President Bush's Second Term
Jude Wanniski
October 11, 2004


Memo To: Website Fans, Browsers, Clients
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: What to Expect

In the October 11 issue of the New Yorker, Nicholas Lemann presents a persuasive picture of what to expect from a second-term President Bush. Lemann, one of the best journalists in the press corps and now chairman of the Columbia University School of Journalism, has an uncanny knack of seeing Mr. Bush the way his friends and enemies see him, so both will find merit in this lengthy (almost 10,000-word) profile. He gives us a good running start on Bush's life to date, which is what makes his projection into a second term so persuasive. To read that running start, go to the magazine's website for the full text. Here is the windup, though, well into the article, beginning with some observations on how Mr. Bush makes decisions:

Richard Clarke told Martin Smith, “He doesn’t reach out, typically, for a lot of experts. He has a very narrow, regulated, highly regimented set of channels to get advice. One of the first things we were told was ‘Don’t write a lot of briefing papers. And don’t make the briefing papers very long.’ Because this President is not a reader. He likes oral briefings, and he likes them from the national-security adviser, the White House chief of staff, and the Vice-President. He’s not into big meetings. And he’s not into big briefing books.” Clarke added, “The contrast with Clinton was that Clinton would hold a meeting with you. And he read your briefing materials. But also, having read your briefing materials, he would have gone out and found other materials somehow. He would have directly called people up. Not people in the government, necessarily. Experts, outside the government. Or he would have found magazine articles, or—or books on the subject. So that, when you were briefing him, frequently you had the feeling that he knew more about the subject than you did. And he wasn’t showing off. He had just done his homework.” By contrast, Bob Woodward told me that, during an interview he conducted with Bush in December, 2001, he asked the President whether he ever sought advice about the war on terror from distinguished figures outside his Administration, such as Brent Scowcroft, his father’s national-security adviser. Woodward told me that Bush said to him, “I have no outside advice. Anybody who says they’re an outside adviser of this Administration on this particular matter is not telling the truth. First of all, in the initial phase of this war, I never left the compound. Nor did anybody come in the compound. I was, you talk about one guy in a bubble.” Bush said, “The only true advice I receive is from our war council,” and he added, “I didn’t call around, asking, ‘What the heck do you think we ought to do?’” In August, 2002, Scowcroft wrote an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal opposing the idea of war in Iraq. Such a move seemed uncharacteristic for an inside player like him, but he obviously felt that doubts about Iraq, even coming from someone with his bona fides, couldn’t get a private hearing in the Bush White House.

Haass reminded me that he had gone to see Condoleezza Rice, the national-security adviser, in June to express doubts about going to war, and came away with the impression that the decision had already been made. Afterward, he reported to his boss, Colin Powell, what Rice had said. By August, Powell had come around to the view that the war couldn’t be headed off. He decided that his best chance was to influence how it was done, not whether. He argued passionately for going to Congress and the United Nations, and he persuaded Bush. Shortly after Scowcroft’s article appeared, Cheney made a fiery pro-war speech at a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention. So it was Scowcroft and Cheney, not Powell and Bush, who were conducting the fundamental debate.

The war in the War Cabinet was unusually intense even by Washington’s high standards. Bush’s advisers like to describe him as an M.B.A. President, or a C.E.O. President—someone who isn’t afraid of surrounding himself with strong figures, and who firmly sets a general direction while leaving the details to others. The problem with this description is that people who run effective organizations don’t let their underlings squabble endlessly, so that fundamental questions are unresolved for months. They also don’t relegate matters of the utmost urgency, such as the initial decision on who was to be in charge of the reconstruction of Iraq, to the level of details to be worked out by others. Before the war, virtually everyone who knew anything about Iraq was warning, loudly, that achieving a conventional military victory would be, relatively speaking, the easy part of the operation. The hard part would be making Iraq function as a coherent democratic nation afterward, because of its history of ethnic division, violence, and resistance to central governmental authority. Bush doesn’t seem to have spent much time worrying about that.

Even when Bush was governor of Texas, he liked allowing his top aides to argue heatedly in his presence. Accounts of such scenes are sketchy, but what they evoke is a discussion in which things don’t get sorted through and resolved. Bush is the dominant presence—a position that he establishes by asking a few pointed questions, by giving very broad over-all signals, or by simply allowing other people to fight openly for his favor—but he does not either guide or take part in the exchange that would lead to a decision. In the early days of his Presidential campaign, Bush was introduced by his new circle of policy advisers to a Washington institution called a “murder board,” in which a politician’s aides fire hostile questions at him as a method of preparing for the rigors of public appearances. Bush resisted, and had to be talked into it. He prefers to assemble a group of friendly people from the conservative movement, who are profoundly grateful for being granted time in his presence, and to free-associate about the issues of the day—tuning up the instrument, as it were—while they listen. And, in trying to figure out his position on an issue, Bush, like a lot of other politicians, doesn’t so much analyze as look for a hook—a phrase or a way of framing the issue that feels instinctively right to him. In his case, instinct usually takes him to a position where he is in charge and everyone else has to adjust.

