EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the October 24, 2005, issue of National Review.
With the nomination of Harriet Miers, FEMA’s absence in New Orleans, the galloping incontinence of the federal budget, and the continuing insurgency in Iraq, President Bush has seemingly entered a time of troubles. His opinion-poll ratings are falling and there are faint signs that Republican congressmen are distancing themselves from him in preparation for the November 2006 elections. The specter of a failed presidency looms.
George W. Bush has presented himself as a strong and principled conservative. Mutual enemies such as conservatives and the media originally accepted his self-portraiture, but conservatives now complain that over-spending, federalizing emergency services, and another Souter is not what they voted for. They cry treason or at least timidity. Is Bush now letting the conservative side down? And does he deserve its criticism and even hostility?
Such questions are rarely answered honestly by partisans. They tend to pick and choose the criteria for judging success or failure. If they like the president, they tend to choose those issues–the John Roberts nomination, the tax cuts–on which he has done well or at least not badly. If they hold him in low regard, they highlight those issues–see the first sentence above–on which his performance has been, ah, mixed.
Let me confess that I, alas, am no different. My reason is, as Macaulay said of Burke, the slave of my passions. On the topic of the Bush presidency, however, I labor under a difficulty that prevents me from simply selecting my criteria to suit the conclusions I want. Rashly, never thinking that this would come back to haunt me, I laid down my standards for judging the success or failure of the Bush presidency in advance. A month or so before September 11, I wrote an NR commentary in which I suggested that all presidencies succeed or fail on a handful of big issues.
What were the big things that Bush 43 had to get right? I suggested three: halting the advance of the regulatory state; restoring national unity to an increasingly balkanized America; and preventing the rise of an anti-American united Europe that would divide the West . . .