President's failures demand rethinking, not just apologies
In recent months, Republicans have begun to discover that their leader is not the paragon they once thought he was. Perhaps he is not a conservative at all but a deficit-mongering big-government advocate, a world-changing radical in disguise and ...
In recent months, Republicans have begun to discover that their leader is not the paragon they once thought he was.
Perhaps he is not a conservative at all but a deficit-mongering big-government advocate, a world-changing radical in disguise and a cultivator of global anti-Americanism. Perhaps, from Baghdad to Kabul to New Orleans, bungling is not the exception but the rule because he and his inner circle hold planning, the law, diplomacy and even reason in contempt.
Suddenly, Republicans as well as Democrats are urging the defenestration of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- the Titanic chair-shifter's way of acknowledging a fiasco in Iraq. George Will savaged President Bush for a "triumph of unrealism." Embattled Connecticut Republican Rep. Christopher Shays lurched from "stay the course" to "phased withdrawal."
Just last month, conservative talk-show host Joe Scarborough asked, "Is Bush an idiot?" In May, the popular right-wing radio talk-show host Doug McIntyre declared: "I was wrong to have voted for George W. Bush. ... I have been shocked repeatedly by a consistent litany of excuses, alibis, double-talk, inaccuracies, bogus predictions and flat-out lies. ... After five years of carefully watching George W. Bush, I've reached the conclusion he's either grossly incompetent or a hand-puppet for a gaggle of detached theorists with their own private view of how the world works. Or both."
Such reconsiderations are all to the good, and not only for the practical purpose of evacuating a sinking ship. The recantation mood is a sign of maturity.
But apologies, while worthy, are never enough. To help make right what has gone badly wrong, they also must lead to rethinking.
Because 1930s analogies are back in vogue, consider that it was incumbent upon conservatives who were dismayed by Neville Chamberlain at Munich in 1938 to inquire into the world view that led him to appease Adolf Hitler. Likewise, as conservatives never cease to remind those on the left, it was perfectly reasonable to tell the Soviet Union's fellow travelers to examine the fantastical credulity with which they persuaded themselves to overlook the depredations of Lenin and Stalin. To learn from our greatest misconceptions is, of course, a prime reason we study history.
So what lessons should Bush's partisans take from his decline? Where did they go wrong when they were cheering Bush, excoriating his adversaries and devoutly assuring the rest of us that he was, as former presidential speech writer David Frum put it in an unabashed double entendre, "the right man"?
They're obliged to have to figure it out on their own. But let me offer this for their consideration: The core of the Bush problem is an extremist world view. Bush's aggressive, go-it-alone attitude kicked in long before Sept. 11. "You're either with us or you're with the terrorists" was just an extension of Bush's rejection of the Kyoto Protocol (the international global warming agreement) and the International Criminal Court.
Under Bush, reality had to be bulldozed into submission. Whatever went wrong in Iraq or Afghanistan, questioning Bush's narrow understanding of the Islamist danger amounted to appeasement, cutting and running, pining for defeat. Whatever the economic conditions, the remedies were privatization, deregulation and tax cuts for plutocrats. On every front, foreign and domestic, liberals were to blame.
This attitude didn't stop with Bush, and it persists unaltered. Recently, in this spirit, an e-mail from Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman warned that Democratic victories in the midterm elections would mean "government by the far left," "weaken(ing) America" thus: "Impeachment. Cutting and running from the war on terror. Key defense systems dismantled. Tax cuts repealed. Speaker Pelosi."
The logic of this paranoid world view is a deep and awful thing to confront. But confronting it is a matter of intellectual honesty.
Today, it's morally mandatory, a matter of intellectual decency, that Bush's erstwhile partisans rethink both their credulity and their ideology and ask how they could for so long have overlooked what now strikes them as obvious. "Whoops, sorry about that" and "mistakes were made" -- love that passive voice -- won't do.
TODD GITLIN is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and the author, most recently, of "The Intellectuals and the Flag."