You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Character Flaw

Roughly three years, 2,000 American deaths, $200 billion, and no functioning government later, the Bush administration has finally laid out its plan for victory in Iraq. And the plan is ... humility. I'm not kidding. Last month, The Washington Post reported that top White House advisers have concluded that the key to regaining public support for the war is to adopt a more humble approach—for the president to be "more open in admitting mistakes" and to weave "the humility theme" into speeches. These aides reckon that, while roughly one-third of the country is dead-set against the war, there is a middle third that has grown frustrated with the effort but could be won back with the right atmospherics. It's a bit like feuding with a spouse, one official explained to the Post: "You need to give voice to their concern."

And so, lately, we've been treated to all manner of spectacle devised to show that Bush is actually a deeply humble person: the president's praise for Representative John Murtha, the grizzled ex-Marine who favors immediate withdrawal from Iraq; his occasional nod to the sincerity of the antiwar camp's views. The high point of the administration's humility offensive came last Thursday, when Bush paraded a who's who of former Cabinet officials through the White House for a short war briefing. According to The New York Times, Bush even spent part of the session soliciting advice from the likes of Robert McNamara. The wizened kids were then promptly ushered into an Oval Office photo session. Bush pronounced himself "most grateful for the suggestions that have been given."

What's going on here should be pretty obvious. The Bushies have decided to focus on character (whether the president is humble) in order to address substance (whether the war is winnable). This is hardly surprising, of course. The Bushies have excelled at nothing if not reducing substantive matters to issues of character. The question is whether it can work when it comes to public opinion on Iraq.

Certainly, the Bushies have proved that the strategy can work on the campaign trail. And it's not hard to see why it does. For one thing, the decision to vote for a president is an intensely personal one. The president is both a chief executive and a figurehead—someone who will appear on your TV screen day in and day out for four years. Not surprisingly, people tend to vote for the candidate with whom they feel more personally comfortable. Second, as my colleague Jonathan Chait has written, few political reporters are experts on public policy. As a result, coverage of presidential campaigns focuses heavily on character. Third, elections are graded on the curve. You don't have to achieve any absolute level of competence. You just have to be more likeable than the other guy.

In this context, the major innovation of the two Bush campaigns has been to use policy chiefly as a way to inform opinions about Bush's character. In 2000, for example, Bush's massive tax cut demonstrated he was a regular guy who trusted "the people" to make decisions about their money, while Al Gore, he claimed, wanted a bunch of overeducated Washington bureaucrats to spend it for them. Bush's proposals for education and faith-based initiatives showed that, unlike other Republicans, he was a compassionate and tolerant man. And, as my boss, Peter Beinart, has noted, Bush used Iraq to highlight his inner strength, resolution, and force of will in 2004. Bush, by making the unpopular decision to invade, demonstrated that he had these qualities. John Kerry, by criticizing the war, demonstrated that he did not.

The flaw in the Bushies' preoccupation with character is that, while you can use policies to shape voters' opinion of your character, it's much more difficult to do the reverse—use character to shape people's views of otherwise unpopular policies. The reason is that voters do, in fact, care about policy. They just don't care much about it as a hypothetical proposition—i.e., during elections. But they get very interested after elections, once it looks like the policy might affect their lives. At that point, characterological appeals fall flat. This single fact may explain why the Bushies are so good at campaigning, but so bad at governing.

Social Security privatization is the most obvious example. During the campaign, touting privatization made Bush sound like a guy who trusted you to make decisions about your own retirement. When it came time to actually pass Social Security privatization, however, voters started to worry about the risk to their retirement income.

Likewise, Bush tried to sell Harriet Miers to conservatives by invoking her character and his friendship with her, and to Democrats by including them in the process that produced her nomination. But conservatives worried that Miers would be too liberal on gay rights and affirmative action, while Democrats worried about her views on abortion. The nomination went nowhere. More recently, Bush tried to calm conservative critics of his immigration policies by traveling to the Southwest and mouthing tough enforcement rhetoric. Conservatives, who no doubt believe Bush is tough, didn't buy it, because his policies belied his words. (The House subsequently passed a draconian anti- immigration bill.)

Which brings us back to Iraq. Probably the biggest criticism of Bush's foreign policy is that it's arrogant. That can mean one of two things: that Bush's policies are arrogant or that Bush the man is arrogant. When critics accuse the administration of being arrogant, they generally have the first definition in mind: that Bush is too optimistic about our ability to build a democracy, that he believes his administration has the right to torture prisoners, that he refuses to work with our allies abroad, that he doesn't fire reckless subordinates. The criticism the Bushies have responded to, however, is the characterological one—hence the charade of Bush consulting with the ghosts of administrations past. The hope seems to be that, by showing Bush to be more personally humble, they will blunt the substantive critique as well.

But that's nuts. And you need only consider an exchange between Bush and Madeleine Albright to see why. During last Thursday's consultation, Albright wondered whether Iraq had diverted the White House from bigger threats in Iran and North Korea. "I can't let this comment stand," Bush protested, adding that his administration "can do more than one thing at a time." Somehow, the president's newfound humility doesn't seem to run very deep.