The Lessons of Iraq and Obamacare

With the opening of the George W. Bush Library this week in Texas, plenty of journalists are writing long think-pieces about the man and his legacy, which basically amount to saying he was a terrible president but a pretty good guy, despite all those things we wrote about him at the time. The truth is that Bush himself has enjoyed a bit of a resurgence in personal popularity, and some are hoping his approach to governance will provide guidance to the GOP for the future

My own view is that whatever Bush’s personal qualities as a genuine, honorable fellow, his presidential legacy is of a lighter tax burden, a safer country… and a destroyed Republican Party. The last is not all his fault, but has more to do with who he picked for which jobs, and misplaced loyalty for those who served him ill. I view the entire second term of the Bush administration as a giant black hole for domestic policy: arguably, the only good thing the right got out of those four years was one reliable Supreme Court Justice, Samuel Alito, and they got that only after fighting tooth and nail against Bush’s instincts to choose Harriet Miers instead. And as for politics: Bush’s decisions, or the implementation thereof, destroyed the Republican brand as the adults in the room. The GOP cannot be the party of good governance, balanced foreign policy, and fiscal responsibility in the wake of Katrina, Iraq, the Bush deficits and the financial crisis – and the Republican Party’s inability to recognize the degree to which these factors undermined their core case for existing remains a tangible problem.

Witness the debate this past week between Walter Russell Mead and Pete Wehner for how far apart these visions are:

“Wehner, who by all accounts is a thoughtful and sensible person with a lot to contribute to the national debate, is so caught up with angry defenses of the brilliance of policy making during the Bush era that he misses our point entirely… [E]xcept for a minority of true believers, the American public largely believes that Bush failed, and no matter how many blog posts ex-Bush officials write, that isn’t going to change anytime soon. There are lots of intelligent people out there who think this is a gross injustice, and want the national conversation to focus on setting the record straight. For its own sake the Republican Party has to deafen itself to their piteous pleas; they are sirens luring the sailors to their destruction on the rocks. This will sound harsh and unfair to some, but it is true and it is real.”

“Mr. Wehner’s touching, honorable but politically toxic Bush loyalty is the kind of gift left-leaning Dems pray for night and day. Liberals want the Republican Party to spend the next four years defending the Bush record as strongly as possible. They want potential conservative presidential candidates to say as many things as possible that will tie them to Bush in the mind of the public. They want Mr. Wehner’s approach to be mandatory for the next generation of Republican candidates; they want loyalty to the Bush legacy to be a litmus test for decades to come. They want to use President Bush the way their grandfathers used Herbert Hoover, and if Mr. Wehner has his way, they will.”

A smarter approach, in my view, is understanding the primary lesson of the failure of Bush’s administration: the essential need, in all administrations, of a healthy skepticism of the power of government to do good. My conversation on that point comes up in this friendly debate I recently had with Wehner, which you can see here:

Central to the conversation this week will likely be another reconsideration of Iraq – what led Bush to undertake the war, what went wrong, and why it went wrong. Lost in the conversation will be what lessons the Democrats themselves, particularly President Obama, failed to learn from the case-making for Iraq in advancing his own signature policy. Ezra Klein responds to that comparison from me this morning, but along the way, I think he misses the point.

The Iraq war debacle shows us why it’s important to make the case for policy on the actual grounds the principals believe in, instead of an argument based on building up fear or overpromising on outcome. Rather than resting the case for war on the moral argument for human freedom neoconservatives held, Bush advanced a case designed to bring along the realists, based on faulty intelligence, about the burgeoning threat of weapons of mass destruction. Instead of basing his case for his health care law on its true justification and the moral argument for universal coverage, Obama promised it would address problems it never will, resulting in lower premiums for all, better quality care, and keeping your doctor and plan if you like them.

For both parties, the trouble was in making these policies a reality, which proved far more challenging than either expected. Iraq remains a Republican millstone – Obamacare may be about to become one for the Democrats as well. Foreign policy failures and domestic policy failures are different in significant ways, but one consequence of the latter is that everything that breaks is blamed on the most recent big reform. For the foreseeable future, everything wrong with health care is going to get blamed on Obamacare, fairly or not, and its effects on doctors, providers, and systems across the country.

If Obamacare meets its promise to lower premium costs, let you keep your doctor and your plan, trim the deficit, and improve the quality of care, Democrats will be running on it for generations. If it doesn’t, they will have to run away from it, or run by saying how they’ll fix it. Though fixing it, as we saw with the surge, doesn’t erase blame for the original mistake.

