Column: Why Bush Is Now an Embarrassment Even to the Right

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Mr. Carpenter is a historian and syndicated columnist.

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Tony Blankley appeared on MSNBC's "Hardball" the other night, looking a bit ashen. As a panel member discussing the president's grave and gathering problems, the former Newt Gingrich evangelist and current Reverend Moon spokesman volunteered that even Republican support for George W is beginning to slip. This is bad, in his view. I'd like to relate Mr. Blankley's complete personal take on W's falling numbers, but, it being "Hardball," Chris Mouthews was there to interrupt and talk over the guest. So I can't relate much with certainty.

Yet I have little doubt that Blankley and fellow conservatives would be in private agreement in identifying specific causes of W's decline and the relative harm each is doing. There's Iraq, of course, probably this nation's greatest foreign policy blunder ever. When you factor in the blunder's increasingly apparent intentionality, mere blundering then transmogrifies into the criminal. That sort of behavior doesn't make for gangbuster approval ratings, even among one's base.

But even that is just the tip of the political iceberg this White House first created, then rammed. There's also the colossal deficit Mr. Bush labored so hard to produce, something which the Democratic Party's finest wastrels could not have done a better job at. Principled conservatives are seething. There's the colossally clumsy way in which the White House mismanaged the National Guard story. There was the president's colossally bungled introduction of revamped immigration policy, a package with a little something to alienate nearly everyone. There were the colossal bombs of the State of the Union speech and "Meet the Press" appearance. And most recently there was the White House's backtracking on its colossally imbecilic promise of 2.6 million new jobs by year's end, preceded by numerous other colossally stupid promises of miraculous job growth.

Move over, Howard Dean. Piece by piece the Bush administration is self-cannibalizing, offering future administrations a detailed tutorial on political implosion. Each week brings another misstep, another miscalculation, another boneheaded move.

Yet there may be more in play than the sum of individual missteps and riddled credibility. There may also be a growing kind of gestalt thing happening at the White House in which the systematic correction of specific missteps will have little positive effect. What I suspect Tony Blankley was thinking during his "Hardball" appearance, and might have come close to uttering had the host permitted elaboration, is that for conservatives, quite simply, George W Bush is becoming an embarrassment.

Once that emotion takes root among the base, there isn't much a president can do in the way of lancing it. In fact, the more conscious steps Bush takes to overcome the embarrassment he's inflicted on himself and his party, the more self-conscious the process seems and the more obvious the embarrassment's original cause becomes. Again, I reference the National Guard fiasco.

The effect is political quicksand: The harder Bush struggles to free himself, the deeper he'll sink. The Tony Blankleys of the Republican Party likely are sinking into a daunting realization as well. They're stuck and they feel it. They had a winner who could do no wrong; now they have a guy who realistically cannot do anything right.

In addition, there's a growing and resentful feeling of guilt by association among hardcore conservatives. Democratic politicians and the docile press were long intimidated by a popular commander in chief shielded from attack by misinformed patriotism. For reasons well known, they now feel liberated from that political anaconda, liberated enough to denounce with seeming impunity the president's -- which is to say, the right's -- radical agenda. Once the right's top cheerleader became an embarrassment, its message began to suffer, too. The right is not amused, and it's starting to show in the polls.

Like an unsupervised child, George W Bush was unmindful of his limitations and surroundings. He got carried away at playtime. For three years there were no adults around willing to issue the inevitable warning: "Somebody's going to get hurt." Somebody did, and Tony Blankley knows who. It's all so embarrassing.

© Copyright 2004 P. M. Carpenter

Mr. Carpenter's column is published weekly by History News Network and

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More Comments:

john simmons - 3/10/2004

Adam Moshe: I like your comments; in general they are well thought-out and articulated.

I did want to point out something you might want to research, however. You stated:
"This is why Republican candidates can afford to take such radical right-wing positions that are very unpopular with much of the country"

Poll Joe American and you will see that he is actually pretty conservative. I know it doesn't seem that way when you look on HNN or internet blogs, but it's true. Consider the 2000 election: Gore, as conservative a democrate as you can reasonably get nominated for president, got exactly the same amount of votes as Bush. I think that in the 2004 election, Kerry will play the role of McGovern, because for better or for worse, the country on average does not hold strong liberal views.

john simmons - 3/10/2004

I respectfully disagree. I think Bush is the perfect man for the job.

You are correct in that he is unpolished and not the master conversationalist. But those are qualities I look for when selecting a debate team captain, or when the world is so stable that all we require of our president is the ability to speak clearly and argue like a well-trained lawyer.

