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Mad About You

The case for Bush hatred.

Ramin Talaie/Corbis/Getty
Graffiti on a subway station billboard calling for the impeachment of President George W. Bush in February 2004.

Jonathan Chait was the magazine’s truest successor to Michael Kinsley—only he swung even harder at his opponents and in the name of a far less conflicted spirit of liberalism. It was a spirit suited to his times, as conservatism shifted ever further to the right and toward its present-day nihilism. The scourge that needed combating was no longer the unthinking tendencies of liberals but the mindless centrism of pundits, who failed to see the true radical nature of the Bush agenda until it was too late.

—Franklin Foer, former TNR editor, Insurrections of the Mind: 100 Years of Politics and Culture in America

I hate President George W. Bush. There, I said it. I think his policies rank him among the worst presidents in U.S. history. And, while I’m tempted to leave it at that, the truth is that I hate him for less substantive reasons, too. I hate the inequitable way he has come to his economic and political achievements and his utter lack of humility (disguised behind transparently false modesty) at having done so. His favorite answer to the question of nepotism—”I inherited half my father’s friends and all his enemies”—conveys the laughable implication that his birth bestowed more disadvantage than advantage. He reminds me of a certain type I knew in high school—the kid who was given a fancy sports car for his sixteenth birthday and believed that he had somehow earned it. I hate the way he walks—shoulders flexed, elbows splayed out from his sides like a teenage boy feigning machismo. I hate the way he talks—blustery self-assurance masked by a pseudopopulist twang. I even hate the things that everybody seems to like about him. I hate his lame nickname-bestowing—a way to establish one’s social superiority beneath a veneer of chumminess (does anybody give their boss a nickname without his consent?). And, while most people who meet Bush claim to like him, I suspect that, if I got to know him personally, I would hate him even more.

There seem to be quite a few of us Bush haters. I have friends who have a viscerally hostile reaction to the sound of his voice or describe his existence as a constant oppressive force in their daily psyche. Nor is this phenomenon limited to my personal experience: Pollster Geoff Garin, speaking to The New York Times, called Bush hatred “as strong as anything I’ve experienced in 25 years now of polling.” Columnist Robert Novak described it as a “hatred … that I have never seen in 44 years of campaign watching.”

Yet, for all its pervasiveness, Bush hatred is described almost exclusively as a sort of incomprehensible mental affliction. James Traub, writing last June in The New York Times Magazine, dismissed the “hysteria” of Bush haters. Conservatives have taken a special interest in the subject. “Democrats are seized with a loathing for President Bush—a contempt and disdain giving way to a hatred that is near pathological—unlike any since they had Richard Nixon to kick around,” writes Charles Krauthammer in Time magazine. “The puzzle is where this depth of feeling comes from.” Even writers like David Brooks and Christopher Caldwell of The Weekly Standard—the sorts of conservatives who have plenty of liberal friends—seem to regard it from the standpoint of total incomprehension. “Democrats have been driven into a frenzy of illogic by their dislike of George W. Bush,” explains Caldwell. “It’s mystifying,” writes Brooks, noting that Democrats have grown “so caught up in their own victimization that they behave in ways that are patently not in their self-interest, and that are almost guaranteed to perpetuate their suffering.”

Have Bush haters lost their minds? Certainly some have. Antipathy to Bush has, for example, led many liberals not only to believe the costs of the Iraq war outweigh the benefits but to refuse to acknowledge any benefits at all, even freeing the Iraqis from Saddam Hussein’s reign of terror. And it has caused them to look for the presidential nominee who can best stoke their own anger, not the one who can win over a majority of voters—who, they forget, still like Bush. But, although Bush hatred can result in irrationality, it’s not the product of irrationality. Indeed, for those not ideologically or personally committed to Bush’s success, hatred for Bush is a logical response to the events of the last few years. It is not the slightest bit mystifying that liberals despise Bush. It would be mystifying if we did not.

