The events and consequences of George W. Bush’s controversial and extraordinarily consequential presidency will provide full employment for generations of historians: the disputed first election result; the merciless and devastating attack on the homeland; the war it provoked, which our children and their children will likely be fighting in one way or another; the enormous growth and increased presence of the federal government; the formal debut of the GOP as the new majority party, and the epic and still-contested battles over the limits of executive power. Throw in the fact that you may never again get on an airplane without first removing your shoes, and you have some sense of the momentous times in which we live.
Mr. Bush has received a first-draft report card from Fred Barnes, the gifted political reporter who in recent years has become Fox News’s most ubiquitous talking head. Mr. Barnes shows both his politics (conservative) and his reporting skills (still razor-sharp) in this entertaining look at the meaning of Mr. Bush. “Rebel-in-Chief” (Crown, 224 pages, $23.95) deserves wide reading outside the self-important circles that inhabit the nation’s capital, a town Mr. Bush so clearly disdains.
Friendly or unfriendly, this kind of book rises or falls on the question of access, and Mr. Barnes, who is quite friendly, obviously had it. He seems to have spoken with all the major players in the Bush administration, including its principal leader. The result is any political junkie’s dream read, filled with inside dope on how the campaigns were won and the policy decisions made. For the rest of us, there is enough substance and insight to more than sustain interest.
What is most unusual about the book, however, is its timing. Such efforts often appear just before or after a stay in the White House, either hinting at what’s to come based on the campaign or assessing what’s transpired. Weighing in midstream, so to speak, Mr. Barnes is somewhat restricted in his ability to assess Mr. Bush’s achievements, especially on the domestic front, where the jury is not just out but missing on such signature proposals as Social Security reform.
Mr. Barnes gamely acknowledges this limitation and makes it part of his theme, which casts the president as a world-class breaker of the political furniture. “On domestic policy, Bush is more important for what he has proposed and fought for than for what he has achieved,” Mr. Barnes notes, suggesting that Social Security may only be dealt with when the financial crisis is finally upon us 10 or 20 years from now.
Some conservatives may want to wait, if reforming Social Security ends up to be anything like reforming Medicare – with a huge and costly new entitlement to prescriptions. One of Mr. Barnes’s most important points is how unhappy many conservatives are with Mr. Bush’s big-spending ways. This certainly has been reported elsewhere, but Mr. Barnes goes further, claiming that Mr. Bush is deliberately transforming the conservative movement from its small-government orientation to a more activist approach.
Like most presidents, Mr. Bush came to power more interested in domestic issues than foreign ones. And he was far less schooled than many on the fine points of foreign policy. Indeed, as Mr. Barnes notes, the president’s first speech on the subject could have been lifted from a magazine article written around the same time by his first national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice.
Nevertheless, Mr. Barnes argues persuasively that the president not only took early direction well but had impeccable instincts. In a revealing passage, the book describes an early briefing on foreign leaders during which Mr. Bush grows impatient with the lingua franca of Foggy Bottom: “We’re talking about them as though they were members of the Chevy Chase Country Club. What are they really like? … How brutal are these people?”
Mr. Barnes is at some pains, here and elsewhere, to disabuse Howard Dean et al. that Mr. Bush is a mere captive and figurehead in Vice President Cheney and Halliburton’s invidious scheme to “pave paradise and put up a parking lot.” “He’s [Mr. Bush] a revolutionary and has a revolutionary vision,” the current national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, claims, “and the establishment has a problem with that.”
If the American foreign policy establishment had heartburn with Mr. Bush, the foreign establishment itself had cancer. As this book memorably details, with the obvious exception of Prime Minister Blair, some of our closest traditional allies have not been amused. Mr. Bush returned the compliment, at one point dismissing the haughty President Chirac as an “a-hole.” Oh well, few Americans, and not just in Texas, would disagree.
Apart from all the early bad feelings, there is evidence that, as with President Reagan before him, the world may slowly be changing its mind. The world thought exiting the ABM treaty would bring a renewed arms race with Russia; it didn’t. The world thought banishing Arafat would destroy any prospect for peace; it contributed to progress. The world thought all that talk about democracy was bad for Muslims; since then there have been real elections Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Iraq and progress, however glacial, in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The world thought pre-emption would never deter; Libya agreed to disarm. Even the world occasionally reads newspapers.
On the domestic political front, as Mr. Barnes notes, Mr. Bush made conservatives dominant for the first time since the 1920s. The Reagan revolution certainly introduced the novel concept that Republicans had some important ideas to offer. But Mr. Bush has presided over the emergence of a new conservative majority.
Mr. Barnes provides a host of indicators for this sea change, from 2004 exit polls that showed voter identification with the GOP at historically high levels, to the dramatic increase in Hispanic support, from 21% in 1996 to 44% in 2004. Mr. Barnes approvingly quotes the political demographer, Michael Barone: “Bill Clinton had a chance to forge a majority for his party. He failed. Bush had the chance to forge a majority for his party. He succeeded.”
Admittedly, the coming midterm elections may have something to say about all this talk of GOP dominance, with congressional scandals and Mr. Bush’s low poll numbers as likely factors. But Mr. Barnes makes the salient point that while President Clinton got what he wanted – personal popularity – he did so at the expense of his party, which, despite peace and prosperity, steadily and dramatically lost power on his watch. Dealing with recession and war, Mr. Bush may well have sacrificed his personal popularity to transform the strategic and political landscape.
If the price of gas drops and the markets continue to prosper, there may yet be a happy ending for our rebel in chief. The only sure bet is that when his work is finished, he will be eager to get out of town.
Book Review from The New York Sun, by Christopher Willcox