TCS Daily


By Pejman Yousefzadeh - November 13, 2002 12:00 AM

Thus far, the reputed idiot Bush has graduated from Yale and Harvard, made a stack of cash in the oil industry, become the first consecutive-term governor of Texas, defeated a dual-term VP for the Presidency, and led his party to [November 5th's] extraordinary triumphs. Let his opponents keep calling him stupid; if they do, within five years Bush will be King of England, the Pope, and world Formula One motor racing champion.

- Tim Blair, Australian blogger and journalist.

. . . never, ever, ever underestimate George W. Bush. It took me two years of being wrong about Bush before I finally got sick of it. The rest of the pundit class had better catch on. He is a leader of the first order.

- David Brooks, The Weekly Standard

Is there anyone out there who still believes that George W. Bush is dumb?

Last week, the President's strategy to campaign heavily for Republicans in the midterm elections paid off with the GOP increasing its majority in the House, and recapturing control of the Senate. In addition, the Bush Administration was able to win unanimous Security Council backing for a resolution to disarm Saddam Hussein, one way or another. What happened?

After all, it is easy and tempting to think that Bush is a dullard. He got "gentleman C's" when he was a student at Yale. Bush famously flunked a "pop quiz" about world leaders while he was campaigning in 2000. Asked to name the leader of Pakistan, Bush stammered out "General . . . he is a general" for Pakistani President (and general) Pervez Musharraf. Bush's speaking style is full of malapropisms and gaffes. The online magazine Slate even has a "Bushism of the Day" which continues to propagate the notion that the President is out of his depth intellectually.

Many of the President's political opponents view him as a fool, and at the beginning of his term believed that he was an easy mark. Unfortunately for the President's political foes, he continues to defy their comfortable belief that he is too stupid to succeed. Time after time Bush has been able to use the popular perception of him to his advantage and caught his political opponents short. And now, those Democrats with eyes to see what the President has been able to accomplish are faced with a sobering realization about the dullard they discounted.

So how does Bush continually keep his critics and opponents off balance? Here are the keys to his successes.

A Hedgehog, Not a Fox. The political philosopher Isaiah Berlin made a famous distinction between leaders he called "foxes" and leaders he called "hedgehogs." Foxes know something about everything, and can dazzle with their wide-ranging knowledge. Their weakness is that they did not have a single strong idea with which they could be identified, and through which they could rally political support. Conversely, hedgehogs do not possess the across-the-board intelligence and knowledge that foxes possess, but they are able to use unadorned moral clarity and a few grand ideas to achieve their political goals.

Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were foxes. Undeniably intelligent and deeply versed in a whole host of subjects, Carter and Clinton paid tremendous attention to detail. However, they had problems convincing others that there was one great idea that they would never compromise on, one policy issue of tremendous intellectual and moral significance on which they would not yield, and with which they could shape a political vision that would fundamentally alter the landscape of American politics.

By contrast, President Reagan and the current President Bush qualify as "hedgehogs." Seemingly detached from detail, and delegating significant authority to subordinates, each was-and is-nevertheless capable of presenting a compelling vision to the American people.

In Reagan's case, he was able to make conservatism an ideology coequal in power and persuasive capability with the big-government liberalism that had dominated American politics since Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal. Abroad, Reagan was able to make the need for capitalism and democracy to triumph over communism part and parcel of his grand political vision, rallying the American people and the Western Bloc to his side in pressuring communism and the Soviet Empire to the brink of collapse.

Similarly, President Bush has been able to revitalize and add to his conservative base by extolling the virtues of "compassionate conservatism," thus taking some of the seeming harsh edges off of conservatism-harsh edges that prevented Republicans like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich from being able to accomplish more politically. And just as Reagan was able to use the struggle against communism as a rallying point, President Bush's plain-spoken campaign against the horrors of international terrorism and Islamo-fascism has served to rally the American people and a coalition of allies to his side.

Co-opting The Procedural Demands of Opponents. Bush has also been able to push his own policies while he has co-opted his opponents' demands regarding process. Consider the following examples.

When President Bush declared that the United States was prepared to "go it alone" if the United Nations did not forcefully condemn the violations of its own resolutions by Saddam Hussein, he was criticized by some as a "unilateralist" and a "cowboy." The President's critics demanded that he receive approval from the United Nations before planning military operations against Iraq-confident that Bush would either be stymied in this effort, or that he would refuse to seek approval. However, the President called his opponents' bluff, and received the unanimous backing of the United Nations Security Council (Syria included) for a tough resolution demanding that Iraq open its country to inspectors, and giving the Administration ample ability to claim support for the use of force in the event that Iraq is found to be in "material breach" of the resolution.

At home, the President allowed White House aides to leak their belief (and presumably, the belief of the President) that a new congressional resolution authorizing the use of force against Saddam Hussein was not necessary. This drew loud protests from Democrats, who demanded that the President seek congressional approval. At long last, the President agreed, with the caveat that Congress should decide the issue before members went back to their districts and states to campaign for re-election. Having called the Democrats' bluff, the President was able to make Iraq the defining issue for a number of weeks, thus allowing the election to be fought on the national security grounds favorable to Republicans.

Lessons Learned

There will be plenty of people who will continue to believe that Bush is intellectually overmatched by the demands of the Presidency. Bush will likely be happy to continue to allow his opponents to sell him short, and win more unexpected political victories in the process. But before Terry McAuliffe and Al Gore fully commit themselves to further campaigning on the quixotic political platform of "Bush Is Dumb," they might want to consider a final story.

Bush had a meeting with a prominent Democrat in the course of the Presidential transition in 2000-2001, after the Florida recount controversy was finally over. The meeting, which was supposed to last for about 45 minutes, went two and a half hours, and stretched through a lunch. Bush and the Democrat got along famously at the meeting. After it was over, the prominent Democrat told staffers that he was charmed by Bush, and was able to connect with him and relate to him more in those two and a half hours than he had been able to relate to another Democrat with whom he had worked for nearly a decade. Additionally, the prominent Democrat said that he found Bush much more intelligent and savvy than he was given credit for, and that if other Democrats didn't come to realize this, they would be outmaneuvered by the new President. The events of last week proved that Democrat right.

Who was that prominent Democrat? William Jefferson Clinton, the first Rhodes Scholar President of the United States. McAuliffe and Gore may want to take note of the warning issued by Clinton. It would be the smart thing to do.



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