Among smart Democrats, concerns about implementation of the law are rising significantly. Senator Max Baucus, the powerful Finance Chairman who was the architect of much of the law, has announced his retirement mere days after voicing concerns with the problems of implementation as a potentially “huge train wreck”. HHS is attempting to satisfy his concerns by throwing more money at marketing and promoting the law’s exchanges. As Peter Suderman notes:

The Hill reports that [HHS] just announced that it signed an agreement to spend another $8 million—with the option to spend more—further promoting the exchanges… I’ll give the folks at HHS this: They could probably use some effective marketing. But maybe they ought to consider scaling back a bit, and work more on trying to raise awareness about the law’s benefits with Sen. Max Baucus? When you’ve already spent $3 million promoting ObamaCare’s exchanges, and yet the senator who claims to have written the bill on which the law was based thinks those exchanges are about to be a “huge train wreck,” you kind of have to wonder whether the agency is really getting much value out of its marketing budget.

But market they will have to, given the very real concerns about getting enough healthy people signed up for the exchanges. If only the sick do so (the healthy having less of an incentive), you’re going to see premiums explode at an even faster rate than previously expected. Had you built Obamacare around approaches that were actually designed to address the number one problem according to most Americans – high premium costs – instead of that moral agenda for universal coverage, you wouldn’t need to do all this spinning: people would want to buy a product because it’s priced reasonably. But you didn’t, it isn’t, so you have to lean on the marketing and hope for the best.

The feeling during the second term among many in the Bush administration was that their problem was one of public relations, not policy ramifications. They rarely questioned their policy approaches. They felt, as Wehner still feels, that things were going well far past the point where they weren’t. They blamed media reports, echo chambers, and partisan posturing for shifting public opinion. Today we see the same traits still in place in this administration: If only we promote this better, and more thoroughly, it will result in better outcomes. It’s hardly a new trend in political governance, and whoever comes next to the White House will feel it, too.

A healthier lesson to take from the Bush and Obama years is that it’s better to be honest with the American people than to approach them with false hope or false fear. They shouldn’t count on policies or approaches which accomplishes all the missions, offering everything and delivering so much less. Politicians like to promise the world, but we’d be better off, and so would they, if they were honest about the limitations of their power to deliver.

  1. Ontheleftcoast
    And as for politics: Bush’s decisions, or the implementation thereof, destroyed the Republican brand as the adults in the room. 

    He was also the  leader of the GOP for eight years and did a poor job of bringing new talent along, or seeing to it that it was done.

  2. BrentB67

    Good write up and analysis. I think the Bush admin bears some of the same blame for false fear or a better term: over hyped fear to get the Patriot Act passed.

    Bush was not alone destorying the republican brand. The likes of Tom Delay and some of the holdovers like John McCain did their fair share.

    I will never forget Karl Rove proclaiming they would build a permanent republican majority with NCLB and Medicare expansion. The same tactics progressives use – get We The People hooked on more government like it is bad heroin.

  3. Nick Stuart
    Ben Domenech:

    A healthier lesson to take from the Bush and Obama years is that it’s better to be honest with the American people than to approach them with false hope or false fear. 

    Agree with the conclusion.

    Quibble with

    Katrina – Some things went right, some things went wrong, but it is unjust to blame it on Bush and let Ray Nagin and the Louisiana governor off the hook. Other places were just as hard hit and had nowhere near the problems of New Orleans.

    Iraq “debacle” – Back when Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds my observation was that he was uniquely evil, and that at some point we were going to have to confront him. We blew the opportunity, thanks in large measure to Colin Powell, by not deposing him in the first Gulf War. Whatever can be said about Iraq, the world is unquestionably better off with Saddam Hussein dead. 

  4. Bereket Kelile
    Ben Domenech:  Politicians like to promise the world, but we’d be better off, and so would they, if they were honest about the limitations of their power to deliver. 

    From Coolidge’s example and Ben’s lips to the GOP’s ears. 

  5. KC Mulville

    The main sin of any administration is that it thinks it knows what’s really going on, but it doesn’t. It acts according to conclusions drawn from existing knowledge, but the last two administrations show why the phrase “existing knowledge” is potentially dangerous.

    • Bush proceeded on the assurance that WMDs were a “slam-dunk.” Had they found enormous and obvious stashes of WMDs lying on the ground outside Saddam’s palace, everyone would still be congratulating Bush.