I wish that they were, but these are not the conditions of today. In a post 9-11 world that is rife with terrorism, the ability of the president to speak clearly is insignificant when compared to his ability to act clearly. Bush saw a threat - a threat that has been detailed and attacked by the two previous presidents, and witnessed too many times to count - and acted in America's interests. While one might prefer the president who spent four years debating the fine points of CIA intelligence and UN Security Council etiquette, I prefer the president who took the action that 87% of America wanted him to take.

We can argue about flawed intelligence, and it is a valid argument, but ask yourself this: would you rather have Iraq as it is now, fledgling free and rid of Saddam, or as it was, a land of torture and oppression headed by a man who has used internationally illegal weapons in the past, and who had a strong vendetta against the US? In many things, I am a means man, but in the security of our country, and the world, I am an ends man, and I choose the latter scenario every time.

john simmons - 3/10/2004

Iraq is certainly not our greatest blunder; I think it will turn out positive in time. We can argue about the motivations for going to Iraq (and there are good arguments against it, both prior and in hindsight), but lets stick to the conflict itself and the potential ramifications.

The Iraq war was the most precise war ever fought on the history of the planet, with the most carefully planned and accurately executed avoidance of civilian casualties ever seen. Everyone predicted a bloodbath to take Baghdad, but it was taken with little more than a whimper. Certainly there were civilian lives lost, and I grieve for that, but it stands in stark comparison to any conflict prior.

For every US military casualty, my heart wrenches. But if we look at it in terms of numbers, this is the most cost-effective campaign in the history of the world. 30,000 were predicted to die in the siege of Baghdad; to date less than 2000 have died in all. In most wars, that's the price of taking a small beach.

Iraq is a mess right now, and will continue to be for the near future; this is the case with every newly freed country. But consider the likely outcome in Iraq. There is hope that a Western-style democracy will take root; I think that is wishful thinking. But it is realistic to believe that a fairly honest, elected, nonterrorist government will take hold in the country. That will be a first for Iraq, and while it may not become the world's beacon for democracy, a peaceful and free Iraq will certainly cease to become a beacon for terrorists. That can only be beneficial.

Consider Germany and Japan, post-WWII. We used military might to utterly destroy both countries, then rebuilt them from the ground up. Today they are among the wealthiest, most peaceful, and prosperous countries on the planet. But if we held this discussion immediately after the regime change in 1946, we might be inclined to say that neither would ever improve. How soon we forget what a powerful force freedom is.

The most telling sign of the power of freedom was when the Eastern European countries sided with the US when it appealed to the UN for support on the invasion of Iraq. Despite French President Chirac's labelling of them as infantile for not going along with the European superpowers in denouncing the US, the countries all strongly supported our actions. Their reason is simple; the taste of liberty is still fresh on their lips - they know what it was like to live under Russian tyranny - and they wanted liberation for the Iraqis. The same is true for the Iraqi-American celebrations held in the Great Lakes area after the capture of Saddam; they know better than we do that what we are doing is right. Twenty-five years from now, the world will look back on this and say "George Bush. Now that was one dumb, arrogant, stubborn song of a bitch. He invaded Iraq and the world criticized him. I didn't support him then, but now that Iraq is peaceful, and democracy is spreading in the Middle East, it's hard to admit, but I'm glad he did it."

john simmons - 3/10/2004

"This man and amany of his staff are psychopaths. Together, they have done far greater harm this nation than Al Quida."

Ken Melvin:

Everyone is entitled to their opinions, and I welcome them all. That said, some opinions are so far off that they destroy any credibility the speaker may have in the future. If you opened your statement with "The world is flat," your opinion would be discarded and we could move on to someone else's. Your above statement is akin to saying the world is flat.

Personal feelings aside, the facts of your statement are incorrect. Bush and his staff are not psychopaths; I hope you know this to be true. It is fair to call them insensitive, unintelligent, arrogant, etc, but psychopath is blatantly wrong. You lost all hope of having your point reach someone when you used gross hyperbole.

Bush and his staff did not bomb the World Trade Center and kill over 2000 people; Al-Qaeda did. I assume your point was that Bush is dangerous to America, but that point was dissolve by a second erroneous statement.

Either you employ a very juvenile method of arguing - which will never allow anyone to see your opinion, or (more likely) you are a Bush supporter masquerading as a juvenile leftist.

David C Battle - 3/1/2004

>>>"Actually David, the fact is that Republicans are going to support Bush DESPITE the fact that he is not conservative enough, not BECAUSE of it..."

I guess you haven't been speaking to the Republicans I've been hearing from. Or just turn on your radio and listen to the callers.

