He's So Bad, He Might Be Perfect

Under an odd logic, Bush deserves another term. Shouldn't he suffer for his blunders?

Jonathan Chait

Los angeles Times

October 9, 2004

An editor at the paper suggested that I use this week's column to try to make the most honest and persuasive case I could for President Bush's reelection. At first I was skeptical. To say that I consider Bush a "bad" president would be a severe understatement. I think he's bad in a way that redefines my understanding of the word "bad." I used to think U.S. history had many bad presidents. Now, my "bad" category consists entirely of George W. Bush, with every previous president redefined as "good." There's also the fact that, on a personal level, I despise him with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns. What I'm saying is, advocating Bush is kind of tricky.

But then I thought, what the heck. Why not try it for the sake of intellectual experimentation? After all, lawyers often defend some pretty repugnant clients, right? In keeping with that, I won't attempt to deny that my client has done some awful things. What I'll argue instead is that his very awfulness is the reason he deserves reelection.
Begin with the premise that a second-term Bush administration is unlikely to make things a whole lot worse. First of all, domestically, GOP moderates and deficit hawks have finally begun to wake up and realize that they have to rein in Bush's reckless fiscal policies. At the same time, if John F. Kerry is elected and tries to raise taxes or rein in spending, he'll probably suffer substantial political damage, as Bill Clinton did in 1994. But, unlike Clinton, he'll not enjoy Democratic majorities in both Houses, which means he stands a good chance of failing. That would be the worst of all worlds: Democrats would suffer the political costs of demanding sacrifice from the public, without the corresponding benefit of making the country better.

Former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker has estimated that there's a 75% chance of a major financial crisis within the next five years if we don't reduce our budget deficit. That may be too high, but assume he's right. Whoever holds office would quickl y become extremely unpopular, whether he had tried to deal with the deficit or not. If the choice is Bush doing nothing versus Kerry doing nothing, why not let Bush take the blame for his own mess? Why have a Democrat bail him out?

The foreign policy calculus is pretty similar. We don't have enough troops to fight the war we're in, let alone start another one. So there's no reason to fear Bush botching yet another war. And, as much as I desperately want to be wrong about this, the odds of Iraq evolving into a stable democracy look pretty grim right now. If such a scenario ever had any chance of succeeding, it would have required lots more ground troops to keep the peace and allow reconstruction. Now it's probably too late to do anything but salvage something short of total anarchy. If Kerry is president, conservatives will blame him for the failure in Iraq — if only we still had a leader of Bush's unwavering resolve, they'll claim, we would have won the war. If Bush is president, he'll be held a ccountable for his own bungling of the invasion.

That leaves the usual trump card — social policy. Plenty of my fellow liberals freak out at the thought of Bush appointing two or more Supreme Court justices. But maybe he deserves that too. Hear me out. Right now, Republicans get the best of both worlds. They get tens of millions of social conservatives marching to the polls to vote for them every two years but, because key points of the social-conservative agenda never gets enacted, they suffer hardly any political consequences for their positions.

Now, suppose Bush does appoint a couple justices. Maybe they will overturn Roe vs. Wade. If Roe falls, presumably states would decide how to deal with the abortion issue, and a reinvigorated pro-choice, center-left majority would be able to protect abortion rights in most places. In fact, the fear of a backlash would probably cause Bush's justices to chicken out and uphold Roe anyway. Then how would Republicans persuade social conservatives to keep supporting them?

Bush's presidency is a great mass of contradictions. There's an enormous gap between his purported values — fiscal discipline, toughness against terrorists, a commitment to social conservatism — and his true record. Sure, it would be emotionally satisfying to see Bush rejected by the voters once again. But maybe, for this president, defeat is too kind a fate.