February 10, 2006
Rebel-in-Chief: The Legacy of George W. Bush

By John McIntyre

The conventional wisdom about President Bush has been so ingrained in the press for so long, the idea that he could be a President as consequential and important as FDR or Ronald Reagan is utterly ridiculed in most media circles. Richard Nixon or Jimmy Carter, perhaps. But the idea that Bush could be one of the nation’s boldest and most forward thinking Presidents is openly laughed at as absurd. In his new book, Rebel-in-Chief, Fred Barnes doesn’t necessarily argue that Bush will be remembered as a great president, but he does lay out the argument that unlike Bush’s father and Bill Clinton, George W. Bush is a “president of consequence.”

Rebel-in-Chief is a quick and snappy read that provides excellent insight into the president’s passion and vision. Political junkies will thoroughly enjoy the book, though people looking for criticism of the President are sure to be disappointed as there isn’t a lot to be found. Those who don’t like the President will find the book ridiculous and think that Barnes has been drinking the Bush kool-aid way too long. Isaac Chotiner in the latest Washington Monthly calls Barnes the “perfect Bush hack” while Slate’s John Dickerson describe the book as “maddeningly superficial.”

However, on the book’s central premise - that Bush is a bold and consequential leader -I’m not so sure that Barnes isn’t fairly close to the mark. George W. Bush has continually been “misunderestimated” since he first ran for Texas governor in 1994. It has always been fashionable in elite liberal circles to look down and snicker at “Shrub” as a mental midget, an incompetent, a Daddy’s boy born with a silver spoon in his mouth, etc, but you wonder at what point the critics might take a step back and consider that maybe, just maybe, they have gotten it wrong on the 43rd President.

There was a brief flurry of this type of retrospection after the first Iraqi election in January 2005. Some critics actually began to consider the possibility that Bush might have been right about invading Iraq. As 2005 progressed, however, those charitable thoughts vanished along with Bush’s hopes of reforming Social Security and a steadily declining job approval rating thanks to Hurricane Katrina and Harriet Miers.

But today’s 24/7 news culture and the daily obsession with the ups and downs in the polls promotes a tendency to miss the bigger picture. Job approval numbers have their value in political analysis, but they aren’t really the best way to measure the long-term success of a Presidency. Bill Clinton left office with an approval in the 60’s, while Harry Truman exited universally disliked with an approval in the 20’s. A President’s place in history is not dictated by the job approval rating he holds on his last day in office.

In Rebel-in-Chief, Barnes lays out Bush’s vision of democracy as an antidote to terror and an “ownership society” at home, and why the conventional wisdom on Bush might be wrong.

Accepting the strictures of Washington brings admiration and respect now but nothing later – no serious change, no rerouting of the course of history, no breakthroughs that improve the lives everywhere…His focus on giving Americans more power over their own lives and wealth and changing the way the world I governed. It’s a revolutionary vision that may exceed Bush’s power to achieve it. But if he fails, it won’t be because he fell victim to the blandishments of Washington.

On the domestic front, the “ownership society” that Barnes speaks of as part of the Bush legacy is clearly in doubt as there appears little chance that anything of consequence will be done to reform Social Security. It doesn’t matter that the status quo on Social Security can be blamed on the Democrats and weak-kneed Republicans, the bottom line is consequential leaders find a way to get things done. History isn’t shaped by good intentions or close calls, it is shaped by results. That’s one reason that on the goal to push the federal judiciary to the right (which will impact the efforts towards an “ownership society” in the future) Bush’s legacy is secure and will be felt for decades to come.

Obviously, Bush’s real legacy will be determined by the Bush Doctrine and the outcome in Iraq. Barnes’ contention that Bush is a bold and visionary leader of consequence will ultimately be tested by the results of his foreign policy. There is no question that the Bush Doctrine post-9/11 has thoroughly changed the political dynamic in the Middle East and foreign relations everywhere, but only time will tell whether these changes of the last four years have put America and the world on a path to a better, freer and safer society or whether they will become the disaster Bush’s critics contend.

John McIntyre is the co-founder of RealClearPolitics.

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