From Crawford With Book

By Cyberquill 11/27/201013 Comments

George W. Bush has risen from the Lone Star State and is making the talk-show rounds to promote his autobiography Decision Points. He says he has few regrets, loved serving the country, gave it his all, is glad to be back home in Crawford, and will leave the final verdict on his presidency to future historians.

Fair enough.

On her most recent visit on Letterman, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, sporting a pair of spiffy blue spectacles, mused that “the most interesting thing about Obama’s first year is how crazy the opposition has gone in reaction to him.” Verily, Ms. Maddow must be ravaged with fascination over the opposition’s decade-long-and-counting state of exasperation over Obama’s predecessor.

For the purpose of emancipating myself of reliance on partisan punditry, I once resolved to get to the bottom of the 2000 dimpled/hanging/pregnant-chad hullabaloo and to arrive at my own independent determination of whether Mr. Bush had indeed “stolen” the contested election. As I perused the U.S. Supreme Court’s Bush v. Gore majority opinion and dissent, I quickly realized that in order to unravel the judicial mare’s nest on hand, not only would I have to take a crash course in Florida election law and familiarize myself with local tallying conventions in the various counties in order to be able to make heads or tails of the Florida Supreme Court’s decision that had greenlighted the manual recount and was subsequently overturned by Bush v. Gore, but that it would furthermore be imperative to study a representative sample of recent states-rights-related U.S. Supreme Court decisions in order to establish whether and to what degree Bush v. Gore clocked in as sufficiently out of lockstep with its brethren so as to warrant the suspicion it had been motivated by the untoward objective of putting Mr. Bush into office rather than having been compelled by the dispassionate analysis of all relevant legislation.

Florida Supreme CourtNot surprisingly, I abandoned my well-intentioned foray into the election law morass within the hour, as my interest in the subject—while pronounced enough to trigger an impulse to investigate—did not quite amount to a desire to immerse myself in it for weeks. I wonder how many of those who passionately come down on either side of the election theft issue have done the homework. In essence, it seems that if you hate Bush, he stole it, and if you like him, he didn’t.

In any event, far more intriguing than the question of whether or not the 2000 election was votejacked by the Bush Brothers in collusion with the conservative wing on the SCOTUS is the following hypothetical I call the CRT, which stands for counterfactual reverse test:

Say, ceteris paribus, the situation had been identical except with the candidates reversed, i.e., Bush had won the national popular vote while Gore copped Florida’s 25 electoral votes by a whisker and his brother Jeb Gore was governor of the Sunshine State, whereupon Bush requested a manual recount, and eventually the U.S. Supreme Court, in overturning the Florida Supreme Court, kicked the presidency to Al Gore, using the exact same reasoning it had applied in Bush v. Gore, which now, of course, would have been named Gore v. Bush.

Given that during this counterfactual scenario all of us would have been exposed to the selfsame information as we were during the real-life one, the merits of the case itself would have remained unchanged—after all, the who of the parties involved bears no relevance on what happened—and the exact same people who accused Bush of having filched the election would now be accusing Gore of having filched it, right?

Lord Voldemort

Lord Voldemort

Yeah, right. And I’m Lord Voldemort.

Had the 2000 election been a mirror image of itself, I bet not a single person who accused Bush of having stolen the election would have leveled the same charge at Mr. Gore. Instead, it would have been the right spitting nails for eight years over President Gore’s illegitimate accession to power.

In spite of its speculative nature and the attendant provability deficit, I find the CRT eminently enlightening. It should be applied to all controversies in order to gauge the extent to which the assessment of a particular dispute is rooted in the facts of the case itself as opposed to sympathy or antipathy toward individual actors based on personal or political ideology.

For instance, had—all other things being equal—Bill Clinton been a Republican, would a Republican House of Representatives voted to impeach him? Fat chance, yet whether the act of misrepresenting one’s extramarital Oval Office frolics to a Grand Jury rises to the level of “high crimes and misdemeanors” obviously has nothing to do with the identity or party affiliation of the defendant.

