My fundamental concern with the Mead article is that it concentrates exclusively on the policy mistakes while completely ignoring the successes, and thus presents an imbalanced and even distorted picture of the overall Bush legacy.
If this were a debate about the Bush legacy, as Inboden here supposed (as have others) I would say the following. I would say, first, that I’ve written before and I’m sure I’ll write again about ways in which the Bush administration’s foreign policies deserve more credit than they receive, that many of the errors were in tactics rather than in grand strategy, and that some of the challenges he faced were of a nature that no president could resolve.Second, I’d point out that a wholesale rejection of everything Bush tried would be as foolish as a slavish imitation. Policy wonks should be going over the Bush record with a fine toothed comb, making subtle distinctions, and carefully distinguishing between baby and bathwater.Third, I’d say that we are still too close to the Bush years to come to anything like a final assessment of the administration’s strengths and its weaknesses. It’s always a problem for party leadership when the public sours on a president from their party. Harry Truman was a political catastrophe as president; he left office with the country mired in the deeply unpopular Korean War, with the ‘who lost China?’ debate raging, and with Joseph McCarthy at the peak of this power. He plumbed depths in the opinion polls that, with the exception of Nixon as Watergate climaxed, would not be revisited until the time of George W. Bush.Later historians would substantially revise the negative views that contemporaries had of President Truman and his foreign policy, and many Bush loyalists hope that the same thing will happen to W. Stranger things have happened, and I suspect that historians will ultimately be kinder to Bush than his political enemies have been. (I doubt that he’ll get the full Truman treatment, but a rebound of some kind is almost inevitable.) Whatever happens, that process of historical reflection will take time, and from our standpoint today it is impossible to know what the ultimate rating will be.Jon Ward has a pretty good account of the argument about the Bush legacy over at The Huffington Post. But those who read my essays as an invitation to debate the merits of the Bush years missed the key point I was trying to make. That point was and is that the country needs to separate the debate over what another Republican presidency will or should be like from the debate over what people think about George W. Bush. Those two are related in some ways, but separable in others. Just as JFK didn’t run as the second coming of Harry Truman but as a fresh face looking forward to new issues in a new time, future GOP presidential candidates won’t benefit much by claiming the Bush mantle or seeking to pick up right where he left off.Among those who served in the administration of George W. Bush the desire to fight the widespread contemporary verdict on the presidency of a man whose character and loyalty commanded intense dedication is understandably strong. That is a natural human feeling but there are times when the public interest requires a distancing from private concerns, and this is one of them. As long as the GOP foreign policy message is “We were right last time and history will show just how wrong and ungrateful the doubters and naysayers were,” there won’t be many people outside the choir who want to sing along. The message needs to be future focused, and the party needs to project a sense of lessons learned rather than good times remembered.Another group who responded to my essays on the Bush legacy thought that I was making a coded plea of some kind: that the GOP should be less socially conservative or less libertarian or something else along those lines. One reader wrote to thank me for having the courage to tell the GOP that Jeb Bush should not be its candidate in 2016.All these readers missed my point. I am not shilling for my own secret special recipe for what the Republicans should do, which Republicans should be thrown under the bus, or who should or should not be considered for 2016. I am simply saying that a failure to deal with the reality that the Bush administration damaged the national Republican brand to a serious degree will, unless it is addressed in some way, undermine national GOP candidates for some time to come, regardless of who they are or where they stand in the party’s internal divisions.This does not mean that service in the Bush administration disqualifies anybody from making a positive contribution to the next stage in the national debate, or for that matter to a place in the next administration. This is not about personalities. People who serve in serious government positions gain experience and knowledge that can make them more valuable in future administrations, and it is a foolish nation or political party that casts valuable human capital aside.However, people who held senior positions need to think hard about what they want to do: do they want to re-litigate the Bush experience and argue endlessly about the merits of the past, or do they want to help the country look ahead? Can they learn to share with their colleagues, their party and the country the lessons that they learned in the course of duty? Can they build on their reflections about what has changed since 2008 or 2003 and develop useful insights into what needs to happen in 2017 and beyond? To move on from the past is not to betray it, but to refuse to move on from the past can be a betrayal of the future.For some people this entire discussion is a foolish distraction. They simply don’t believe that the Bush years damaged the brand. They are welcome to their view, but they do remind me of a riddle: How many ex-Bush officials does it take to change a lightbulb?Answer: There is NOTHING WRONG with the lightbulb.If that’s what Republicans really believe, they should stick with the lightbulb they have. But it can get a little lonely in the dark.American political parties are constantly reinventing themselves. Bill Clinton ran as the un-Carter and un-Dukakis. President Obama ran as the un-Clinton. In 1968 Richard Nixon ran as the un-Nixon or, as he put it, the “new Nixon.” Calvin Coolidge didn’t run as the second coming of Warren Harding; Franklin Roosevelt didn’t run as the second coming of Woodrow