Entering its final year in office, the G.W. Bush Administration still has a chance — if it works with the Federal Reserve to stop the stagflationary collapse of the dollar — to create a lasting narrative of success.
Whether it is fair or not, of course, administrations both in the short run and in the history books become known under the rubric of certain simple (even simplistic) narratives. The shorthand narrative for Eisenhower’s presidency was steadiness and moderation. Kennedy was Camelot, LBJ was Vietnam and the Great Society, Nixon’s was detente and Watergate, and so on, the best one being Reagan killing Soviet Communism.
If the Bush administration ended today, its narrative would not be a happy one. And no matter what else happens, if stagflation comes roaring in next summer because of the dollar’s free-fall, the narrative will be terrible.
On the other hand, all sorts of indicators recently are turning in the administration’s favor. Imagine, for a few moments, if Bush runs the table on all the following issues — each potentially decent outcome of which is, individually, emphatically realistic, based on recent trends. (The likelihood of all of them turning out well at the same time is somewhat lower, of course, but not impossible.)
At this time next year, the whole world could be talking about the remarkable stability in Iraq, and the relative safety and noticeable societal progress there, all the result of President Bush’s brave decision to defy conventional wisdom and endorse Gen. David Petraeus’s “surge” of troop strength and new tactics. Already last week, top congressional war critic John Murtha (D-PA) acknowledged that the surge is working. The reality is that if in early March of 2003, somebody had told Americans that fewer than 4,000 American military would be killed while overthrowing Saddam Hussein and seeing him tried and executed lawfully, and giving birth to an Iraqi government elected in a fair balloting by the Iraqi people, under a Constitution approved in fair balloting by the Iraqis, the vast majority of the American people would have said that would be a stunning success.
At this time next year, the Israelis and the Palestinians (perhaps with the exception of those in the territories controlled by Hamas) could well have preliminary approval for a two-state agreement with borders recognized publicly by both sides — all under the auspices of gentle and patient prodding by the Bush administration. And another Arab or Islamic nation or two might by then have established semi-official diplomatic relationships with Israel, en route to full formal recognition of Israel’s right to exist.
At this time next year, Afghanistan will probably remain what it already has been for more than five years: a still-somewhat-dangerous place but a relatively stable nation that no longer deliberately harbors, much less gives state support to, vicious international terrorists who fly airplanes into skyscrapers. Odd, isn’t it, that the Bush administration never gets credit for its remarkable success in Afghanistan, even though many critics predicted at the start of our effort in Afghanistan that it would turn into, yes, a “quagmire”?
At this time next year, as my colleague Philip Klein so astutely pointed out, Iran might be decisively confirmed as joining Libya in giving up its nuclear weapons ambitions — almost assuredly as a result, as with Libya, of seeing what happened to Saddam Hussein. And as the French, Germans, and British will say, the Bush administration’s joint efforts with them in using diplomatic pressure also helped keep Iran in check. The latest National Intelligence Estimate, if true, is indeed a vindicator of Bush, not a blow to his legacy.
At this time next year, the fruits of the new, far more pro-American leadership in both France and Germany could be even more evident in diplomatic successes across the globe. Again, when France and Germany were led by America bashers, it was somehow seen as Bush’s fault. Why, then, isn’t it to Bush’s credit that those two republics, through free elections, chose governments more friendly to the United States?
We also are surely safer as a nation. Of course it always is difficult to prove what it was that caused a dog not to bark, but the fact is that we haven’t had terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11. And the fact is that multiple plots for such terrorist attacks have been stopped. Those plot interceptions have been well documented. And the successes in capturing or killing multiple terrorist leaders have been far too little recognized or appreciated. Likewise the manifold successes in weakening terrorists by tracking and seizing their financial assets, by intelligence, and by other means. So it could be that at this time next year, against all odds, the administration may have presided over seven straight years of fending off terrorism within our own borders. No mean feat.
At this time next year, if the dollar’s fall has been arrested, the administration might be continuing to preside over one of the most sustained periods of economic growth in American history. Millions upon millions of new jobs, amazingly low unemployment higher wages, low inflation, low interest rates, and all sorts of other economic indicators have all been measured for years now, many of them since at least 2003. None of this was inevitable, especially after the terrible triple-combination of the tech bubble burst (which preceded Bush), the Wall Street scandals (again, the shenanigans predated Bush), and 9/11. The Bush tax cuts, especially the investment tax cuts of 2003, worked exactly as intended, and deserve the lion’s share of the credit for the strong economy and for the gusher of investment tax revenue that has flooded into government coffers. (Another benefit: steadily falling deficits for three-plus years, even though spending has been too high.)
At this time next year…. No, this isn’t one we need to wait for next year on: President George W. Bush already has been utterly vindicated on his brave, thoughtful, and highly moral early decision on federal funding for stem cell research. Humans can indeed benefit from scientific uses of stem cells without destroying human life.
Also at this time next year, we will know if a host of other trends have continued to be borne out. For instance, recent reports show, according to administration officials, that African-American school test scores for fourth graders, in both reading and math, are at the highest level ever, and that the math scores for 8th grade blacks are likewise at the highest levels ever. Conservatives may not like certain aspects of “No Child Left Behind,” but maybe the emphasis on testing and on standards is working. Meanwhile, on the environment, on which the administration supposedly is so weak, early returns from its “New Source Review” policy for power plants (etc.) are good. Last week it was announced that from 2005 to 2006, greenhouse gas emissions in the United States actually fell by 1.5 percent — this at a time when the economy was humming at a 2.9% growth rate (economic growth usually leads to more energy use) and at a time when Bush was supposedly despoiling the environment. Not exactly. On one final topic (for now), I also hear word that data will soon come out that teenage drug use is down. This follows a host of other data heralding good news about declining social pathologies. No president is directly responsible for all of those things, of course, but when the trends are repeated and clear, it makes sense to figure that the return to traditional social values embodied by this president and promoted throughout his administration certainly had at least something to do with the improvements.
ALL TOLD, THEN, the Bush administration still has a chance a year from now not just to be a success, but to be accurately recognized as successful, on multiple fronts. Again, not to be a broken record, but there are a number of people more learned than this writer who believe it all could be overshadowed by stagflation caused by a falling dollar. In that case, all the other bad news and bad decisions by this administration will surely control the dominant narrative forever.
But if the dollar is saved and all of these other trends pan out — a far from impossible scenario — then the shorthand narrative of the Bush administration would look something like this:
This was a president who acted boldly and resolutely, who made some major mistakes along the way, but who kept his eye on the big picture and in the end left a stronger, safer, economically sounder nation in his wake. Or, more pithily, if Nixon was defined by Watergate and Reagan by killing Communism, then George W. Bush will be defined like this: He defeated the terrorists. And he did so while keeping his nation strong and free.