Serious health policy planners, Obama and his advisors looked at the problem of moving towards universal health care at affordable cost from the perspective of what is possible, what can be achieved, what needs to be done and how it can be paid for[4]. Republicans looked at the problem in terms of TAXES! FREEDOM!!!1!

A sad note on Bush’s legacy

Reviewing Republican behavior in the post-Tea Party World, one almost yearns for a return to the simpler years of Bush. And here I have to say I’m a bit sad about how badly he let himself down. If Bush had not invaded Iraq he would have left a mixed legacy, that would have left historians praising him on some aspects and learning lessons from his era. Instead, he killed a million Iraqis and unleashed the gates of hell in the Middle East: today Obama is considering air strikes on the Islamic State to save the lives of some tens of thousands of christians, who have been left adrift in the chaotic world Bush created. Absent his massive Iraq stupidity, Bush would have been assessed in terms of his compassionate conservatism and his poor management skills, which would have meant:

  • Plaudits and universal acclaim for the success of the Presidents Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief, which Bush initiated and which has been hugely successful in containing HIV/AIDS in Africa
  • Criticism for his poor handling of the Afghan war, but acceptance that any US president would likely have to have invaded Afghanistan given the circumstances, and most importantly assessment of the war on its own merits rather than in the shadow of his huge mistakes in Iraq
  • Criticism of his handling of Hurricane Katrina, tempered with the recognition that many institutions at many levels of government and in the private sector were not ready for that event, and that the lessons learned were really important for handling subsequent disasters
  • Plaudits for his engagement with minorities, both through his promotion of (and in my opinion, respect for) black leadership figures like Rice and Powell, and for his willingness to fight his own party over amnesty for Latin Americans living illegally in the USA

Obviously given that the GFC happened on his watch, he massively incresed the deficit and his tax cut ideas were stupid beyond despair, he would never be heralded as the greatest president who ever lived, but it would be nice if his achievements and ordinary failings could be assessed without having to presage them all with his war crimes. When I was at the AIDS conference watching Bill Clinton speak, I kept thinking to myself that it would have been nice if Bush could have been there in his place, to talk about the achievements of PEPFAR as it came to an end, and to urge people to commit to preserving the gains that arose from his legacy. Indeed, his recent speech in Africa, while a bit emarrassingly stilted, was an admirable example of his genuine concern for the health of people on that continent. But of course Bush could never come to a conference like the AIDS conference, because everywhere he goes the shadow of his act of mass murder hangs over him.

And I think it was at that point – or somewhere between there and the GFC – that everything went wrong with the Republican party. Who knows what would have happened in the healthcare debate if Obama had been challenged by an inheritor of Bush’s compassionate conservative, rather than a hyper-wealthy free market nutjob or a bloodthirsty lunatic mummy and his bloodthirsty lunatic Alaskan sidekick? We will never know, because they cocked it up, and Bush destroyed his own legacy with his insane and criminal decision to invade Iraq.

fn1: I say apparent because I’m not convinced he was as stupid as he acted, and a lack of ability to do basic book learning is not a sign of stupidity anyway

fn2: Please note, I make no contention that these “people” do not exist.

fn3: And let’s just think for a moment about how things would be unfolding in Ukraine now if Sarah Palin was President.

fn4: Within the sad confines of modern politics, obviously