Gay Patriot opened a forum to discuss how President George W. Bush should be compared to Ronald W. Reagan, arguably the greatest Republican President in the past century, if not one of the greatest of all American Presidents. I was honored to be asked to comment as a member of a panel of “Reagan Scholars”, to “adjust” the grades handed out by Gay Patriot and to respond to the comments from the readers. This column is my considered opinion, which will be added to those from Bridget Johnson and Sondra K on Monday for the final grade.
I have thought about this matter for a few days, and the first thing I would say, is that we have to establish a standard by which to rate Bush. I do not think it would be appropriate to use Reagan as the absolute, because for all my admiration and respect for President Reagan, he was human and therefore made his share of errors and had his own limitations. So, I have chosen to compare five Presidents here to what I call the “Reagan Ideal”; that is, how well each of the past five Presidents has done (or appears to have done, since Bush’s work is still in progress) in performance of the ideals exemplified by Ronald Reagan. It is fairly accepted as consensus that Reagan’s Presidency was the most successful in memory of any President in our generation, and so his ideals would appear to be the most salient in comparing performance. As a rule of thumb, the default for a President is “C”, that being the average grade in common use. If a President has done some damage to the country or his office in that category, then a lower grade would be used, although an “F” would not necessarily mean the President was completely incompetent or mendacious. If a President has done some service beyond the norm in a category, then a higher grade would be used, though even an “A+” would not necessarily mean perfection. While a bit more complex, matching up grades on the Reagan Ideal for not only Dubya, but his father, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and Reagan himself helps demonstrate not only a proper comparison between the modern Presidents, but also demonstrate how some Presidents have had to recover from the damage done by a predecessor. With that in mind, I turn my attention to the nine selected categories:
Vision/Optimism (A- from Gay Patriot)
Communicating That Vision (D+/C- from Gay Patriot)
National Security (A- from Gay Patriot)
Foreign Policy (A- from Gay Patriot)
Free Trade (B/B+ from Gay Patriot)
Domestic Spending/Size of Government (D+ from Gay Patriot)
Federalism (D from Gay Patriot)
Judicial Appointments (A- from Gay Patriot)
Leadership/Tenacity (A- from Gay Patriot)
Overall Grade (B/B+ from Gay Patriot)
First, Vision/Optimism. Here is how the last five Presidents fared in my scoring:
GHW Bush: B
GW Bush: A-
Here's how I got there. Carter got the lowest grade, for basically giving up on America’s mission in the world. He tried to make Diplomacy a bigger part of the process, I will give him that, but he downgraded the military, and refused to support his commitments when pressed. Clinton tried to sell America’s place in the world like a Marketing campaign, but he too had no stomach for the tough road. The elder Bush did what was necessary, and his vision of a post-Cold War world was important in crafting some signal treaties and agreements with Russia, China, and other important countries, but he did not see far enough. Dubya and Reagan are true visionaries, men who not only faced their challenges squarely, but who also established programs and doctrines to set a wise course for the future.
Communicating That Vision. Here is how the last five Presidents fared in my scoring:
GHW Bush: B
GW Bush: A-
Again, Carter is at the bottom. Partly, it’s because trying to persuade a nation to adopt a despondent policy, as Carter did in his “Malaise” speech, is poor strategy to begin with but also, Carter consistently failed to demonstrate any sort of plan for restoring America to greatness. On the other end is Reagan, whose delivery in speeches was perfect, legendary. Next comes Clinton, whose true gift was the common touch, the ability to speak in terms the average man and woman would recognize and accept. Some people may be surprised I grade Dubya so high, but for all the apparent clumsiness of his elocution, it should be observed that when the stakes matter, he gets results. The last three elections, the Congressional vote on invading Afghanistan and Iraq, and on tax relief, the President is effective in his communications, as evidenced where it counts most – the results. Too many people are influenced by poor poll numbers, which are not only invalid in many cases due to the way they are constructed, but also miss the fact that the polls have never demonstrated the actual success of failure of a doctrine or initiative.
National Security. Here is how the last five Presidents fared in my scoring:
GHW Bush: A-
GW Bush: A+
Clinton personally approved deals which allowed his personal friends to sell cutting-edge U.S.missile and satellite technology to Communist China, and he did nothing to slow down the proliferation of a new WMD-components market, which helped a number of nations ramp up their nuclear and biological weapons research, including North Korea and Iran. So, while Clinton was also responsible for the creation of an Infrastructure Protection Agency and a Cyberwarfare Counter-Operations office, his grade must be regarded as a complete failure in this section. As for Carter, his policies and despondent doctrine of retreat led to an across-the-board degrading of military readiness, the abandonment of numerous commitments in strategic locations, and denied vital R&D and HUMINT programs. The only saving grace for Carter is that the Soviets made less of the opportunity than they might have done, and Reagan was able to restore the condition of the military.
It next needs to be said that Reagan, for all his greatness, was not really a ‘wartime’ President as the term is understood. Yes, he fought the Cold War, which was a real war, and he won it. But the conditions of a “hot” wartime are different than others, and every American President who has had to face a “hot” war has found it unpredictable, expensive on several levels, and difficult to bear for any sustained length of time. Reagan’s management of the Cold War was masterful, but far less so his attention to the Middle East and Central America theaters. It’s not to say Reagan did badly at all, but rather that his accomplishments were less effective than George W. Bush’s, and yes I know that claim will be argued. GHW Bush, whether by insight or luck, chose the right crisis to apply his team-building to, and his efforts paid dividends in building the foundation for a strong U.S. credibility in the Middle East. The knocks on the elder Bush are simple; he did not plan far enough ahead to see what to do about Iraq, and he allowed the United Nations far too much of a role in the matter. As for George W, his problems with resolving Immigration Reform would ordinarily count against him, were there not so many signal accomplishments to name, including passage and renewal of the PATRIOT Act (which essentially took the handcuffs on the Intelligence and Law Enforcement agencies’ ability to share information and act to pre-empt threats), the destruction of the Taliban and effective elimination of the old structure of Al Qaida, the removal of Saddam Hussein, the establishment of the Bush Doctrine in response to terrorist threats, the consolidation of National Security operations under the Department of Homeland Security, and the creation of a National Director of Intelligence (Bush is essentially the first US President to reform the Intelligence Community without attempting to castrate it, to support the field agents and weed out the politics players).
