Saturday, April 09, 2011

Decision points by George W. Bush (A Book Review)

President Bush spares us the long, over-analyzed narcissistic view of his life and focuses on the big decisions of his presidency and how his view of the world and the facts as he knew them guided him in his decision making. That approach is a great one. The decisions themselves are a mixed bag depending on how much faith you have in government solutions. I tend to think his reflection was most insightful dealing with war and terrorism where he faced a different kind of enemy and new decisions daily. His domestic policy decisions are more frustrating because President Bush is of the FDR influence that government failure is a result of faulty approach rather than systematic problems.

On the positive side Bush does a great job of laying out the decisions behind going to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. To his credit he voices the concerns of his critics, explains his thought process, and is honest about the world leaders and the internal politics they faced. That part of the book will be debated for years as the history of the war comes into focus and this history will be a part of the discussion.

On the disappointing side, the former President spends no time explaining to us what the government should stop doing. There is no real defense of spending restraint or the idea that something isn’t the government’s job. The expenditures for No Child Left Behind and the Medicare prescription drug program are good because the reforms made government work better. What about spending priorities? Silence. Nothing seems to be so important that something else should be discarded. The assumption is that spending tomorrow’s money is fine because it has always worked in the past.

President Bush also makes the politician’s error that a legislative victory is a policy victory. In his justification for Immigration reform he explains that his plan wasn’t amnesty because there was a list of safeguards and milestones that had to be met for citizenship while forgetting that all of those barriers would have been removed after the 2008 election of Barak Obama. How could he not see that especially after admitting the Democrats eventually gutted the important provisions of the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit? He doesn’t want to see it.

Bush’s compassionate conservatism comes to life in the Hurricane Katrina section of the book. He takes great pains to lay out the separation of powers and how Governor Blanco refused to let the Federal Government takeover the situation on the ground. Yet he regrets not ignoring the constitution and invading Louisiana to save those people. It’s obvious the media sting still hurts him, although I see it as a missed opportunity where he could have explained how the government that insists on doing everything cannot be as effective doing those things only it can do. Individuals have to prioritize their lives whereas politicians have convinced us that the government doesn’t need priorities. They can do everything better than us and all at once.

My criticism here is of Bush’s worldview on spending and government, not on his fairly even-handed account of his years in the White House. I had no expectation that Bush’s memoir would reveal all that much, but I came away with a respect for his approach at writing and what I think was an honest attempt to give his war critics their due. Although Bush was a divisive leader I would guess that some future Republican trying to roll back government will be compared unfavorably to Bush and his compassionate conservatism.

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