Monday, September 21, 2009

Bushism and Latimerism

From a long article at HuffPo, dishing on ex-Bush speechwriter Matt Latimer's new tell-all:
For a commencement address at Furman University in spring 2008, Ed Gillespie wanted to insert a few lines condemning gay marriage. Bush called the speech too "condemnatory" and said, "I'm not going to tell some gay kid in the audience that he can't get married." (Of course, Bush ran his 2004 campaign telling that kid just that.)
There are a several points I'd like to make here -- why did Gillespie want the president to raise this issue in a speech to college students? -- but the bizarre thing is Bush's reported unwillingness to speak on behalf of his own policy.

To me, it is evidence of a basic flaw in Republican political thinking Some pollster says 68% of college students favor gay marriage? Majority rules! This is politics as nothing more than a popularity contest.

Thus is statesmanship abandoned in favor of mere pandering. Sound policy is sound policy. One job of a political leader is to persuade the citizenry, to influence their opinions. To do this, one must sometimes go to Kansas and tell the corn farmers that ethanol subsidies are bad policy, or tell college students that their naive notions of "equality" are false.

Such arguments may not be popular, but if you believe what you say --if you are sincerely convinced of the merits of your policy, rather than merely pandering in search of short-term political gain -- your courage in defending an unpopular belief has a persuasive value.

Remember that when Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an "Evil Empire," his words were intensely controversial. Yet Reagan was not pandering. Those who then suffered under communist tyranny, including those imprisoned in the gulag, heard Reagans words and felt that, at last, there was hope -- because Reagan had courage.

Alas, Bush had a knack for surrounding himself with mediocre minds, to which category Matt Latimer clearly belongs (along with David Kuo and Michael Gerson). Here is Latimer in a GQ article:
As a young political geek growing up in Flint, Michigan, I’d always dreamed of heading to Washington to work for a conservative president and help usher in another Reagan Revolution. . . .
My youthful exuberance cooled as I moved up the rungs of power. On Capitol Hill, I worked for a congressman who "misremembered" basic facts, such as the “Eisenhower assassination.” I worked for a senator who hid from his own staff. I was assigned to coach Republican senators on how to reach out to the media and entertainment world. (You try explaining The View to a group of 65-year-old white Republican men.) At the Pentagon, as chief speechwriter to Donald Rumsfeld, I battled an entrenched civil-service system and an inept communications team.
In 2007 I finally made it to the Bush White House as a presidential speechwriter. . . .
By which time he had mastered the two-faced ways of the ambitious Washington backstabber. Matt Latimer is exactly the sort of arrogant weakling that bad leadership attracts, so that George W. Bush is to blame for the knives in his own back.

UPDATE: Via Memeorandum, we next encounter the nuanced, Harvard-educated, perfect-SAT intellectualism of Douthatism:
Adding insult to injury, the umpteenth insider look at Bush administration's dysfunction was unveiled last week as well, courtesy of an obscure second-term speechwriter named Matt Latimer. (Next up: Bush's White House chef tells all!) Latimer's memoir, excerpted in GQ, offers grist for Bush-whackers of both parties. For liberals, there’s Dubya the incurious frat boy, flubbing policy details and cracking wise about Hillary Clinton’s posterior. For conservatives eager to prove that the most unpopular president in 50 years was never really one of them, there’s Bush the crypto-liberal, who dismisses the conservative movement and boasts that he personally "redefined the Republican Party."
Douthat is both intelligent and a good writer, but is too transparently conscious of writing for a specific readership. He expends more than 750 words en route to the conclusion that "it's possible to become a good president even -- or especially -- when you can no longer hope to be a great one."

Arguably true, as a general proposition, but is it really true of George W. Bush? Would it not be more true to say that, if Bush learned some lessons from his father's failed presidency, he nevertheless exemplified the hereditary faults of his father?

Bush 41 raised taxes. Dubya cut taxes (as a father of six, I am particularly grateful for that per-child tax credit). Bush 41 fought Iraq but left Saddam in power. Dubya cosquered Iraq and saw Saddam hanged.