Wilson. General Eisenhower didn’t run as Herbert Hoover redux. Hilary Clinton appears to be positioning herself to run as an un-Obama.Unless President Obama so thoroughly trashes the Democratic brand that the two parties are in a race to the bottom, the next Republican nominee will need to be an un-W—even if the nominee’s own surname happens to be Bush. That doesn’t mean saying that everything W did was wrong, but it means that a successful presidential candidate needs to speak for and embody a future-focused vision and set of policies calibrated for 2016 rather than 2001 or 2004.Senator McCain might have helped his campaign by doing more of this in 2008. Senator Obama’s camp believed the Bush record was an anchor to be wrapped as tightly around McCain as possible in order to sink his campaign; Senator McCain’s team sometimes seemed to be trying to help make that happen.Without declaring war on the Bush legacy or insulting the leader of his party, Senator McCain could have developed a message that was more clearly distinct from his predecessor’s. One possible example: Senator McCain could have run as a peace candidate. He could have said to the American people that nobody was more committed to their security than he was, but also that he had learned the importance of peace the hard way. Senator McCain had some serious peace-making credentials to which he could point: his role in helping the United States and Vietnam rebuild relations was outstanding.There was a serious case to be made in 2008 that a McCain presidency was the country’s surest road to lasting peace. Without making false promises or raising unrealistic hopes, the McCain camp could have pointed out that a tested leader whose credentials weren’t in doubt was more likely to get enduring peace in Iraq and find a solution in Afghanistan than an untested neophyte. These promises would not have been cynical or demagogic; it’s not unlikely that a McCain victory would brought more stability and peace in Iraq than we now see, at least as much progress against al-Qaeda and fewer American deaths in Afghanistan than we’ve had under President Obama.Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte won the plebiscite making him Emperor of the French in large part because he reversed field during the campaign. The Napoleonic image was all about wars of glory and national prestige; much of his base backed him because he seemed to promise a return to the great days of Napoleon I. But many other Frenchmen remembered just how long and how bloody those wars had been. They didn’t want to march to Moscow again. Louis-Napoleon sensed that concern and adjusted the message: “L’Empire c’est la paix,” he said. Make me your emperor and I’ll give you peace.Probably nothing could have won the 2008 election for John McCain (though of course in the opinion of some ex-Bush officials that tells us nothing, nothing! about the state of the lightbulb). But what Senator McCain needed to do in 2008, the Republican nominee must also do in 2016. The nominee needs to explain how voting Republican will reduce the risk of war and of terror attacks. The message can (and should) be peace through strength as opposed to peace through retreat and appeasement, but absent the equivalent of another Pearl Harbor or 9/11 event, peace is and must be the goal of someone who wants to be elected President of the United States. “L’Eléphant c’est la paix.”Five years after the end of the Bush administration, many of the pundits and public intellectuals of the Republican security world have not yet found a new vocabulary and a new set of ideas about our changing world that a new presidential candidate could use to reach out to the center without losing the base. Maintaining links of credibility and trust with the party’s base while reaching out to the center with a compelling national vision is something successful presidential candidates must do; if the national security division of the GOP intellectual does its job, rethinking past shibboleths and developing new and compelling ideas and programs, the party’s task becomes easier. If they can’t pull away from loyalty to the past president to focus on the needs of the next one, the task of the GOP’s next presidential nominee will be considerably more difficult.The Bush administration’s damage to the Republican brand was not, of course, just about foreign policy. Presiding over the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression has a little something to do with the party’s poor standing. Herbert Hoover loyalists argued for decades that the Depression was not Hoover’s fault and economic historians may agree; practical politicians, however, must deal with the perceptions that exist.Any effort to reach the youth vote, to reverse the collapse of African American and Hispanic support between 2004 and 2012 and any outreach to suburban moms and other key blocs of swing voters will be hampered until and unless the GOP can persuade voters to put the Bush administration firmly in the rear-view mirror.When it comes to domestic policy, the GOP is having an easier time disentangling itself from the Bush years. There is more real creative ferment on domestic policy issues in GOP circles these days than among Democrats. Republicans are already well into a new generation of ideas and proposals. Some are better and more practical than others, and a few policy ideas falls well short of a comprehensive and compelling vision for the future of the United States, but this is a moment of actual creativity and innovation, and many state governors and political figures are already carving out an identity for themselves and the party that doesn’t look back to the Bush years. (The relative freedom of state politicians from any perceived voter responsibility for the Bush years is one of the reasons the GOP has been more successful at the state than at the national level since 2008.)This is the kind of activity that today’s Republican leaders and policy wonks need to introduce to the realm of foreign policy. The world has changed considerably since President Bush left office, and creative thinking in GOP circles needs to figure out how to make Americans feel safe and secure in it. This is almost infinitely more important for the GOP, and for the country, than any attempt to promote a reevaluation of the Bush legacy.[Image credit: Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock.com]