Smarts and Ideology

In the wake of the “reevaluation of George W. Bush” that’s capturing a rather ridiculous amount of attention this week, the sub-issue of the 43d president’s intelligence is being re-examined as well. I’m with Ezra Klein on this one: it’s entirely irrelevant to the question of whether he was a good president:

Bush was smart. Plenty of the people around him were smart. But he was a bad president. Presidential scholars rank him 38th — and, remember, there have only been 43 presidents (Barack Obama is the 44th, but his term isn’t up yet). He left office with dismal approval ratings, though he’s since rebounded from unbelievably unpopular to merely unpopular.

No industry on earth had the IQ-scores-per-capita of the financial industry in 2007. And we saw how that turned out. To see Bush’s failures — or Wall Street’s failures — as a failure of insufficient intelligence is comforting, but very wrong. These are stories about how smart people can lead themselves and others down the wrong paths. To a large degree, they wouldn’t be able to do it if they weren’t smart, but that just proves that not all mistakes are dumb, and that being smart isn’t the same thing as being wise, right or capable.

True, but let’s look at this from a somewhat different direction: how many of the decisions made by Bush that made him a bad president were the result of actual rational judgments, and how many represented the standard conservative ideology that conquered the GOP shortly before he became president and lifted him to the GOP nomination in 2000?

His 2001 tax cut offensive, which had all sorts of baleful long-term effects on the federal budget, the economy, and the well-being of Americans, was an entirely ideological project. Yes, whoever came up with the idea of selling this long-standing GOP package as a “rebate” to taxpayers who had been “overcharged” because the budget was momentarily in balance was pretty slick. But the basic decision was baked right into the cake from the moment he took office on the wings of a Supreme Court intervention.

His initial response to 9/11, and his rapid shift from a “humble” foreign policy stance to a Heavily Armed Avenger was predictable ideologically as well: conservatives didn’t have issues with international military interventions, but only with Clinton’s (as later with Obama’s) international military interventions. As for the economy, Bush’s agenda of steady deregulation of the financial industry (building on the bipartisan lurch in this direction under Clinton) and of industry generally, and his gutting of labor-law enforcement, were as predictable as you can get; any Republican with any IQ level (with the arguable exception of Ron Paul, who would have found even worse things to do) would have done exactly the same things. Similarly, his occasional attacks on the entitlement status of Medicaid, and his post-2004 Social Security privatization initiative, were revivals of moldy-oldy conservative initiatives tried before and since. His Imperial Presidency efforts tracked those of his Republican White House predecessors almost exactly.

Bush did try something marginally different in endorsing his “brain’s” (i.e., Karl Rove’s) meta-political strategy of combining a visceral appeal to conservative base voters with a highly targeted swing voter outreach effort based on No Child Left Behind, the Medicare Rx drug benefit, and immigration reform. It was actually not that different than a lot of the things Richard Nixon–whose intelligence no one doubted–tried in order to expand the GOP in his day. But while it didn’t much work, and helped gradually alienate conservatives from him and his legacy, it had relatively little to do with his second-term low approval ratings or other tokens of his “failure.” You could, I suppose, attribute his disastrous handling of Katrina to stupidity, though again, no one should discount ideology as a factor in the habit of loading up low-priority agencies like FEMA with political hacks or the impulse to resist federal assistance to a city full of those people.

That leaves the big War of Choice, Iraq. Lord knows Bush and his team exhibited a remarkably toxic combination of arrogance and short-sightedness in initiating and executing that war. But having yoked his party and his presidency to a political message of standing for moral certainty and security, not to mention anti-elitist contempt for treaties and non-military collective security measures, there’s no question Iraq became an ideological crusade for conservatives that persisted long after most “liberal hawks” and “realists” had turned against the ongoing disaster.

The bottom line is that Bush’s IQ level probably had very little to do with the course of his presidency, and had a much smaller effect than the ideology he shared with other Republicans. Given how much effort conservatives have made to disassociate themselves from Bush, and to exonerate their ideology from blame for his record, you’d think they would be the ones eager to label him as being dumb as dirt. But I guess they find it easier to blame his last name.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.