But yes, his base will mostly support Bush because the alternative is a liberal Democrat.

Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 3/1/2004

Actually David, the fact is that Republicans are going to support Bush DESPITE the fact that he is not conservative enough, not BECAUSE of it... which is precisely what I wrote. This allows Bush to take right-wing positions on certain issues (gay marriage in this case) in order to appease his base and leaves him open to pursuing issues that Democrats would get hammered by both parties for! We will not know until November whether or not Bush is loosing his base, but I speculate that his base will support him regardless (certainly if Republican talk radio is any indication).

In interpreting my post, you, my friend, don't know what you are talking about.

David C Battle - 3/1/2004

Far from being "radical right-wing", Bush isn't conservative enough for us. That's why he's losing his base, and thus his little gesture to protect traditional marriage.

So basically, you don't know what you're talking about.

Johnny Ramburg - 2/28/2004

Weighing Iraq and Vietnam in terms of, uh, debaclehood, is little dificult right now. Vietnam, at first glance, seems by far the worse of the two: 50,000 Americans killed, billions of dollars wasted, and racist disregard for the value of Vietnamese life that resulted in 3,000,000 deaths. Add that to the Archie Bunkerization of blue-collar America as a voting bloc and you have, by any reasonable account, an unmitigated disaster.

Iraq on the other hand is a conflict of undeterminable length and cost right now. The resources squandered could have obviously been put to better use at home or abroad to fight less imaginary threats to U.S. security. In addition, the U.S. has angered the rest of the world, nations whose help we need in the fight against terrorists and nuclear proliferation. There is the possibilty that the Iraqi quagmire could be much worse than Vietnam for us in the long run.

Rick Freedman - 2/28/2004

Livingston is a prime example of a favorite debating trick used by the right, and perfected by the Limbaugh brigades. They make simplistic assertions based on a rudimentary understanding of history, politics, and foreign cultures, and then when challenged by anyone who actually knows something about that topic, calls them a "pointy headed academic" or some such formulation. It works well in their circles, as it allows grade-school dropouts and professional know-nothings to believe that their opinions are not only as good as, but actually better, than the opinions of experts who've spent their lives studying the topic at hand. During the 2000 presidnetial election, I used to joke that Bush's tag-line should have been "knowing stuff is over-rated". We've seen where that got us.

Of course, I wonder how many of these anti-intellectuals will be denigrating the value of academics when it comes to, say, medicine or dentistry? How many of them will be going to their local bar and getting any old Bud-drinker to perform their next cardian bypass? How many will be asking that nice gal down the street to do some root-canal for them? The anti-science, anti-knowledge, and-expertise stance that conservatives of the talk-show variety love to espouse is really just a squirmy way of saying that only their pre-existing prejudices and supersitions have merit. "Don't confuse me with the facts." As H.L. Mencken famously noted "Every complex problem has a simple solution. And it is wrong."

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Rick Freedman - 2/28/2004

The squirming of Tony Blankley isn't the only sign that the right is disintegrating under the opportunistic leadership of Bush - both Pat Buchanan and Deroy Murdock of the National Review have in the last few days written scathing articles regarding Bush's looming deficits and Iraq disaster.

For a detailed analysis of this phenomenon, see the essay "The Splintering of the Right", at:

Johnny Ramburg - 2/28/2004

I always love arguments that basically state "People who make it their life's work to study the world don't know anything about the world." Imagine the same logic being used to criticize, say, astrophysicists and their knowledge of astrophysics.

Johnny Ramburg - 2/28/2004

While "pschopath" might be a clinically incorrect term, these far-right christian activist judges really are dangerous to a democracy with any kind of commitment to pluralism.

There are sensible conservatives that we can disagree with (like the writers and editors of The Economist for example) and then there are these extremist elements in American conservatism that realy have no analog in the industrialized world (in terms of their numbers, extremism, and influence).

Daniel J. Johnson - 2/27/2004

I'd just like to add my voice to the chorus. Before I recieved my Ph.D. and started teaching I spent several years in the private sector, working first for a Chamber of Commerce and then for a publishing company. I put myself through graduate school working three or four jobs at a time. In the classroom I have constant contact with students who are in the "real" world -- I talk to them about their jobs and their lives, their fears and aspirations. I teach students who are in the military, middle-class executives, blue-collar workers -- you name it. The charge that I am out of touch with the "real" world simply because I have a degree and I teach history is fundamentally absurd. Perhaps there are some academics who match this profile, but I'd wager they are not even close to the majority in the profession.

Brandt Driscoll - 2/26/2004

I doubt if Nader will garner the votes needed to move the democrats into a more progressive direction. The democrats feel they are entitled to the left vote simply because they are moderately more liberal.