So it can be said that Bush the son sought to redeem the family name by reversing what were widely considered two of Bush the father's biggest errors. (Critics of the Middle East policies

Nevertheless, Bush 43 had that same New England WASP Republican commitment to "respectability" -- the Politics of Niceness -- which was the intrinsic flaw of his father's politics, and which is why New England WASP Republicans are a dying breed.

Victorious political movements cannot be built upon the principles of Bushism. Niceness and respectability did not bring that "angry mob" to Capitol Hill on Sept. 12. Republicans need to stop hitting the snooze button, wake the hell up and grab a hot cup of Libertarian Populism.


  1. matt who?! i'm a political junkie and i've never heard of him until r.s. put up this post! like i give a rip what this dweeb thinks?! wake me when cheney's book hits the shelves ...

  2. Before one can comment on whether the spotlighted incident is reflective of "strategy" in any sense, the question of Latimer's credibility ought be addressed. From tidbits already lifted from his book and the responses from those who were there, how can we believe he has any?

  3. Reagan was speaking to an evangelical audience when he gave the "evil empire" speech. A few evangelical Christians were making headlines by endorsing a nuclear freeze, so Reagan started the speech about social conservatism and switched to foreign policy halfway through. That's called "trying to actually accomplish something when making a speech."

  4. Explaining the View to any sane person is a losing game. Someone else made the comparison
    to Levi Johnston with Latimer. It seems he indulges the pre-existing prejudices of his audience, meaning the GQ and Huff Po demographic, making a big deal of the US attorney brouhaha, disdaining the tea party goers in his Washington Post op ed. We already
    have a Dave Frum and Mike Gerson, we don't need another

  5. Leaders should "lead" regardless of what the citizens "want" -- defying the majority sentiment, attempting to persuade the majority, on the basis of "principle?"


    I seem to have heard the exact OPPOSITE of that in the health care debate. I heard every "R" out there saying "BOW TO THE WILL OF THE PEOPLE!" since the majority of the people didn't want the big O's health care (insurance) reform agenda.

    I agree with the sentiment that "leaders should lead."

    I DON'T agree that our elected representatives should blindly follow the majority of its constituents. They are either elected representatives who follow PRINCIPLE, or they're poll followers.

    Pick a side.

  6. If one wants a hostile audience when discussing the problems with ethanol subsidy one would go to Iowa, not Kansas.

    On the other hand, leaving Sadam in power was probably one of the best decisions Bush I ever made as the consequences of removing him from power seems to not only be an unwinding of the Middle East but also our own imminent bankruptcy and descent into the status of third world socialist kleptocracy. The presidency of Bush II was an unmitigated disaster. By comparison the presidency of Bush I was a smashing success.

  7. Huey, we have a side. It's the one explained by Abraham Lincoln in his Temperance Address. Lincoln spoke to a group that favored laws banning liquor, but Lincoln explained to them another approach. Instead of passing laws, peaceably influence your neighbors to affect the culture.

    "But it is said by some, that men will think and act for themselves; that none will disuse spirits or anything else, merely because his neighbors do; and that moral influence is not that powerful engine contended for. Let us examine this. Let me ask the man who could maintain this position most stiffly, what compensation he will accept to go to church some Sunday and sit during the sermon with his wife's bonnet upon his head? Not a trifle, I'll venture. And why not? There would be nothing irreligious in it: nothing immoral, nothing uncomfortable. Then why not? Is it not because there would be something egregiously unfashionable in it? Then it is the influence of fashion; and what is the influence of fashion, but the influence that other people's actions have [on our own?] actions, the strong inclination each of us feels to do as we see all our neighbors do? Nor is the influence of fashion confined to any particular thing or class of things. It is just as strong on one subject as another. Let us make it as unfashionable to withhold our names from the temperance cause as for husbands to wear their wives bonnets to church, and instances will be just as rare in the one case as the other."

    Conservatives oppose Obamacare because it's an attempt to use government to coerce people. If by contrast, Obama spent his time leading people to more charitable giving to hospitals, more frugal use of healthcare, etc - then we conservatives would be right behind him.

    Whipping out a badge and a gun to take tax money, that's isn't leadership. It's what happens when leadership fails.

  8. Kansas isn't considered part of the corn belt, not even a top 5 producer. He would have shown more guts anyway going to Houston and telling oil execs their subsidies are bad policy.