One reason Bush hatred is seen as inherently irrational is that its immediate precursor, hatred of Bill Clinton, really did have a paranoid tinge. Conservatives, in retrospect, now concede that some of the Clinton haters were a little bit nutty. But they usually do so only in the context of declaring that Bush hatred is as bad or worse. “Back then, [there were] disapproving articles—not to mention armchair psychoanalysis—about Clinton-hating,” complains Byron York in a National Review story this month. “Today, there appears to be less concern.” Adds Brooks, “Now it is true that you can find conservatives and Republicans who went berserk during the Clinton years, accusing the Clintons of multiple murders and obsessing how Vince Foster’s body may or may not have been moved. … But the Democratic mood is more pervasive, and potentially more self-destructive.”

It’s certainly true that there is a left-wing fringe of Bush haters whose lurid conspiracy-mongering neatly parallels that of the Clinton haters. York cites various left-wing websites that compare Bush to Hitler and accuse him of murder. The trouble with this parallel is, first, that this sort of Bush-hating is entirely confined to the political fringe. The most mainstream anti-Bush conspiracy theorist cited in York’s piece is Alexander Cockburn, the ultra-left, rabidly anti-Clinton newsletter editor. Mainstream Democrats have avoided delving into Bush’s economic ties with the bin Laden family or suggesting that Bush invaded Iraq primarily to benefit Halliburton. The Clinton haters, on the other hand, drew from the highest ranks of the Republican Party and the conservative intelligentsia. Bush’s solicitor general, Theodore Olson, was involved with The American Spectator’s “Arkansas Project,” which used every conceivable method—including paying sources—to dig up dirt from Clinton’s past. Mainstream conservative pundits, such as William Safire and Rush Limbaugh, asserted that Vince Foster had been murdered, and GOP Government Reform Committee Chairman Dan Burton attempted to demonstrate this theory forensically by firing a shot into a dummy head in his backyard.

A second, more crucial difference is that Bush is a far more radical president than Clinton was. From a purely ideological standpoint, then, liberal hatred of Bush makes more sense than conservatives’ Clinton fixation. Clinton offended liberals time and again, embracing welfare reform, tax cuts, and free trade, and nominating judicial moderates. When budget surpluses first appeared, he stunned the left by reducing the national debt rather than pushing for more spending. Bush, on the other hand, has developed into a truly radical president. Like Ronald Reagan, Bush crusaded for an enormous supply-side tax cut that was anathema to liberals. But, where Reagan followed his cuts with subsequent measures to reduce revenue loss and restore some progressivity to the tax code, Bush proceeded to execute two additional regressive tax cuts. Combined with his stated desire to eliminate virtually all taxes on capital income and to privatize Medicare and Social Security, it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that Bush would like to roll back the federal government to something resembling its pre-New Deal state.

And, while there has been no shortage of liberal hysteria over Bush’s foreign policy, it’s not hard to see why it scares so many people. I was (and remain) a supporter of the war in Iraq. But the way Bush sold it—by playing upon the public’s erroneous belief that Saddam had some role in the September 11 attacks—harkened back to the deceit that preceded the Spanish-American War. Bush’s doctrine of preemption, which reserved the right to invade just about any nation we desired, was far broader than anything he needed to validate invading a country that had flouted its truce agreements for more than a decade. While liberals may be overreacting to Bush’s foreign policy decisions—remember their fear of an imminent invasion of Syria?—the president’s shifting and dishonest rationales and tendency to paint anyone who disagrees with him as unpatriotic offer plenty of grounds for suspicion.

It was not always this way. During the 2000 election, liberals evinced far less disdain for Bush than conservatives did for Al Gore. As The New York Times reported on the eve of the election, “The gap in intensity between Democrats and Republicans has been apparent all year.” This “passion gap” manifested itself in the willingness of many liberals and leftists to vote for Ralph Nader, even in swing states. It became even more obvious during the Florida recount, when a December 2000 ABC News/Washington Post poll showed Gore voters more willing to accept a Bush victory than vice-versa, by a 47 to 28 percent margin. “There is no great ideological chasm dividing the candidates,” retiring Democratic Senator Pat Moynihan told the Times. “Each one has his prescription-drugs plan, each one has his tax-cut program, and the country obviously thinks one would do about as well as the other.”