And if Bill Clinton had been black and impeached over the same offense, can you imagine the charges of racism leveled at his accusers for launching so manifestly desperate an attempt to rid themselves of a black man whom they perceived as a threat to white domination?

These days, the claim keeps floating around that opposition to Barack Obama is fueled by his ethnic background. The logic of this argument escapes me, for I’ve lived in this country since the beginning of the Clinton presidency and have yet to notice a difference in the tone and level of hostility directed against whoever happens to occupy the White House at a given time. And right before I crossed the big pond, I had lived through six years of Kurt Waldheim in Austria—talk about a divisive president. Having witnessed first-hand Messrs. Waldheim, Clinton, and Bush getting skewered every day of their respective tenures in the most vicious ways imaginable, I am now supposed to believe that opposition to Mr. Obama is race-based?

The race argument largely derives from the misbegotten observation that the same folks who are suddenly so very outraged over big government spending didn’t seem to have much of a problem with Bush the Caucasian splurging like a drunken marine, hence the whole Tea Party movement must be driven by Mr. Obama’s somewhat reduced susceptibility to sunburn and melanoma. This, of course, makes no sense, for the economy didn’t crater until the tail end of the Bush presidency, before which time governmental over-spending hadn’t been perceived by a great many Americans as impacting negatively upon their wallets. Also, in the early going of the financial meltdown more people (a) still had jobs, and (b) were amenable to the thesis that a one-off emergency stimulus may be necessary to keep the economy on temporary life-support as a short-term stopgap.

More importantly, and harking back to the aforementioned CRT test, people have an innate proclivity to go easy on their ideological compatriots while savaging the opposition for like behavior. So before denouncing an Obama critic as a racist, we must first determine that person’s level of animosity toward Clarance Thomas, Condoleezza Rice, or Michelle Malkin. Should it turn out that he or she assails Obama at every turn yet is perfectly down with those other three individuals, the waste-basket racism accusal doesn’t quite wash.

Besides, Bush’s approval rating hovered around 30% when he left office. So obviously, a majority of the population did have a problem with his governance. What was that all about? Prejudice against white men from Texas?

Bookended by the 2000 election fiasco and the collapse of the economy, most of the controversy about Mr. Bush’s helmsmanship continues to surround the military response to 9/11, in particular the war in Iraq and the incessant charge of having “lied” about the infamous WMD stockpiles. Somehow it doesn’t compute that the president and his administration would have played the WMD card with such abandon, all the while knowing full-well they’d come up empty and would eventually be called on the public carpet to stand accused of either lying or incompetence. So I’m inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt and to entertain the possibility they sincerely believed at least a few of these stockpiles would turn up.

Apparently, they were so over-confident they hadn’t even prepared to plant any WMDs to save face in case none were found, nor did they falsely claim to have located and destroyed the non-existing stockpiles. Instead, they simply went, “Oops, no stockpiles!” To me, this rings more like an intelligence screwup than a premeditated WMD deception campaign.

I also never heard anyone in the Bush administration put forth that Saddam Hussein was in any way complicit in the 9/11 attacks. What I did hear was a lot of chatter about Iraq’s supposed menace to the United States dubbed over footage of the burning WTC towers in an apparent attempt to establish a connection in people’s minds without making specific claims, thereby ginning up popular support for the invasion. Of course, the entire advertising industry operates on the principle of creating associations between words and images without explicitly positing causality, a method proven highly effective over the decades in making people buy stuff. Still, I always read the subtext of the Saddam-9/11 linkage thus presented as a warning that Iraq might be behind the next 9/11 rather than having had a hand in the 2001 event. Many others apparently read it as Saddam having knocked down the towers, a testament to the power of the subliminable [sic].

