President George W. Bush’s performance during Friday night’s town-hall debate was a marked improvement over his showing in Coral Gables the week before. In St. Louis on Friday, he was energetic and presented a clear vision; he was determined and showed a sense of humor. Bush was good–and his strong showing clearly reinvigorated his supporters–but he was far from perfect. Substantively, the low point of the president’s performance may have come at the very end, in response to Linda Grabel’s question about whether the president had ever made any mistakes. Bush had been on a roll throughout the domestic-issues portion of the debate, but then Grabel put him in reverse. It didn’t have to be that way.
Grabel asked the president to “give three instances in which you came to realize you had made a wrong decision, and what you did to correct it.” Bush responded by noting his willingness to take responsibility for his decisions, and then reiterated his conviction that the big calls of his administration were the right ones. However unintentionally, his answer effectively validated the Kerry-Edwards campaign’s critique of the president as stubborn, intransigent, and immune to criticism–even though it is clear to anyone that not every decision made by this administration has been correct. Indeed, the simple fact that the administration has altered its position over time on various issues demonstrates that “mistakes have been made,” even if no one will publicly admit it. As one Kerry ad played often in Ohio closes, “No one can tell them they’re wrong.”
To be fair, it is difficult to answer this sort of question on the spot (and it’s easy to be a Tuesday-morning quarterback). Although the Kerry campaign was quick to seize on Bush’s non-answer as evidence that a second Bush term would bring only “more of the same,” Senator Edwards scarcely did any better when challenged with the same question on Sunday morning. Asked on ABC’s This Week to name three mistakes of his own, Edwards could only come up with two–and a weak two at that. He cited his vote for the confirmation of Education Secretary Rod Paige, and his acceptance of intelligence concluding Iraq had WMDs. Pressed for a third, Edwards came up blank. Nonetheless, Bush could have done better.
Instead of viewing the question as an attack on his leadership and principles, Bush should have used the question to open a window into the administration’s decision-making. At the same time, the question was an opportunity to close the door on Democratic efforts to make each and every reversal in Bush-administration policy the equivalent of Senator Kerry’s windsurfing through dozens of policy positions on dozens of issues. Bush also could have used his answer as an opportunity to reassure conservatives upset with his administration’s performance on spending and entitlements, and to remind voters of his agenda for the second term.
First, Bush could have noted that it has been a mistake not to take a firmer stand against wasteful federal spending. The president can make a plausible case that because he focused on ensuring legislative support for the war on terror and economy-boosting tax cuts, congressional appropriators had their way with the public fisc. “I made a mistake not vetoing a single spending bill,” the president could have said. “But if Congress continues to spend taxpayer money without restraint, I now realize I will have to use the veto to keep federal spending in line.” Bush could have further noted that he has already begun this effort by threatening to veto a bloated highway bill if it lands on his desk.
Second, the president could have said it was a mistake in 2000 to pledge to regulate emissions of carbon dioxide. The administration dropped this rarely uttered campaign pledge, citing the effect of such controls on energy prices. Instead they are calling for limits on other emissions and pursuing less punitive policies on climate change while working to ensure that consumers have affordable and reliable sources of energy. Bush said as much in 2001; what would be the harm in saying it again?
Bush also could have said that it was a mistake to oppose the creation of a Department of Homeland Security. While I am not convinced reshuffling federal bureaucracies makes much difference, the administration did initially oppose the move, and then avidly supported it. Bush could have explained this by saying he recognized the mistake of his first position, and that he then saw to it that the final policy was implemented correctly, fighting Congressional Democrats to prevent union rules from hamstringing the department’s ability to function.
A gutsier move would have been to acknowledge the mistake of raising steel tariffs early in his term, and to point out the administration’s sterling free-trade record over the past ten months.
The specific examples cited would be less important than the overall message. Being a strong leader does not mean never admitting you’re wrong. Owning up to mistakes and vowing not to repeat them takes courage, and changing policy to correct prior missteps is a form of leadership. No one doubts Bush’s resolve in the war on terror. So he should not be embarrassed to admit that he has made the occasional mistake. Indeed, placed next to Senator Kerry’s preposterous protestations that he’s never changed his views on Iraq, such specific candor from the president would have been refreshing–and likely effective as well.
–NRO contributing editor Jonathan H. Adler is an associate professor of law at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.