Published on Monday, June 26, 2006 by the Rockridge Institute
Bush Is Not Incompetent
by George Lakoff, Marc Ettlinger, and Sam Ferguson
Progressives have fallen into a trap. Emboldened by President Bush’s plummeting approval ratings, progressives increasingly point to Bush's "failures" and label him and his administration as incompetent.
For example, Nancy Pelosi said “The situation in Iraq and the reckless economic policies in the United States speak to one issue for me, and that is the competence of our leader." Self-satisfying as this criticism may be, it misses the bigger point. Bush’s disasters — Katrina, the Iraq War, the budget deficit — are not so much a testament to his incompetence or a failure of execution. Rather, they are the natural, even inevitable result of his conservative governing philosophy. It is conservatism itself, carried out according to plan, that is at fault. Bush will not be running again, but other conservatives will. His governing philosophy is theirs as well. We should be putting the onus where it belongs, on all conservative office holders and candidates who would lead us off the same cliff.
To Bush’s base, his bumbling folksiness is part of his charm — it fosters conservative populism. Bush plays up this image by proudly stating his lack of interest in reading and current events, his fondness for naps and vacations and his self-deprecating jokes. This image causes the opposition to underestimate his capacities — disregarding him as a complete idiot — and deflects criticism of his conservative allies. If incompetence is the problem, it’s all about Bush. But, if conservatism is the problem, it is about a set of ideas, a movement and its many adherents.
The idea that Bush is incompetent is a curious one. Consider the following (incomplete) list of major initiatives the Bush administration, with a loyal conservative Congress, has accomplished:
Centralizing power within the executive branch to an unprecedented degree;
Starting two major wars, one started with questionable intelligence and in a manner with which the military disagreed;
Placing on the Supreme Court two far-right justices, and stacking the lower federal courts with many more;
Cutting taxes during wartime, an unprecedented event;
Passing a number of controversial bills such as the PATRIOT Act, the No Child Left Behind Act, the Medicare Drug bill, the Bankruptcy bill and a number of massive tax cuts;
Rolling back and refusing to enforce a host of basic regulatory protections;
Appointing industry officials to oversee regulatory agencies
Establishing a greater role for religion through faith-based initiatives;
Passing Orwellian-titled legislation assaulting the environment — “The Healthy Forests Act” and the “Clear Skies Initiative” — to deforest public lands, and put more pollution in our skies;
Winning re-election and solidifying his party’s grip on Congress.
These aren’t signs of incompetence. As should be painfully clear, the Bush administration has been overwhelmingly competent in advancing its conservative vision. It has been all too effective in achieving its goals by determinedly pursuing a conservative philosophy.
It’s not Bush the man who has been so harmful, it’s the conservative agenda.
The Conservative Agenda
Conservative philosophy has three fundamental tenets: individual initiative, that is, government’s positive role in people’s lives outside of the military and police should be minimized; the President is the moral authority; and free markets are enough to foster freedom and opportunity.
The conservative vision for government is to shrink it – to “starve the beast” in Conservative Grover Norquist’s words. The conservative tagline for this rationale is that “you can spend your money better than the government can.” Social programs are considered unnecessary or “discretionary” since the primary role of government is to defend the country’s border and police its interior. Stewardship of the commons, such as allocation of healthcare or energy policy, is left to people’s own initiative within the free market. Where profits cannot be made — conservation, healthcare for the poor — charity is meant to replace justice and the government should not be involved.
Given this philosophy, then, is it any wonder that the government wasn’t there for the residents of Louisiana and Mississippi in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina? Conservative philosophy places emphasis on the individual acting alone, independent of anything the government could provide. Some conservative Sunday morning talk show guests suggested that those who chose to live in New Orleans accepted the risk of a devastating hurricane, the implication being that they thus forfeited any entitlement to government assistance. If the people of New Orleans suffered, it was because of their own actions, their own choices and their own lack of preparedness. Bush couldn’t have failed if he bore no responsibility.
The response to Hurricane Katrina — rather, the lack of response — was what one should expect from a philosophy that espouses that the government can have no positive role in its citizen’s lives. This response was not about Bush’s incompetence, it was a conservative, shrink-government response to a natural disaster.
Another failure of this administration during the Katrina fiasco was its wholesale disregard of the numerous and serious hurricane warnings. But this failure was a natural outgrowth of the conservative insistence on denying the validity of global warming, not ineptitude. Conservatives continue to deny the validity of global warming, because it runs contrary to their moral system. Recognizing global warming would call for environmental regulation and governmental efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Regulation is a perceived interference with the free-market, Conservatives’ golden calf. So, the predictions of imminent hurricanes — based on recognizing global warming — were not heeded. Conservative free market convictions trumped the hurricane warnings.
Our budget deficit is not the result of incompetent fiscal management. It too is an outgrowth of conservative philosophy. What better way than massive deficits to rid social programs of their funding?
In Iraq, we also see the impact of philosophy as much as a failure of execution.
The idea for the war itself was born out of deep conservative convictions about the nature and capacity of US military force. Among the Project for a New American Century’s statement of principles (signed in 1997 by a who’s who of the architects of the Iraq war — Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Zalmay Khalilzad, I. Lewis Libby among others) are four critical points:
we need to increase defense spending significantly if we are to carry out our global responsibilities today and modernize our armed forces for the future we need to strengthen our ties to democratic allies and to challenge regimes hostile to our interests and values we need to promote the cause of political and economic freedom abroad we need to accept responsibility for America's unique role in preserving and extending an international order friendly to our security, our prosperity, and our principles.
Implicit in these ideas is that the United States military can spread democracy through the barrel of a gun. Our military might and power can be a force for good.
It also indicates that the real motive behind the Iraq war wasn’t to stop Iraq’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, but was a test of neoconservative theory that the US military could reshape Middle East geo-politics. The manipulation and disregard of intelligence to sell the war was not incompetence, it was the product of a conservative agenda.
Unfortunately, this theory exalts a hubristic vision over the lessons of history. It neglects the realization that there is a limit to a foreign army’s ability to shape foreign politics for the good. Our military involvement in Vietnam, Lebanon, the Philippines, Cuba (prior to Castro) and Panama, or European imperialist endeavors around the globe should have taught us this lesson. Democracy needs to be an organic, homegrown movement, as it was in this country. If we believe so deeply in our ideals, they will speak for themselves and inspire others.
During the debate over Iraq, the conservative belief in the unquestioned authority and moral leadership of the President helped shape public support. We see this deference to the President constantly: when Conservatives call those questioning the President’s military decisions “unpatriotic”; when Conservatives defend the executive branch’s use of domestic spying in the war on terror; when Bush simply refers to himself as the “decider.” “I support our President” was a common justification of assent to the Iraq policy.
Additionally, as the implementer of the neoconservative vision and an unquestioned moral authority, our President felt he had no burden to forge international consensus or listen to the critiques of our allies. “You’re with us, or you’re against us,” he proclaimed after 9/11.
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