Shock and Awe (2003)Picking up on the theme of racism, a recurring claim advanced by Noam Chomsky and similar thinkers is that the U.S. had little compunction about invading the Middle East because its inhabitants have darker skin and follow a different religion, i.e., they “aren’t like us,” so let’s go kill them. Given that the largest national group in the United States are German-Americans and not so long ago the U.S. bombed Germany into rubble more than any other nation with the possible exception of Laos, the “because they’re not like us” line of argument rests on shaky precedent.

If anything, the miscalculation was to assume that the folks in Iraq and Afghanistan were too much like us in terms of their anticipated eagerness to set aside sectarian differences and embrace American-style democracy the moment their tyrannical regimes were overthrown. It seems that only after the fact did the masterminds of these invasions realize that they were dealing with a very different mindset than they were used to back home. They probably thought they’d receive as warm a welcome in the Middle East as if they’d liberated Oregon from the Mongols. (Or whatever totalitarian rogue regime may have seized power in Oregon.)

So the $64,000 question is, how could the Americans have waltzed into Iraq and Afghanistan the way they did with the expectation that things would pan out as planned? Could it be that the so-called “military-industrial complex” pulled the strings behind the curtains, as big corporations always win irrespective of how a conflict turns out, and the longer the carnage lasts the bigger the profits?

In fairness, the American Revolution—a ragtag militia composed of disgruntled colonialists rising up against the then most powerful empire in the world—was a bit of a long shot as well that could easily have turned out the other way, in which case our revered revolutionaries, to the extent to which they’d be remembered at all, would now be regarded as a bunch of religious lunatics who effected nothing but death and destruction in the quixotic pursuit of an impossible goal. So should we assess Mr. Bush’s military endeavors based on intent or based on outcome? What if the mission had truly been accomplished by the time the Pollyannish banner was hoisted on that aircraft carrier in late 2003?

And what about the legality of the Iraq war?

As goes for the 2000 election, adjudging the matter objectively is no mean feat, especially for the layperson. Once again, it essentially comes down to if you like Bush, the invasion was legal, and if you hate him, it wasn’t. Frankly, I haven’t put much original research time into this, either. From what I understand, preemptive military strikes against sovereign nations violate international law. On the other hand, the moment a party to a ceasefire agreement violates it, the ceasefire is effectively over. So from a legal perspective, the 2003 Iraq invasion could conceivably be viewed as a response to Saddam Hussein having repeatedly violated the ceasefire agreement he had signed in 1991, in which case 2003 was merely a continuation of 1991 rather than a new war, hence the no-preemptive-strike statute wouldn’t apply.

The other day, I watched a lecture by former New York Governor Mario Cuomo about the state of today’s politics, in the course of which he emphatically asserted that the Iraq war was illegal because Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution clearly stated that only Congress had the power to declare war and Congress never declared war on Iraq. That is correct. Unfortunately, the Constitution does not address the constitutionality—or lack thereof—of an undeclared war. Instead, it establishes the president as commander in chief of the armed forces. So what if Congress declared war and the president refused to deploy troops? Would that be an illegal non-war?

Certainly, from a constitutional perspective there’s nothing “clear” about whether the 2003 invasion of Iraq—or any U.S. military action since World War II, the last time Congress issued a formal declaration of war—was legal, plus Congress has been funding the project from the jump, which, in itself, could be regarded as a declaration of war, much like putting items into one’s shopping cart at the supermarket and handing money to the cashier counts as a fairly unequivocal declaration of purchase.

And somehow Mr. Cuomo, in his eagerness to slam Mr. Bush, forgot to mention that the constitutional law professor who heads the Executive Branch right now keeps sending drones into Pakistan sans formal declaration of war on that country.

Finally, Bush supporters argue that after 9/11 the Bush policies “kept us safe” from additional attacks on the homeland for the remainder of his stint in the federal wheelhouse. Of course, prior to 9/11, there hadn’t been any attacks on the homeland for eight years, either, despite the absence of those very Bush policies that supposedly kept us safe. So I don’t know.