    • Obama’s administration still can’t admit that the Keynesian model isn’t helping; government spending can’t make up for uncertainty about government.

    The biggest difference is that Bush was wrong on information and details, where Obama is wrong on theory.

  6. BrentB67
    Bereket Kelile

    Ben Domenech:  Politicians like to promise the world, but we’d be better off, and so would they, if they were honest about the limitations of their power to deliver. 

    From Coolidge’s example and Ben’s lips to the GOP’s ears.  · 14 minutes ago

    Amen. Politicians would do well to not promise to deliver anything to a group of people because in every case whatever is delivered has been confiscated from others.

    Politicans don’t make or have anything except the power to take from those that do.

  7. grotiushug

    Excellent post.  I agree with the general point, but I think that Bush believed that there were WMD in Iraq in 2003.  It turned out to be false, but at the time there was a broad consensus that they were there.  The “Bush lied, people died” thing is false in my opinion.

    I think Obama lied about ACA from the start.

  8. Duane Oyen

    My goodness, Ben.  I love WR Mead rehgarding most things, particularly the death of the “Blue Model”. 

    But in that series of articles, Mead turned himself into a composting site full of the stuff that so fascinates Jada Shapiro, and it is all because Mr. Mead, who supported the Iraq war and is now trying to get his academic cred back in the same way as all the other supporters-of-convenience did (e.g., every Democrat who voted for the AUMF, Jonah Goldberg, Michael Hanlon, etc.)- argue that they were misled, or Bush screwed it up.  They may say what they wish, it was still the right thing to do, war is he!!, and changing the world is hard.  So was the 50 year Cold war that is the most direct equivalent.

    The only people I find less persuasive than moderate/liberal former Iraq War supporters are true believer conservatives such as Freedom Works (who run fratricidal radio commercials against solid Republicans) and the leader of Red State who tell us that if only Bush had been Goldwater the Millennium would be here.

    Baloney.

  9. Ralphie

    Fouad Ajami, a middle east expert, would probably beg to differ on Iraq.  The chemical make up of the millstone of Iraq includes Democrats and Obama. While Bush gets the whole of the blame, he didn’t act alone. He just did not turn, like so many others.

  10. Jerry Carroll

    Dubya used the veto only 12 times in eight years. Ronald Reagan used it 77 times. Even the RINO older Bush used it 44 times.  George could have shaped a better course for the country if he had used it more. His club-footed tongue didn’t help matters either. People were so sick of his inarticulateness they went for the first smooth talker to come along.

  11. Sabrdance

    I share the conflicted feelings about George W. Bush around here, but as political advice, this all strikes me as roughly equivalent to the arguments about moderating on social issues.

    Everyone acts like it would work, but five minutes thought reveals it to be a pipe dream.

    The argument here is that truth doesn’t matter because people’s minds are set.  Why are their minds set?  Because the Media told them what to believe years ago.

    There’s no point defending Bush because the people won’t listen, they’ve closed their ears to everything we say because the media told them too during the Bush years.

    So on what plausible grounds does it matter what we do?  We could repudiate everything Bush ever did and it would have the exact same no-effect that defending everything Bush ever did has.  As someone else put it -I’m going to guess they’d just find another reason to hate us.

    You’ll get no complaint from me that Bush didn’t defend himself well enough, and we’re playing catch-up from the damage.  But we are well past the point where any amount of spinning will help.

  12. Butters

    Watch the youtube clip of Ben vs. Wehner,  I’ve never seen a more brutally honest assessment of the state of the GOP. Very effective.

    Wehner was extremely passive aggressive toward Ben. He dismissed all of Ben’s very specific and fact based criticisms as “simplistic” and implied Ben was too inexperienced.

  13. Duane Oyen
    Jerry Carroll: Dubya used the veto only 12 times in eight years. Ronald Reagan used it 77 times. Even the RINO older Bush used it 44 times.  George could have shaped a better course for the country if he had used it more. His club-footed tongue didn’t help matters either. People were so sick of his inarticulateness they went for the first smooth talker to come along. · 17 hours ago

    That stat is meaningless.  The Congressional rules changed significantly, plus Bush was dealing with wars and mostly Republican Congress.  Circumstances are completely different.  If you want to seell this, make a list of every bill each signed and every veto, we will check the context of each.

  14. Functionary

    You were awesome in that video, Ben. But you used the weird phrase, “sort of” more often than Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson have in their entire pathetic public lives.  What’s up with that?