I agree with your assessment of Carpenter's hyperbole on Iraq as our greatest blunder, but given the potentiality of WMD being used or even encouraged as a result of this adventure, he could tragically turn out to be right.

I have no problems with his style--he is concise and to the point.

Carl Roesler - 2/26/2004

I don't think Iraq is our greatest foreign policy blunder. Do you really believe it exceeds Vietnam in terms of its impact on America and the world?

You are correct that some conservatives are disheartened with the deficit, the drug benefit, if one can call it that, for Medicare recipients and even some demur from a constitutional amendment banning womyn taking wives.

Yet I think its impact on America's electoral politics will be minimised by the fact there is no Nader on the right to siphon off votes. Hence, the right will stay home, the left has no home and Nader will hopefully remain an ethical alternative for both imperial minded parties.

Your writing is a little too breezy and informal at times but I believe your articles lend insights to the political realities of our time and are on the whole effective.

Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 2/25/2004

In truth, I have always admired Republicans ability to rally behind their party when the going gets tough. This is why Republican candidates can afford to take such radical right-wing positions that are very unpopular with much of the country; because those candidates know that their base will support them (this was not true with George Bush Sr. only because his policies represented the antiquated ideology of the pre-Reagan Republican party… in other words, he was not conservative ENOUGH). As a Democrat, this is a strength I admire.

My party, I am sad to say, often cares more about being right then about winning elections, leading to low turnout, divided loyalties, and third party siphons. As a result, Democratic candidates must look to independents and conservative Democrats or risk hanging on to an unreliable base. All this served to do is push the party further and farther to the Right, as Kerry will try to do in the General election (take my word for it). Let us all be honest, Bill Clinton was probably the most conservative Democratic president in the post WWII era. But if he lacked conviction and was afraid to take any chances, it was only because he had to operate without the support of Congressional Democrats, who regularly left him out to dry. Perhaps if Democrats could unite around their party more often, it would push the party more to the Left. I am sympathetic to Republicans who are dissatisfied with Bush. It is likely however, that they will stay loyal.

Far from being a sign of blind devotion, this loyalty is the mark of strategic party discipline and has managed, in time, to push the Republican party farther to the Right, where its core supporters want it. This is not something the Left should choose to scorn. It is something the Left should choose to emulate.

David C Battle - 2/25/2004

Both sides will hold their noses when going to the voting booths--as usual.

Ben H. Severance - 2/25/2004

Bush has indeed performed badly as president. He turned one of this nation's rare surpluses into a huge deficit. He turned a commendable war on terror into a unilateral form of Yankee imperialism. And he has made numerous misteps on social issues, most notably his ludicrous call for an anti-gay amendment.

But despite his demonstrated mediocrity, Republicans will still rally behind him in November, and for one simple reason--John Kerry. Kerry represents everything that is anathama to the Republican Party, and it is probable that he will be the Democratic candidate. Had the Democrats backed Clark, or if Edwards somehow wins out in the primaries, then a Bush re-election is uncertain. Disaffected moderate Republicans could tolerate a Clark presidency (even an Edwards), and therefore might have broken ranks in '04 just like many Democrats did in '84. But they will never tolerate Kerry and will thus stand by their infantile chief executive.

David T. Courtwright - 2/25/2004

Republicans I've spoken to are indeed embarrassed by Bush's performance. (At least they'll say so after a glass or two of wine.) Asked which Democratic ticket he most feared, one former Florida county chairman said, without hestitation, "Kerry/Edwards." He dreaded the TV debate. I told him it might be worse if the order of the ticket was reversed.

Bush's most basic problem, as a professional politician, is that he is painfully inarticulate. That didn't matter much in the days of boss politics. It matters a lot now. Even when I agree with what he's saying (e.g., let's do something about the steroid scandal in professional sports), I wince when I hear him stumble over his lines. I think: this guy's in the wrong line of work.

Carpenter's column reminded me that I felt the same way about Carter in the late 1970s. Carter was another terrible public speaker. He got caught in the same late-term political death spiral of bad luck and bad policies, couldn't explain his way out of it, and then wound up facing the "great communicator" in the election. Result, he was out of the White House--possibly the best thing that ever happened to the man, given his subsequent reinvention.

Kevin M Gannon - 2/24/2004

Mr. Livingston:

Three points for your consideration:

1. Who taught you? If you have children, who taught them? I'm going to assume that teachers did--probably grossly overworked and underpaid teachers, whom you still expected to do a competent job, and they most likely did at least that. Now--who taught those teachers and enabled them to do that job? Academics.