In the end, I have no idea how to assess George W. Bush’s presidency. If someone trashes the man, I will speak in his defense. If someone lavishes heaps of praise upon him, I shall offer a countervailing perspective. Frankly, I don’t feel strongly one way or the other.

Psychologists say that we react most violently toward those who harbor qualities we most dislike about ourselves.

Somehow the 43rd president never excited my ire.

I suppose I don’t have a Bush in me.

Oops. Locked.

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  • jenny

    What can I say about Mr. Bush now that you’ve backed me into a psychological corner?

    I know a good Georgian joke (y’know, the Georgia of the Caucasus), but you really need to hear the Georgian accent for it to come off properly. Who do the Austrians tell jokes about? (If it’s the usual suspects, please ignore this question.)

    I notice that you’re a little catty about Rachel Maddow. What would a psychologist say about that?

    My interest in Rachel is purely one of image. I prefer her smart girl looks to the plastic Fox News chicks.

    • Cyberquill

      A psychologist might say that I recognize my own cattiness in Ms. Maddow, a quality which Mr. Bush does not possess. (I am mildly allergic to cats.)

      Not all FNC chicks are plastic, and I doubt that the entire MSNBC distaff is as natural as the 9 PM lady.

      Austrians preferred joke targets are Burgenländer, the inhabitants of Austria’s eastern-most state. Not sure who Burgenländer make fun of. Perhaps they make fun of themselves.

  • Jane

    One thing that still nags my thoughts is that the Unites States asked the United Nations about going to war and then chose not to heed the consensus. Had any other nation done the same the United States would have be up in arms over it.

    Please excuse my simple terms. It’s painfully obvious that I am not a literary being.

    • Cyberquill

      I feel no pain. Your terms look perfectly literary to me.

      The U.S. was going to invade Iraq no matter what anyway for the simple reason to establish another strategic beachhead in the Middle East while public support was strong in the wake of 9/11. It had little to do with weapons of mass destruction, and it certainly didn’t hinge on the U.N.’s approbation, although for cosmetic reasons it would have looked a lot better had they greenlighted the mission, hence the petition by the U.S.

  • Saf

    Being mostly apolitical, and only feebly aware of White House goings-on during the reign of our former Big Cheese, I should warn that my opinions on this matter are likely about as solid as a limp meringue. Naturally, though, my opinion’s lack of constitutional integrity (kek) hasn’t kept me from blithely promulgating it on the internet.

    It always seemed to me (in my foggy, disjointed understanding of things) that the relatively few decisions Bush made on his own (contrary to the advice and/or wishes of his cabinet) were good ones. This has led me to establish a mental profile of him as a would-be/could-be strong leader who was simply malleable to a fault. I’m hesitant to accept the lovably dopey caricature of Bush that I’m constantly bombarded with, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t endearing.

    Also, I think there’s a missing “to” in the “And somehow Mr. Cuomo” paragraph.

    • Saf

      I forgot to mention that, for the reasons above (except for the typo sniping), I was considering reading the book that you began the post by mentioning. Not that adding this really contributes anything to the relevance of my post in relation to the points you made, but it does elevate my General Relevance Score by a point or two.

      • Cyberquill

        I haven’t read the book I suggested myself, but I’m sure it’s an excellent primer on the White House goings-on during the reign of our former Big Cheese, as I hear it consists of short sentences featuring simple verbiage.

        I fixed the missing to. Thanks for the sniping.

        Most people’s political opinions are about as solid as limp meringue, and that usually doesn’t stop them from promulgating them online and off. What distinguishes you from others is your commendable confession to limpitude.

        Mr. Bush’s degree of malleability is difficult to gauge. By turns, the man is being characterized as (a) malleable to a fault and having been run by Cheney & Co, or (b) extremely stubborn and not listening to anybody save the commands of Jesus in his head. Those who worked with/for him generally describe him as the unquestionable leader of the pack. Hard to say without having been a fly on the wall in the Oval.

