At the start of his disastrous 1988 campaign, diminutive technocrat Mike Dukakis had this rallying cry for the delegates at the Democratic National Convention, “this election isn’t about ideology. It’s about competence.” At the time, I was a high school student, discovering politics by swiping my dad’s copies of National Review for ammo to use against my lefty history teacher. I don’t have access to the National Review online archives, but I think I remember NR joining the many other conservatives who made fun of that line. So it’s interesting to see NR editor Rich Lowry adopt that notion as the basis for his what-went-wrong cover story in the April 2 issue. The Bush administration’s problem, you see, isn’t with the policies it’s pursued. The real flaws lie in the execution.
After a few complaints about ”executive dysfunction” and Bush’s failure “to create a sense of accountability in his government,” Lowry softens the blow somewhat. The presidency is a hard job, after all, and “Bush has been hurt particularly by two massive events that might have been beyond the managing of even the most talented executive,” Katrina and “the ‘ungrateful volcano’ of Iraq.” The passive voice is a wonderful touch: it seems that deciding to invade Iraq is just like getting hit by a hurricane.
I can understand why some people view the Bush administration’s failures in terms of competence. By most accounts, Bush is a terrible manager, “incurious and as a result ill-informed” as former Bush speechwriter and NR hand David Frum has put it. Bush promotes on the basis of loyalty and appears to view doubt as a character flaw. “I don’t need people around me who are not steady,” he told Bob Woodward in 2002, “and if there’s kind of a hand-wringing attitude going on when times are tough, I don’t like it.” And yes, if you’re going to go to war on the theory that the best way to deradicalize the Middle East is to bomb, invade, and occupy a large country at the heart of it, then it is a mistake to staff the occupation authority with the leading lights of the College Republicans. But might there also be a problem with the theory itself? Lowry makes a couple of meek gestures in that direction, but falls back on “the incompetence dodge.”
Most damning is the paragraph that comes right after Lowry’s Iraq apologia: “Bush has certainly had successes. The prescription-drug program is, for better or for worse, one of his most important domestic initiatives…. But [despite its bureaucratic complexity] the program has turned out to be popular, relatively well-run, and less expensive than expected.” Well, happy days.
I don’t take issue with Lowry’s point that the program is popular, and probably a net plus for the Republicans electorally. But the NR I remember from high school had higher aims than the success of a particular political party. And the earlier NR, for all its faults, had the quixotic but noble goal of “standing athwart the tide of History, yelling ’stop!’” Too often today, it looks more like: “Surfing the tide of history, screaming ‘Cowabunga! Go GOP!’”