2. Do you mean going into debt to further your education, working hard for a difficult goal, and then moving into an entry-level position that can pay as little as $23,000 isn't being part of the real world?

3. I'm an ex-Marine, a mechanic, and a PhD in history. Don't tell me that I don't know about the real world, or that I'm cloistered in some "ivory tower." Your narrow opinions, baseless accusations, and essentially childish rantings suggest the shoe might be on the other foot.

If this strong language offends you (or anyone else), I apologize--but disagreement with your politics does not constitute an immature disposition or ignorance of the real world. Frankly, sir, I don't know whether I'm more offended by your ranting or embarassed for you posting it in public.

But you've probably stopped reading by now anyway, since I--a lowly academic--have dared to contradict your assertions.


David C Battle - 2/24/2004

Now more that ever he panders to evangelical psychopaths, appoints like nutcases to our high courts, and seeks to close off dissenting voices.

You accuse Bush of "meaness" and of closing off dissent, while at the same time you refer to those whose opinions differ from yours as "nutcases" and "psychopaths".

Classic Leftist Orwellianism if I ever saw it.

David C Battle - 2/24/2004

Now more that ever he panders to evangelical psychopaths, appoints like nutcases to our high courts, and seeks to close off dissenting voices.

You accuse Bush of "meaness" and of closing off dissent while at the same time you refer to those whose opinions differ from yours as "nutcases" and "psychopaths".

Classic Leftist Orwellianism if I ever saw it.

Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 2/24/2004

Mr. Livingston,
Your gross generalizations of academia suffer from the same lack of knowledge you accuse them of having. I could point out how many academics I know personally who served in the military, or came from the private sector before going back to school, or come from underprivileged families. I could also point out how many of the top leadership positions in this country (including, but not limited to, the National Security Advisor, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, and many more) come directly from academia (this is to say nothing of military soldiers throughout history who have held advanced degrees).

However, those observations would be useless. Clearly, you are too detached from the field to know what people in academia are like or where they come from (I wonder if you hold the same misconceptions about all teachers). I would ask however, that in the future, you might consider actually engaging in conversation with someone in the profession and realize that they are human beings just as everyone else, with their own prejudices, and their own backgrounds, and their own ideas of what America is like. Most of them, after they get off work, actually return to a home, not to some camp for academics, but to a community with neighbors and family who (gasp) is actually like "the rest of America."

I know enough non-academics to know that erroneous assumptions about that the “real” America is and what “real” Americans want are not monopolized by people who own a Ph.D.

William Livingston - 2/24/2004

Henceforth I will visit HNN far less than previously, you foolish Lefties who refuse to grow up and deal with life as it is outside the Socialist enclaves called Academia may continue to take in & do each other's wash all you want. Clearly Dennis Praeger was correct in his obsevation that generally academics are immature people. What else could one expect of people who've beemn in school associating primarily with children all their lives, kindergarten through graduate school & back into school teaching, associating primarily with children never working for a living in in a non-academic position.

Yes, I soldiered, associating primarily with young people whiole doing so, but also, prior to soldiering, I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in bush Africa & after having been retired from the Army due to wounds taken during a firefight quite late in my second tour, in my 23rd month in 'Nam, of fighting I worked as an accountant for an insuranse company & later owed & operated my own small business.

Clearly, most who post on HNN would benefit, gain some valuable insight into what it is like living in the real world outside the Ivory Tower, if they took jobs, for even a short while, a mere year or two,in the private economy. But most probably will remain in their soft, womb-like insulated from reality environments where there is no necessity to grow up.

What respect I once had for academics has in a sense been reinforced, because they generally are a bright lot with some interesting thoughts. In another sense, my once good opinion of them has gone into steep decline, because our academics are so chilish in some respects, particularly because of their refusal to comprehend how different life is outside their insulated enclaves. No wonder they in too many instances fail to understand what the rest of America is like. Here again Praeger was correct in his assessment of academics.

If that seems a too broad brush to paint with, it too is a too broad a brush to paint Jesus as hostile toward all Pharisees, because He too was a Pharisee.

Ken Melvin - 2/23/2004

Few leaders were ever afforded such chance to exhibit greatness. Only one so small could have blown such opportunity. Rather growing to meet the task at hand; the smallness, the meanness came to the fore. Now more that ever he panders to evangelical psychopaths, appoints like nutcases to our high courts, and seeks to close off dissenting voices. Too mild your reprimand Mr. Carpenter. The media, the democratic candidates, and the public need to speak loud and clear. This man and amany of his staff are psychopaths. Together, they have done far greater harm this nation than Al Quida.