Most Democrats took Bush’s victory with a measure of equanimity because he had spent his campaign presenting himself as a “compassionate conservative”—a phrase intended to contrast him with the GOP ideologues in Congress—who would reduce partisan strife in Washington. His loss of the popular vote, and the disputed Florida recount, followed by his soothing promises to be “president of all Americans,” all fed the widespread assumption that Bush would hew a centrist course. “Given the circumstances, there is only one possible governing strategy: a quiet, patient, and persistent bipartisanship,” intoned a New Yorker editorial written by Joe Klein.

Instead, Bush has governed as the most partisan president in modern U.S. history. The pillars of his compassionate-conservative agenda—the faith-based initiative, charitable tax credits, additional spending on education—have been abandoned or absurdly underfunded. Instead, Bush’s legislative strategy has revolved around wringing out narrow, party-line votes for conservative priorities by applying relentless pressure to GOP moderates—in one case, to the point of driving Vermont’s James Jeffords out of the party. Indeed, when bipartisanship shows even the slightest sign of life, Bush usually responds by ruthlessly tamping it down. In 2001, he convinced GOP Representative Charlie Norwood to abandon his long-cherished patients’ bill of rights, which enjoyed widespread Democratic support. According to a Washington Post account, Bush and other White House officials “met with Norwood for hours and issued endless appeals to party loyalty.” Such behavior is now so routine that it barely rates notice. Earlier this year, a column by Novak noted almost in passing that “senior lawmakers are admonished by junior White House aides to refrain from being too chummy with Democrats.”

When the September 11 attacks gave Bush an opportunity to unite the country, he simply took it as another chance for partisan gain. He opposed a plan to bolster airport security for fear that it would lead to a few more union jobs. When Democrats proposed creating a Department of Homeland Security, he resisted it as well. But later, facing controversy over disclosures of pre-September 11 intelligence failures, he adopted the idea as his own and immediately began using it as a cudgel with which to bludgeon Democrats. The episode was telling: Having spent the better part of a year denying the need for any Homeland Security Department at all, Bush aides secretly wrote up a plan with civil service provisions they knew Democrats would oppose and then used it to impugn the patriotism of any Democrats who did—most notably Georgia Senator Max Cleland, a triple-amputee veteran running for reelection who, despite his support for the war with Iraq and general hawkishness, lost his Senate race thanks to an ugly GOP ad linking him to Osama bin Laden.

All this helps answer the oft-posed question of why liberals detest Bush more than Reagan. It’s not just that Bush has been more ideologically radical; it’s that Bush’s success represents a breakdown of the political process. Reagan didn’t pretend to be anything other than what he was; his election came at the crest of a twelve-year-long popular rebellion against liberalism. Bush, on the other hand, assumed office at a time when most Americans approved of Clinton’s policies. He triumphed largely because a number of democratic safeguards failed. The media overwhelmingly bought into Bush’s compassionate-conservative facade and downplayed his radical economic conservatism. On top of that, it took the monomania of a third-party spoiler candidate, plus an electoral college that gives disproportionate weight to GOP voters—the voting population of Gore’s blue-state voters exceeded that of Bush’s red-state voters—even to bring Bush close enough that faulty ballots in Florida could put him in office.

But Bush is never called to task for the radical disconnect between how he got into office and what he has done since arriving. Reporters don’t ask if he has succeeded in “changing the tone.” Even the fact that Bush lost the popular vote is hardly ever mentioned. Liberals hate Bush not because he has succeeded but because his success is deeply unfair and could even be described as cheating.