        Malleability is a damned-if-you-are-and-damned-if-you-ain’t type of quality. It all hinges on whether, in hindsight, the decisions you made turned out to have been the right ones or the wrong ones. In the latter case, you’ll get flayed for the manner in which you made them, whether by caving to advisors or going it alone. In the former case, you’ll be praised either for your open-mindedness or your uncompromising resolution respectively.

        • Saf

          If I ever get around to reading it (re: If I ever manage to chew through the eighteen pounds of Norman Mailer novels I picked up at a used book sale), I’ll be sure to afford you a brief, vapid synopsis. It sounds like reducing the book’s content to its simplest, most easily-digested form shouldn’t be too much of a mental pole-vault.

          Yes, I realize that you have not expressed any interest, implicit or otherwise, in receiving a vapid (or otherwise) synopsis from me or anyone. In the case that you’d really rather not have one, just consider it more of a threat than an offer. 😉

          • Cyberquill

            I added an open comment section to my blog, and I’m not paying by the square inch of space taken up by unsolicited synopses. What are you going to threaten me with next? Posting a link to this post on your Facebook page?

            • Saf

              Well now I feel sheepish and deflated (I’m sure there’s an inflatable sheep joke in here somewhere). I was certain that you’d be quivering with dread by now.

              I could threaten to post a link to this on my Facebook page, but I’m not certain that my four(ish? Maybe three) “friends” aren’t too busy mentally high-fiving themselves for their soporifically jejune status updates. Lack of market penetration would make such a threat less-than-effective in this bizarro-world threat game we’re playing (or, more accurately — game that I’m playing in reaction to your snarkish raillery).

  • DallasWriter

    Cyberquill, I love your columns and find you personally to be brilliant.

    With that untidy bootlicking out of the way, I must disagree with a couple of your suppositions. (The Socratic line of structuring the whole thing, though, impresses me as usual.)

    While I agree that conservatives would have shrilly objected to a reversal of fortune in the 2000 election, I disagree that the general objection would have been that it was “unfair.” Generally speaking, those who support conservative ideals generally support the thinking behind the electoral college.

    Actually, it seems to me that the very reversal itself would be almost impossible; the large urban areas tend to be overwhelmingly Democratic, so I’m not sure how a Republican could get the popular vote but not the electoral vote.

    Secondly, it is patently false that “the same folks who are suddenly so very outraged over big government spending didn’t seem to have much of a problem with Bush the Caucasian splurging like a drunken marine…”. The President’s approval ratings were down (no doubt for many reasons), but most conservatives I knew personally DID indeed strongly dislike his spending policies. I believe that liberals who disliked Bush chiefly did so because of Iraq (perhaps among other things), and that conservatives chiefly did so because of his spending policies, also perhaps among other things.

    Although this comment is long, my points are minor semantic quibbling points. I’m a great fan of your work and enjoy the thought you put into it. Even if you won’t spend weeks researching Florida election law.

    • Cyberquill

      In stating that “the same folks who are suddenly so very outraged over big government spending didn’t seem to have much of a problem with Bush the Caucasian splurging like a drunken marine,” I was merely citing a rationale frequently put forth by those who claim that opposition to Obama must be racially driven. In fact, I prefaced the statement as a “misbegotten observation.”

      In a hypothetical 2000 reversal of fortunes—however almost impossible such a reversal may have been given the democratic preponderance in large urban areas—Republicans would not have complained about the electoral college itself being unfair, but they’d certainly have found arguments to paint the election as stolen and illegitimate, such as claiming that perfectly valid votes for Bush had been nefariously discarded, military votes not counted, etc. Most of all, they’d have flipped their wigs over the U.S. Supreme Court overturning a state supreme court decision.

      So I’m brilliant, and you’re a great fan of my work? Have you been drinking again?

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