    Libertarian populism is just as bad policy as the current Republican philosophy: crony capitalism.

  9. One strong issue with that essay: George W. Bush was never in favor of the anti-gay-marriage amendment. He killed it using the very mechanism Stacy decries -- taking it over as a Cause, then giving it lukewarm-to-nonexistent support -- and he did it on purpose. It's one of the neatest bits of political jiu-jitsu ever performed, and if he hadn't done it, the Amendment would either already be ratified or would be only a State or two short of ratification today.

    My "xtianist" Evangelical neighbors know this, and consider it a strong negative about Bush. Why hasn't anybody else noticed?


  10. The central problem with people like Latimer, Gerson, Brooks, and Frum is one of logic.

    To these people--let's call them Frumians--politics is a simple line. If you are to the right of the other party, and the other party wins, a Frumian would conclude that the national center of gravity is to the left of where you are, and as such, any movement to the left will make you more able to win elections.

    There are two problems with this.

    The first is that, at least on domestic issues, left-wing victories tend to consist of new entitlements that are virtually impossible to eliminate. Thus, since the right-wing party can never be pulled to the right (except in the very rare case of a successful right-wing third party), Frumians in practice are endorsing Communism--the zero-to-infinity sum of all left-wing victories.

    Second, and even more fundamentally, Frumian policies don't even help in the short term, because the real political world, unlike Frum's world, is not a straight political line, but rather a very large set of individual political decisions and biases.

    For example, let's assume a voter has to pick between a moderate Republican and a liberal Democrat. Our voter is a very religious gun owner from West Virginia, who is also a lifelong Democrat union member who shares the Democrat view on the Davis-Bacon Act, right-to-work laws, etc.

    Assume that the Republican is strongly anti-gun and pro-abortion, and also opposed to the pro-labor views of the voter.

    Assume that the Democrat is strongly anti-gun and pro-abortion, and strongly in favor of Davis-Bacon, union shops, etc.

    First off, we see that--rolling all the labor votes into one issue--we have three issues here: guns, abortion, and labor.

    Also, the voter is clearly to the right of the Republican and the Democrat both. He is to the left of the Republican on one issue and to his right on two; and he is to the left of the Democrat on no issues, and to his right on two.

    However, it is also in the perceived interest of the voter to vote for the far-left Democrat rather than the moderate Republican. Why? Simple: the Democrat agrees with the voter on one issue of three, and the Republican agrees with him on nothing. So even though the voter may find both the Republican and the Democrat repulsive, as a practical matter he will probably vote Democrat.

    If, on the other hand, the Republican maintains his anti-labor views but is pro-gun and pro-life, he is now to the right of the voter: right of him on one issue, left on none. In this case, the voter logically should pick the Republican, since he agrees with him on two issues out of three, and the Democrat on one issue of three.

    Note that this analysis is actually more favorable to Frumianism than is actually justified. It assumes that the moderate Republican will actually stick to his guns on labor issues. In reality, the Republican, already a squish, will probably vote for Card Check just by virtue of his own lack of fortitude. And many rich businessmen who are also voting, who might be inclined to support his anti-union views, will not take them seriously and will instead vote for the Democrat's pro-choice views.

    In short, it is often perfectly sensible for a political party, having lost an election, to become more ideological rather than less.

  11. Jeff Y.: The POINT of that post was that too many "conservatives" have HAMMERED anyone who hasn't "bowed to the will of the people" and, even though they support universal health care, vote AGAINST that which they believe in.

    Yet, out of the other side of their mouths, they want our leaders to LEAD, to stand on principle IN THE FACE OF THE MAJORITY OF THE VOTERS WHO DISAGREE WITH THEM.

    When, that is, the "principle" upon which is advocated is one which "conservatives" agree.

    We wanted Bush to "stay the course" in Iraq even though the majority of the people wanted us out.

    We wanted Reagan to keep hammering the U.S.S.R. with the "evil empire" rhetoric and pushing for "star wars" even though the majority of the populace disagreed.

    Yet, we want the OTHER SIDE to abandon THEIR principles and vote with the people rather than THEIR principles, i.e., abandon universal health care even though they BELIEVE in it because the voters don't want it.

