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Grading the President
Pundit panel calls him ‘revolutionary’ but ‘far from candid’

| 23 April 2003

The three panelists headlining a midterm review of the 43rd U.S. President’s performance may have differed on some of the details, but overall they agreed that George W. Bush is floating high on a wave of wartime patriotism — one that might easily carry him to victory in the 2004 presidential election.

The two-hour discussion, entitled “Bush at War: The 22nd Annual Review of the Presidency,” was the latest in a series co-sponsored by Berkeley’s Center on Politics at the Institute of Governmental Studies and UC Extension. It took place Monday night in front of a Dwinelle lecture hall packed with students, alumni, and local retirees. Skillfully moderated by Gerald Lubenow, the Center on Politics’ director, the lively discussion ranged from how Bush is handling the war on terrorism (and Iraq), homeland security, and the economy, to what competition the President faces in the next election. The three panelists also leavened the talk with a generous helping of wisecracks at Bush’s expense.

‘An extraordinary achievement’
The war with Iraq dominated much of the first hour, starting with the question Lubenow lobbed to Michael Nacht, dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy and the Aaron Wildavsky Professor of Public Policy. Would the President be able to handle the subsequent peace process as well as he had handled the war?

“I think the Bush administration spent a lot more time preparing for the war than the peace,” acknowledged Nacht, before observing that the Bush administration is determined to make Iraq a showcase for democratic governance in the Middle East. “It sounds melodramatic,” he said, “but it really could be a critical moment in American foreign policy. If Bush’s dreams are realized, even partially realized, it will be an extraordinary achievement.”

Nacht played the role of Bush defender, parrying with good humor his two more-liberal co- panelists — Nelson Polsby, Berkeley political science professor and coauthor of the seminal Presidential Elections: Strategies of American Electoral Politics (now in its tenth edition), and Eleanor Clift, a Newsweek contributing editor assigned to Capitol Hill and a regular panelist on TV’s The McLaughlin Group. (A fourth panelist canceled before the event.)

Both Polsby and Clift declared the United States to be no safer from terrorism after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Clift wondered where the promised weapons of mass destruction were, accusing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld of “moving the goalposts” when he suggested they’d been spirited out of Iraq and into Syria. She also argued that if the weapons did remain in Iraq, in the current chaos they are even more likely to fall into the wrong hands, as U.S. arrogance enrages the Arab world.

Drawing on his 1994-97 tenure as director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, where he worked on nuclear-arms reduction and missile-defense negotiations with Russia and China, Nacht chose not to disregard the likelihood of continued danger from the deposed regime’s weapons stockpiles. “Iraq has had for many years very large stockpiles of biochemical weapons,” he said confidently, “and if that is not true, then half the intelligence community should be fired.”

‘Wrapped in the flag’
The panelists’ opinions were more closely aligned on the origins of Bush’s current popularity ratings. Before the September 11 attacks, said Clift, “Bush was widely regarded as a one-term caretaker president. He had one bold agenda item, which was big tax cuts, and the country didn’t seem all that enamored of him.” But after 9/11, she said, Bush felt “the hand of God” upon him. “Fighting the war on terrorism, ridding the world of rogue states, has taken on a missionary zeal in this administration,” Clift argued, adding that the traumatized U.S. seems prepared to give Bush a long leash in fighting this nameless enemy.

And Bush’s chief campaign strategist, Karl Rove, has plans for the extra leather. The President’s best chance at getting re-elected “is if he stays wrapped in the flag,” said Polsby. If he were somehow to fall off the wartime-patriotism bandwagon, “all the public-opinion surveys that I’ve seen on all other issues suggest that he’s quite vulnerable.…We all do recall that his father had an approval rating of more than 90 percent in 1991 and lost the 1992 election. The Bush people know this; I don’t know what Bush knows,” Polsby quipped. “Certainly Karl Rove knows that he’s got to keep Bush wrapped in the flag — pinned with a diaper pin.”

Nacht agreed that Bush would likely play the wartime-leader role to the hilt through the next election, a role that he said appeals to the “red states,” or those that voted for Bush in the 2000 election. “He walks around with a bit of a swagger, he speaks in very elementary terms, he wears a windbreaker.…I think a lot of Americans think he is the physical leader in a wartime situation,” Nacht said carefully.

Bush has been ‘anything but candid’
Clift and Polsby suggested that Rove and Bush’s other advisers were manipulating Americans’ perception of threat in order to distract from domestic problems such as the economy. “Bush gets a lot of credit for his focus and candor,” said Clift, “but he has been anything but candid about this war. He refuses to put any dollar figure on the aftermath, he refused to say we were going to war until the very last minute…and this is the first war where the wealthy have been asked to do less.” She sniped, “I guess I missed the Oval Office address when he said it’s going to be the poor, the elderly, and children whose services are going to be cut so we can afford the reconstruction in Iraq.”

Polsby referred caustically to Bush’s abandonment of the Kyoto Accord on global warming, shutdown of stem-cell research, “and a host of issues on which the Bush administration is taking the ignoramus’s position.” He also innocently asked Nacht if he thought the President’s proposed $750-billion tax cut was appropriate. Nacht admitted, “Yeah, I actually don’t fully understand that….Maybe he’s playing to his base? But I guess I have to believe that the fundamental premise behind it is the honest belief is that supply-side economics really works. They’ve convinced me that they’re convinced—”

“Ah, one of those faith-based programs!” interrupted Polsby, to much laughter.

When Lubenow asked Clift to handicap the Democratic hopefuls for 2004, she said that while Sen. Joe Lieberman and Gov. John Edwards couldn’t be counted out, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts has better commander-in-chief credentials. She saved her real enthusiasm, however, for Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

Nacht agreed that Dean is running strong in these early days of the race, but cautioned that while activists like Dean tend to be critically important in early primaries like Iowa’s and New Hampshire’s, if Dean actually won the nomination “I think he would lose very badly to President Bush in the general election unless there was almost an economic collapse.” To explain, he said that the constant nomination by the Democrats of ethnic Northern liberals "is a shortcut for continuous Republican victory….The only way the Democrats can win in a two-person race is if there’s a Southerner, or someone who can dip into the Republican strongholds in the South — that was very critical to Clinton, and of course it was helped by [Ross] Perot.”

Bold, reckless, ambitious, or paranoid?
Near the end of the forum, an audience member asked whether the panel thought that this was the most radical administration of the last 50 years.

“I’m going to say something you’re really not going to like,” said Nacht to the crowd, which had been laughing at all of Polsby’s Bush barbs. “I think this President, with all the limitations he may offer, is a revolutionary.…And we’re going to find out how successful he is.

“But I think [Bush’s advisers] are as bold, some might say reckless, and as ambitious — some might say paranoid — as any administration we’ve seen,” Nacht said. “They’re not interested in compromise or splitting the difference: they know what is right, they think they have the cards to win the game, and they’re going to play them now.”

A webcast of the “Bush at War” forum will be available April 23 at webcast.berkeley.edu/events/details.html?event_id=76.