The long period of preparation for the war in Iraq now appears to have been devoted more to justifying a foregone conclusion than to actually preparing—except in the case of the invasion itself. The Administration’s hawks relentlessly pushed for higher intelligence estimates of the threat that Saddam Hussein represented and for lower military estimates of what the invasion and the occupation would require. Haass, who was frozen out by the hawks, said, “There were a lot of loaded assumptions about the analysis: The aftermath would be a lesser included case of the war. The Iraqis would see the coalition as liberators and they’d be welcomed. Those who didn’t buy in were excluded. People who raised implementation questions were seen as backdoor critics of the war.”

When Bush went to the United Nations in the fall of 2002 and obtained a resolution that got weapons inspectors back into Iraq, it was more as a concession to Powell than as a thought-through Administration policy. The hawks, who had always been contemptuous of the U.N., were dismissive of the inspection process. (A little-noticed nugget in Woodward’s “Plan of Attack” is that the Administration spied on Hans Blix, the chief U.N. weapons inspector, while he was doing his work.) The Administration was unable or unwilling to get the heads of state of the other Security Council members to agree at the outset on what they would consider an unacceptable result from the inspections. So on the eve of war, when Bush declared the result unacceptable, the nations that were capable of sending large numbers of troops to Iraq didn’t agree with him and refused to help, which is one reason that the occupation of Iraq has been so expensive and has stretched the U.S. military past its limits. The Administration consistently pushed every aspect of Iraq policy—intelligence-gathering, diplomacy, military strategy, foreign-policy doctrine, and, of course, the treatment of prisoners—into a new realm of statecraft, characterized by a total and, it has turned out, excessive faith that pure force would produce far better results than anyone had previously realized. Bush’s advisers urged him in this direction, but he chose which advisers to hire and to listen to. It was really a natural outgrowth of who he is.

In the current Presidential campaign, Bush has expertly drawn attention away from how high a price the United States has paid for the war in Iraq. It is difficult to find anybody in Washington, in either party, who will seriously defend Bush’s management of Iraq. Most of the available armed forces of the United States are pinned down in a place that represents a threat chiefly because American troops are there. That limits American options in places that pose much more genuine threats. The reputation of American intelligence agencies has been badly damaged—would anyone now heed warnings from them? It is increasingly difficult to imagine other major powers joining the United States in an international endeavor, even one that isn’t a war. The government’s financial resources are depleted. The U.S. military in Iraq has started trying to take back areas of the country now controlled by insurgents, and it may not be safe enough there for the scheduled elections to be held in January. The country still has no meaningful army or police force. It doesn’t seem that there will be, any time soon, a way to extract the American forces without risking Iraq’s descent into chaos, of a kind that would be both dangerous and humiliating to the United States and would betray Bush’s repeated promises to bring the Iraqis a better life.

The Bush campaign has taken the discussion of the war, whose specifics are so unfavorable to him, to the much more propitious level of generalization: Democrats and the international community are incapable of responding to evil and to danger: Don’t you feel safer with Bush in the White House? When I talked with Karen Hughes, I asked whether President Bush still feels that Saddam Hussein’s regime represented enough of a threat to justify war. She gave an answer that was a version of something Bush often says: “I think he feels that Saddam Hussein was a threat to America, and that the risks in a post-September 11th world—knowing what we know after September 11th, that there are terrorists who hate us, that we had a tyrannical dictator who hated us, who we know had at least the capability of developing weapons of mass destruction, because he had done so in the past and had used them in the past, and knowing that we have terrorists who want to gain access to those weapons—yes, we did the right thing. We have to view those kinds of threats as the very, very serious threats that they are. Because the nightmare scenario that we’re going to face, unfortunately, I think, for decades to come, is that these terrorists, who want to sow chaos and want—they want to murder. That’s what they want to do. They want to shock us and terrorize us and cause us to retreat. And the nightmare scenario that we have to prevent is that they would somehow access the means to do so on an even wider scale.” This version of the war has Bush playing Nolan Ryan to Saddam’s Robin Ventura—except in this case Ryan, sensing a gathering danger, rushes the plate to deliver his famous thrashing.