It doesn’t help that this also happens to be a pretty compelling explanation of how Bush achieved his station in life. He got into college as a legacy; his parents’ friends and political cronies propped him up through a series of failed business ventures (the founder of Harken Energy summed up his economic appeal thusly: “His name was George Bush”); he obtained the primary source of his wealth by selling all his Harken stock before it plunged on bad news, triggering an inconclusive Securities Exchange Commission insider-trading investigation; the GOP establishment cleared a path for him through the primaries by showering him with a political war chest of previously unthinkable size; and conservative justices (one appointed by his father) flouted their own legal principles—adopting an absurdly expansive federal role to enforce voting rights they had never even conceived of before—to halt a recount that threatened to put his more popular opponent in the White House.

Conservatives believe liberals resent Bush in part because he is a rough-hewn Texan. In fact, they hate him because they believe he is not a rough-hewn Texan but rather a pampered frat boy masquerading as one, with his pickup truck and blue jeans serving as the perfect props to disguise his plutocratic nature. The liberal view of Bush was captured by Washington Post (and former TNR) cartoonist Tom Toles, who once depicted Bush being informed by an adviser that he “didn’t hit a triple. You were born on third base.” A puzzled Bush replies, “I thought I was born at my beloved hardscrabble Crawford ranch,” at which point his subordinate reminds him, “You bought that place a couple years ago for your presidential campaign.”

During the 1990s, it was occasionally noted that conservatives despised Clinton because he flouted their basic values. From the beginning, they saw him as a product of the 1960s, a moral relativist who gave his wife too much power. But what really set them off was that he cheated on his wife, lied, and got away with it. “We must teach our children that crime does not pay,” insisted former California Representative and über-Clinton hater Bob Dornan. “What kind of example does this set to teach kids that lying like this is OK?” complained Andrea Sheldon Lafferty, executive director of the Traditional Values Coalition.

In a way, Bush’s personal life is just as deep an affront to the values of the liberal meritocracy. How can they teach their children that they must get straight A’s if the president slid through with C’s—and brags about it!—and then, rather than truly earning his living, amasses a fortune through crony capitalism? The beliefs of the striving, educated elite were expressed, fittingly enough, by Clinton at a meeting of the Aspen Institute last month. Clinton, according to New York magazine reporter Michael Wolff, said of the Harken deal that Bush had “sold the stock to buy the baseball team which got him the governorship which got him the presidency.” Every aspect of Bush’s personal history points to the ways in which American life continues to fall short of the meritocratic ideal.

But perhaps most infuriating of all is the fact that liberals do not see their view of Bush given public expression. It’s not that Bush has been spared from any criticism—far from it. It’s that certain kinds of criticism have been largely banished from mainstream discourse. After Bush assumed office, the political media pretty much decided that the health of U.S. democracy, having edged uncomfortably close to chaos in December 2000, required a cooling of overheated passions. Criticism of Bush’s policies—after a requisite honeymoon—was fine. But the media defined any attempt to question Bush’s legitimacy as out-of-bounds. When, in early February, Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe invoked the Florida debacle, The Washington Post reported it thusly: “Although some Democratic leaders have concluded that the public wants to move past the ill will over the post-election maneuvering that settled the close Florida contest, McAuliffe plainly believes that with some audiences—namely, the Democratic base of activists he was addressing yesterday—a backward-looking appeal to resentment is for now the best way to motivate and unite an often-fractious party.” (This was in a news story!) “It sounds like you’re still fighting the election,” growled NBC’s Tim Russert on “Meet the Press.” “So much for bipartisanship!” huffed ABC’s Sam Donaldson on “This Week.”

