John Podhoretz notes that George Bush took an early retirement when he pushed for the revival of the immigration bill after it was killed the first time. I disagree. I think that he had already taken the early retirement during the first attempt to get it passed. And I said that here and here.
The matter of this presidency now goes to the historians. Yes, it’s conceivable that Bush might have to act to level Iran’s nuclear facilities, but that’s not going to make his presidency any more or less viable before closing time on January 20, 2009.
From my perspective, the highest credit of the Bush presidency came when he had our military on the ground in Afghanistan to get at al Qaeda and the Taliban less than one month after 9/11. That was the way that response needed to be done, and Bush’s leadership was focused and clear. It was a remarkable bit of work.
The low point for Bush came with his failure of imagination in dealing with Social Security reform. He was the first presidential candidate to ever successfully win on a campaign that promised not only to reform the big Ponzi scheme, but to attempt to privatize at least a portion of it. But instead of offering a striking initiative, he played coy on the issue and wasted the very opportunity he had created for himself. It was, as I noted, a most serious failure of imagination.
Bush gets good marks on the economy, which drifted in the doldrums after 9/11 but finally came around. He did the right things on taxes and then, contrary to Republican economic philosophy, allowed Congressional pork to flow into districts when the recovery stalled at producing jobs. That pump-priming was the last arrow in the quiver (after tax cuts and the Fed’s rate lowerings produced the stale beer recovery) and it worked. Bush incurred the displeasure of fiscal conservatives over it, who still seem not to notice that the deficits have since shrunk below the recent historical average as a percentage of GDP.
The President also gets high marks for the war on terror. In the hours after the 9/11 attacks few would have thought that we would be going on six years without more terrorism inside the United States. Historians will likely not get, for decades, the now classified information necessary to know how this shadow war is really being fought, but the bottom line at the moment is that the administration has done its first job — protecting the American people — reasonably well.
The matter of Iraq will also take a few decades to understand. Opponents call it a “fiasco” or “the worst foreign policy failure” in our history. I tend to think of it as a bargain when one considers that it has set up a conveyor belt for Islamic jihadis worldwide to come try their luck against American forces. I suspect the results of that arrangement will become more widely understood as the years roll on. The Pentagon’s policy of not reporting enemy casualties keeps the focus off of that dark end of Iraq policy. While the administration stresses that it is helping Iraq build a modern civil society, it would not be quite politic to point out that Iraq is also an efficient kill zone to which Islamic terrorists are drawn by compulsion.
Why Bush chose to cash-in what few political chips remained to him on the immigration bill, one of the crappiest pieces of legislation to come along in a long time, will long be a matter of speculation. While George Bush might be half, or more than half, a cynic, he is not stupid. Those who believe that he is stupid must lie awake at night wondering how it was that he out-maneuvered and manipulated them on so many occasions. Bush is in fact an extremely bright and extremely serious man, and on both those counts far more so than his limited predecessor. Critics of the President mistake his transient rhetorical incapacities and general lack of glibness as inefficiencies of mind.
The mystery of the President’s serious ninth-inning strike out on the immigration deal might one day be understood as his cynical side getting the best of him. Historians, however, are more likely to focus on his foreign policy, and if that’s the case, how the world looks thirty years from now will determine how that world looks back on George Bush.