GW is a Smart Man

by Mike Kimel

GW is a Smart Man

A few days ago, Keith Hennessey, who worked in GW Bush’s administration, wrote that the former president is a very smart man.

Now, a smart person doesn’t have to be smart at everything. There are plenty of examples of very smart people doing very stupid things, particularly outside their field. However, since living creatures don’t like negative outcomes, smart people, people capable of reasoning out the consequences of their actions, will tend to minimize the number of things they do that have negative outcomes. Sure, sometimes choices are limited, as many circumstances might remain outside a person’s control.

But GW was President of the United States. For much of his term, he had a supportive Congress behind him. For his entire term, he had a supportive Supreme Court behind him. And he had a very compliant Federal Reserve at his side. By definition, he was the most powerful person in the world, and he had very few constraints on his actions.

Which raises the question… why were outcomes so negative during the Bush administration? One doesn’t have to be a political supporter of say, Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton to point to notable successes that occurred in those administrations. But I’m having a hard time coming up with nontrivial things that went as well or better than the GW administration expected or promised.

That isn’t to say he wasn’t successful in implementing policy. In fact, he got his way on a lot of things. He got his signature tax cuts, but once he did, the economy never went past lukewarm, and after a few years of that, we had the worst collapse in decades. When Bush took office, the Fed was concerned that we were going to pay off the national debt. Well before 2008, it was apparent we weren’t going to see so much as a surplus again for a long time. The only real beneficiaries of the Bush economy seem to be those who do God’s work.

On the international front, we invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. Is the region safer? Are we? It is obvious Iran has benefited, as have a number of Iraqi flim-flam men and Americans with connections. (This article in the American Conservative from 2005 is definitely worth a read today.) But those were definitely not the stated objectives of the assorted military operations carried out, and presumably “benefiting Iran” wasn’t even among the unstated objectives.

As to the third of the big issues under GW – the response to Hurricane Katrina – the less said the better.

Back to my question from earlier – if GW was as smart as Hennessey and others claim, given how much power and flexibility he had, why did so many important things turn out so badly? I guess there are a few options:

1. Actually, the economy, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the reaction to Katrina, not to mention a whole host of other issues, went swimmingly.

2. The economy, the war in Iraq, and Katrina weren’t actually all that important so he didn’t put much effort or resources into dealing with them. The important issues, the ones to which GW paid attention, turned out well.

3. GW wasn’t actually all that powerful, and he fell victim to a cabal of enemies who deviously allowed him to implement his policies but worked hard to make sure those policies produced lousy results. Perhaps a super advanced race of space aliens.

4. The people in the GW administration were qualitatively different than the people in previous administrations such as that of Reagan and Clinton. GW and his appointees are not very smart at all and had no idea what they were doing. Their arrogance and incompetence inflicted a terrible price upon the rest of us.

Any one of those options would explain what happened in 2001 – 2008. And any one would explain Hennessey’s assessment of his former boss too. Toward which of these options do you lean?