Just as mainstream Democrats and liberals ceased to question Bush’s right to hold office, so too did they cease to question his intelligence. If you search a journalistic database for articles discussing Bush’s brainpower, you will find something curious. The idea of Bush as a dullard comes up frequently—but nearly always in the context of knocking it down. While it’s described as a widely held view, one can find very few people who will admit to holding it. Conservatives use the theme as a taunt—if Bush is so dumb, how come he keeps winning? Liberals, spooked, have concluded that calling Bush dumb is a strategic mistake. “You’re not going to get votes by assuming that, as a party, you’re a lot smarter than the voters,” argued Democratic Leadership Council President Bruce Reed last November. “Casting Bush as a dummy also plays into his strategy of casting himself as a Texas common man,” wrote Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne in March 2001.

Maybe Bush’s limited brainpower hasn’t hampered his political success. And maybe pointing out that he’s not the brightest bulb is politically counterproductive. Nonetheless, however immaterial or inconvenient the fact may be, it remains true that Bush is just not a terribly bright man. (Or, more precisely, his intellectual incuriosity is such that the effect is the same.) On the rare occasions Bush takes an extemporaneous question for which he hasn’t prepared, he usually stumbles embarrassingly. When asked in July whether, given that Israel was releasing Palestinian prisoners, he would consider releasing famed Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, Bush’s answer showed he didn’t even know who Pollard is. “Well, I said very clearly at the press conference with Prime Minister [Mahmoud] Abbas, I don’t expect anybody to release somebody from prison who’ll go kill somebody,” he rambled. Bush’s unscripted replies have caused him to accidentally change U.S. policy on Taiwan. And, while Bush’s inner circle remains committed to the pretense of a president in total command of his staff, his advisers occasionally blurt out the truth. In the July issue of Vanity Fair, Richard Perle admitted that, when he first met Bush, “he didn’t know very much.”

While liberals have pretty much quit questioning Bush’s competence, conservatives have given free rein to their most sycophantic impulses. Some of this is Bush’s own doing—most notably, his staged aircraft-carrier landing, a naked attempt to transfer the public’s admiration for the military onto himself (a man, it must be noted, who took a coveted slot in the National Guard during Vietnam and who then apparently declined to show up for a year of duty). Bush’s supporters have spawned an entire industry of hagiographic kitsch. You can buy a twelve-inch doll of Bush clad in his “Mission Accomplished” flight suit or, if you have a couple thousand dollars to spend, a bronze bust depicting a steely-eyed “Commander-in-Chief” Bush. National Review is enticing its readers to fork over $24.95 for a book-length collection of Bush’s post-September 11, 2001, speeches—any and all of which could be downloaded from the White House website for free. The collection recasts Bush as Winston Churchill, with even his most mundane pronouncements (“Excerpted Remarks by the President from Speech at the Lighting of the National Christmas Tree,” “Excerpted Remarks by the President from Speech to the Missouri Farmers Association”) deemed worthy of cherishing in bound form. Meanwhile, the recent Showtime pseudo-documentary “DC 9/11” renders the president as a Clint Eastwood figure, lording over a cringing Dick Cheney and barking out such implausible lines as “If some tinhorn terrorist wants me, tell him to come on over and get me. I’ll be here!”

Certainly Clinton had his defenders and admirers, but no similar cult of personality. Liberal Hollywood fantasies—“The West Wing,” The American President—all depict imaginary presidents who pointedly lack Clinton’s personal flaws or penchant for compromise. The political point was more to highlight Clinton’s deficiencies than to defend them.

The persistence of an absurdly heroic view of Bush is what makes his dullness so maddening. To be a liberal today is to feel as though you’ve been transported into some alternative universe in which a transparently mediocre man is revered as a moral and strategic giant. You ask yourself why Bush is considered a great, or even a likeable, man. You wonder what it is you have been missing. Being a liberal, you probably subject yourself to frequent periods of self-doubt. But then you conclude that
actually not missing anything at all. You decide Bush is a dullard lacking any moral constraints in his pursuit of partisan gain, loyal to no principle save the comfort of the very rich, unburdened by any thoughtful consideration of the national interest, and a man who, on those occasions when he actually does make a correct decision, does so almost by accident.

There. That feels better.