    The POINT is...make a choice. Do you want LEADERS who lead on the basis of their principles, or do you want POLITICIANS who bend to the current polls?

    (Say, for example, a "pro-life" representative somehow was elected in a "blue" district. A bill hits the floor which would allow for federal funding of abortion. His constituents HEAVILY FAVOR such a bill. Should the representative listen to the PEOPLE or his own conscience?)

    I just want logical consistency here, nothing less.

  12. Ken: There's a whole lot of "huh?" when it comes to the analysis of what makes for a "good politician." Frankly, in my humble opinion, it really comes down to trust.

    Rational people want someone they can trust, not just in the sense that she won't pick their pockets, but that they actually mean what they say, and, to the degree possible, means to do what she says she's going to do.

    Now, I must admit that this hypothesis hasn't gotten a whole lot of examination as there haven't been a host of subjects who fit the bill, but, when there has been one...the popularity of the person and the ability of that person to "lead" has been off the scale. (Reagan, of course, comes to mind...)

    Call me crazy, but, I'm still of the opinion that Palin fits that bill. If she'll pick up the ball (from the empty court), she may have the ability to actually "lead" the country to the extent that it's "leadable...."

  13. Huey L. Golden:

    You are incorrect about Reagan's policies regarding the Evil Empire and missile defense being unpopular. They were hated by the pseudointelligentsia, yes, but they were quite popular with the American people.

    This was largely due to the willingness of Americans to trust Reagan's judgement, since he had already shown himself to be a leader.

    And that brings us to Bush's surge: I thought then, and still believe now, that the surge was necessary (and mostly successful). However, Bush had a much harder time selling it to the populace due to his boneheadedness on other issues that had already alienated most people. He pissed off conservatives when, at the height of his popularity, he endorsed a Medicare expansion, the assault weapons ban and Arlen Specter; and then he ignored the rising prices of gas, alienating centrists. Of course the Left already hated him for not sending Southern Christians to the gas chambers.

    As for a pro-life congressman in a district that supports taxpayer-funded abortions: considering that such districts are vanishingly rare, and extremely leftist--Americans overwhelmingly oppose taxpayer-funded abortions, even though they are skeptical about banning abortions--it seems unlikely that he'd get reelected in such a weird district. So ultimately it doesn't matter much to his future whether he votes pro-life, pro-abortion, or eats his boogers on national TV, since he couldn't possibly win a second term anyway.

  14. Thanks for linking your libertarian populist column. I missed it first time around.

    It is a strategy that Mike Huckabee flirted with, driving the Club for Growth crowd absolutely nuts. Even though he stopped short of a full-blown populist strategy, it was interesting to watch unfold.

    In fact, it might be one of the few strategies that might work in 2012, absent a complete meltdown of the Obama Administration.

    I don't know if the country is ready for a libertarian populist campaign, or whether or not there are any candidates on the Right with the rhetorical flair to pull it off, but it is remains an effective single-issue cudgel.

  15. Ken: You and I have different memories of the citizens' take on Reagan's "evil empire" rhetoric and their take on "star wars."

    I remember that the polls of the time showed that there was a majority against both.

    Quoting from "Through a mix of conservative dogma, pragmatic action, and mastery of the media, Ronald Reagan retained throughout his presidency a hold on public affection unequalled since Dwight Eisenhower's years in the White House. Paradoxically, he accomplished this feat even though polls showed that a majority of the voters consistently disagreed with his policies."

    Anyway, that's my memory as well.

    Regardless... the POINT is that he was guided by his inner compass. He LED from that compass. And, the country, even though sometimes the people didn't agree with his specific policies, voted for him in DROVES. (Or...maybe against Carter and Mondale? Both? Dunno, but, man did he LEAD!)

    We need a LEADER now.

  16. If I may respectfully disagree: I think that the best political leaders have good instincts. They know when to pick fights and when to leave well enough alone. I don't think it's pandering if Bush decided not to say a few words against gay marriage in a college setting, even if he truly believes that gay marriage is a bad idea. Coming out in _favor_ of it in that context would be pandering, of course, but it's not a bad thing to avoid gratuitous conflict.