President Bush, Hughes remarked, “believes that you use campaigns to build support for the things you want to do when you’re in office.” This is true, and the constant barrage of charges (most of them flung by the Bush camp) in this campaign has obscured what Bush has set forth, on a separate track, as his goals for his second term. He is not secretive; quite often, he has laid out ambitious plans months or years before they were launched, in the texts of public speeches of the sort that Washington usually doesn’t pay much attention to—so-called “major policy addresses.” Bush likes to put down markers that permit him a great deal of latitude. During his first six months in office—before September 11th, that is—he changed things to a degree that one would associate with somebody who had won in a landslide, not in a tie. In Bill Clinton’s last year in office, the federal government had a surplus of $236.4 billion, and the surplus was rhetorically dedicated, for all time, to a metaphoric “lockbox” devoted to the two biggest domestic federal programs, Social Security and Medicare. Bush cut taxes to such an extent, even before the war on terror began, that the surplus was likely to evaporate (the government is now running a four-hundred-and-twenty-two-billion-dollar deficit), and the lockbox, supposedly a defining feature of American politics, is a distant memory.

Before September 11th, Bush unilaterally withdrew the United States from the Kyoto accords on global warming, and he had signaled a desire to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the International Criminal Court. He launched a program to develop missile defense, with a view to changing American nuclear strategy fundamentally. He avoided direct dealings with Yasir Arafat, of the Palestinian Authority, which was a departure from the practice of the Clinton Administration, and he committed the United States to defend Taiwan against attack, which represented a tilt against China that the previous six Presidents had chosen not to make. And he was trying to find a way to remove Saddam Hussein from power.

In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Bush said, “We are staying on the offensive, striking terrorists abroad so we do not have to face them here at home. And we are working to advance liberty in the broader Middle East, because freedom will bring a future of hope and the peace we all want. And we will prevail.” This statement leaves Bush a lot of room for further maneuvering in the Arab world in a second term. Another act that received insufficient attention was his cutting off of relations, in 2003, with Muhammad Khatami, the elected head of state in Iran—whom the Clinton Administration had treated as a friend—which followed a year of openly wishing for the overthrow of Khatami’s government. As Iran moves toward having nuclear weapons—the evidence is much clearer than it was in the case of Saddam Hussein—and increasingly exerts its influence in Iraq in a way that is harmful to American interests, it’s hard to imagine that Bush won’t feel he has to act. Pakistan is unstable (President Pervez Musharraf has survived multiple assassination attempts), and it has nuclear weapons. No President could allow Musharraf to fall and let Pakistan’s weapons get into the wrong hands in the aftermath, and Bush would surely respond more forcefully, and less cautiously, than another President confronted with that situation.

Quite often this year, Bush has wondered publicly about the desirability of fundamental changes in the tax system and in Social Security. He doesn’t speak about the deficit as a problem to be solved, and that is probably because he doesn’t regard it as such. Instead, the prevailing view in the White House seems to be that big government deficits might actually be a force for good, because they make it impossible for government to grow. (In this respect, Bush is much more like Ronald Reagan than like his father, who raised taxes to close the deficits that Reagan policies had helped create and, partly as a result, lost his reelection campaign.) Bush is already trying to make permanent some early tax cuts that were passed with expiration dates, and that would increase the deficit more. He has also speculated during campaign appearances about abolishing the progressive income tax in favor of a flat tax, or replacing the income tax altogether, with a national sales tax or a value-added tax, like the one he proposed unsuccessfully in Texas in 1997. During his first term, he appointed a little-noticed commission on the future of Social Security, which has called for phasing out the existing system of universal government-administered retirement benefits and phasing in personal retirement accounts. (Bush has called for some variant of this idea in every State of the Union address.) Even Republicans in Congress balked, and nothing happened; but now the Administration is planning a campaign to change Social Security along the lines that the commission recommended. The prescription-drug-benefit bill that Congress passed last year has a provision—which, again, didn’t get much notice—to do the same thing in health care, by establishing individual “health savings accounts” as an alternative to the government’s guaranteeing medical coverage.

Bush, unlike his father, is drawn to big, landscape-changing ideas, and—also unlike his father—he thinks like a politician. Much of what he has planned for the second term is meant to serve the goal of making the Republican Party as dominant in national politics as Bush’s foreign policy means to make the United States in world affairs. The Democrats are the party of government; systematically reducing government’s ability to provide services, its employment base, and its role as a provider of the two most essential guarantees, pensions and medical care, cuts off the Democrats’ oxygen supply. In his first term, Bush has won confirmation for two hundred and one of his two hundred and twenty-six appointees to the federal judiciary—all but two of them Republicans—and in a second term he would likely get the opportunity to appoint as many as three Supreme Court justices.

In early 2000, writing about Bush in these pages, I said that he seemed to want to become President very badly, but that he did not seem to want to do a lot once in office. Boy, was I wrong! If the voters give Bush a second term, he would, it seems, govern with the goal of a Franklin Roosevelt-level transformation—in the opposite direction, of course—of the relation of citizen to state and of the United States to the rest of the world. He would pursue ends that are now outside what most people conceive of as the compass points of the debate, by means that are more aggressive than we are accustomed to. And he couldn’t possibly win by a smaller margin than last time, so he couldn’t possibly avoid the conclusion that he had been given a more expansive mandate.