George W. Bush: It’s Not About How Smart He Was

The discussion of George W. Bush’s intelligence, or lack thereof, continues. My position on this, as I’ve said many times, is that I’ve heard him speak on baseball and he sounded sharp enough; I attributed the evidence of his presidency not as a lack of innate intelligence, but as a consequence of his lack of interest in the world of public affairs and policy.

Two new contributions worth looking at. Kevin Drum looks at Keith Hennessey’s anecdotes intended to show Bush’s smarts and sees, instead, impatience and lack of interest in details. And Ed Kilgore wants to blame GOP orthodoxy, and not Bush at all, for the policies Bush adopted and urged.

I think it’s probably correct to say that Bush arrived at the policies he supported because they conformed to conservative ideology, or at least GOP orthodoxy, of the time. However, that’s not good enough. All presidents are driven by what their party wants, and part of being a good president is finding ways to keep party actors happy. Even if it means supporting unpopular policies, in some cases.

But presidents also need to know when to resist the party when the party wants something that won’t work — for the sake of the party, among other reasons, even though many party actors won’t accept that.

And even more critically, presidents have to resist the temptation to accept party ideas as invariably correct — and then the temptation to try to do the right thing. Generally, presidents are asking for trouble when they try to do whatever they believe is, in the abstract, the “right thing.” That’s true if it’s “right” for ideological reasons, as with (perhaps) Bush; it’s true if it’s “right” based on the president’s moral intuition, as was the case with Jimmy Carter or Woodrow Wilson.

Presidents do not have any special claim to superior moral intuition, no matter what Carter or George W. Bush seem to believe. Nor do they have any special ability to channel the beliefs of “the people,” as Wilson believed. When they attempt to do so — when they attempt to base policy choices on their principles — they are apt to get it all wrong, because there’s no institutional reason that they should get it right. We might as well select our presidents by lot.

What presidents do have — and all elected officials have it, but presidents have more of it than anyone else in the system — is access to the very best clues about what policies will be “viable” (in Neustadt’s term). They have access to more, and more varied, information sources than anyone else. What’s more, because their constituency is so large, they have access to the reactions of more, and more varied, organized groups than anyone else.Those reactions are often even better sources of information than the raw policy data that experts might give them (although to be sure the reactions of experts are an excellent source of information.

Good presidenting, perhaps more than anything else, is the art of extracting information from political action and actors. What does it mean when this general says that an occupation will take more troops than his bosses at the Defense Department say it will take? What does it mean when this DoD official (representing what faction? How?) disagrees? What does it mean when this ally objects to the course the United States is taking; what does it man when that ally goes along? How much weight to give private statements, and how much to give public? When is the support or opposition being given for a policy pro forma, and when is it sincere and intense? And what is that intense support or opposition really saying about the policy?

There are no magic formulas to answer those questions. It takes excellent governing skills: the ability to assess people and situations, deep knowledge of the political system and groups within it, a full sense of representational relationships. Some detailed policy knowledge can’t hurt, although no president will have enough to substitute for those more general skills, and policy knowledge can even get in the way — a determination to always do what’s “right” can be just (almost?) as much of a problem if it’s based on the president’s personal policy expertise as it is if it’s based on ideological principles or gut feelings.

So, yes, I do think it’s true of all presidents that they are heavily influence by their party’s positions, and that’s as it should be. But presidents also must know when to push back against their party’s positions (or ignore them, or give lip service support to them).

The difference, really, between Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush is that Reagan — who surely was as much of an ideologue in some ways as Bush — was at his best pretty good at seeing danger and avoiding it. George W. Bush? Spectacularly bad about seeing danger coming and avoiding it. That’s not because Reagan (or other, even better presidents) had better “principles” or ideology or guts — it’s because they were excellent politicians. George W. Bush, alas, was a terrible politician, and a terrible president.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.