Free Trade. Here is how the last five Presidents fared in my scoring:
GHW Bush: A
GW Bush: B
Reagan, the elder Bush, and Clinton all worked to improve international commerce and improve confidence in the economy. Dubya did much of the same, but security concerns hampered his efforts. It should be noted that the Enron and similar scandals, in my opinion, were largely unrelated to any Administration, and so did not cost any President points. It should also be understood that the Bush Administration’s role in the creation of Sarbanes-Oxley is unclear, and so that is neither applied to his advantage or cost.
Domestic Spending/Size of Government. Here is how the last five Presidents fared in my scoring:
GHW Bush: B
GW Bush: B+
Dubya gets a bad shake when the subject of federal spending comes up. Oh how the critics squeal about higher spending. But wait a minute – USA Today has finally done a but of real journalism, and it turns out a lot of that increased spending has nothing at all to do with a program crated by President Bush, but rather comes from a jump in enrollment in the existing program; USA Today revealed that of 25 major federal programs, enrollment between 2000 and 2005 jumped 17% while the population only increased by 5%. This highlights a problem in criticizing the President. Too many people see him as a man who must be able to foresee and address every crisis perfectly, and no man can do that, especially a President who operates within the Constitutional limits of his office (granted, not every President obeyed such limits, but such Presidents do not fare well in my scoring). For me, there are two components to the score in this area: The intent of the President, and the conditions he faces. The grades received by each President should be self-evident in this context. I would also suggest that the reader compare deficits and spending levels in terms of portion of GDP, which is the best simple barometer.
Federalism. Here is how the last five Presidents fared in my scoring:
GHW Bush: B
GW Bush: A
This is the area where I probably disagree most sharply from Gay Patriot. Every President since Washington has had to wrestle with the opposing forces of ideal and practical need. It is well known, for example, that Washington opposed the creation of a standing Army and Navy, yet when they were later created Washington applauded the move, knowing it was necessary. As with Domestic programs, one must examine the intent as well as what is done. What I mean is, the Department of Homeland Security was a necessary coalescence of the federal powers to address border security and national threats. On other levels, however, such as Education and Financial Aid and judicial authority, Bush has done an admirable job of scaling back and directing attention to the restoration of State powers. In this light, even Reagan does less well than Bush.
Judicial Appointments. Here is how the last five Presidents fared in my scoring:
GHW Bush: C-
GW Bush: A+
In another statement bound to get me some dispute, Bush actually did better in his appointments than Reagan has. This is because Bush paid attention to the need for solid appointments to the Federal bench, and applied no political consideration to them, something which Reagan allowed a few times. And as for the Supreme Court nominees, you simply cannot do better than Roberts and Alito. While some wish to complain about the Miers nomination, I would remind them that A - we still do not know for sure how well Miers would have done as a justice, B – the Miers nomination is not really relevant since it did not even go so far as hearings, and C – too many people forget that the nomination was to replace the unfortunate Justice O’Connor, who did serve as a SCOTUS justice, and who was a Reagan appointee, the same as Justice Kennedy. This dilutes the Reagan score in this area. Obviously, the Souter choice hurts Bush 41. Carter did not appoint anyone to SCOTUS, but he did make Breyer a Federal Appeals Court judge, which made it possible for Clinton to pick Breyer, along with Ginsburg, for the high court. The low scores for Clinton and Carter do not reflect the liberal preference of those men, but rather the tendency to favor judges who would ‘create’ law from the bench.
Leadership/Tenacity. Here is how the last five Presidents fared in my scoring:
GHW Bush: C+
GW Bush: A
First, the easy part – tenacity. All you need to know about how tough a given President is, is to look at how hard the Press is trying to tear into him without justice. Clinton even gets some props for toughness there, because around 1999 the press decided to make him a chew-toy. Yeah, he did what was alleged so that takes away from him, but I have to admit Bubba stood and took it. But if I give that much to Clinton, I have to praise all the louder for Reagan and Dubya, who took fire from the day they announced they were running, and which never let up. That said, the hail of lies and vicious slander from the press against President George W. Bush is literally unprecedented in my lifetime, and the fact that he has held up this well this long speaks for steel in his backbone that no man in a few generations could boast. As to Leadership, that’s less clear on the surface. The idea there I think, is to mix the tenacity with the Vision we talked about earlier, and then look at the results in fact. Basically, everyone knows Jimmy Carter for his humanitarian work and his political second-guessing, but no one brings up the Carter Administration as an example of how to get the job done. Clinton had tenacity, but does anyone, even six years after he left office have any idea what the “Clinton Doctrine” would be?
Overall Grade . Here is how the last five Presidents fared in my scoring:
Carter: GPA 1.06, earns a D
Reagan: GPA 4.03, earns an A
GHW Bush: GPA 3.00, earns a B
Clinton: GPA 1.91, earns a D+
GW Bush: GPA 3.88, earns an A-
Now the fun part: your thoughts!