Commentary

The Bitter Bush Legacy: In Gall, We Trust

This article appeared in the Australian Financial Review on November 1, 2005.
The White House seems to breed arrogance. Richard Nixon had his enemies’ list. Bill Clinton’s personal irresponsibility almost ruined his presidency. Now vice-presidential aide Lewis “Scooter” Libby has been indicted as a result of his efforts to discredit an administration critic.

President George Bush & Co routinely vilify detractors, even conservatives. When previous Bush supporters unexpectedly opposed his nomination of Harriet Miers to the US Supreme Court, administration and Republican Party apparatchiks immediately attacked their critics’s motives.

That didn’t work, so the President’s friends threatened to toss conservatives into darkness. The administration has been notable for its policy of punishing, not the architects of its costly failures, but those who, like economic adviser Larry Lindsey and Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, correctly warn of the consequences.

The President does not err; certainly his underlings should not suggest that he does.

Nevertheless, for nearly five years, many conservatives backed the administration even as the President trampled their most cherished principles - wildly increasing spending, centralising power in Washington, and failing to hold anyone accountable for the Iraq disaster. The predominant view of politics as “us versus them” was enough to keep conservatives in line.

Thus, an administration used to compliant supporters was understandably shocked by the sudden outbreak of free-thinking on the right. What the White House failed to consider was the central importance of the Supreme Court.

One of the most important reasons conservatives supported Bush was to overturn decades of judicial activism; Bush’s use of the court as a sinecure for a long-time friend deeply offended them. And no amount of claiming that the position was his to fill could win them back.

The White House could have responded by emphasising Miers’s outstanding qualifications, if there were any of substance. Instead, it noted how she was an evangelical Christian, personally opposed abortion, and was a very nice person. None of which was relevant to whether she would be a competent, let alone distinguished, justice.

So the administration played the vilification card. Former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie told conservative activists that he had detected a “whiff” of elitism and sexism in their opposition. Laura Bush made a similar attack on national television.

These attacks were obviously false. In fact, several of the most important judicial candidates favoured by the right are women; the activists most upset by the Miers choice cared far more about her lack of jurisprudential vision than prestigious academic pedigree.

When Mr Bush first ran for president, he spoke of the importance of humility. But that characteristic is sadly absent from his administration.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and was a special assistant to former president Ronald Reagan.