A Riddle Inside a Mystery
Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps?

Jonathan Rauch Attempts to Explain What He Got Wrong

Tom Schaller sends us to a mea culpa from Jonathan Rauch:

Right Vote. Wrong President: National Journal, October 13, 2007: Five years ago, Congress and President Bush made the most consequential and, as now seems more likely than not, unfortunate decision of this country's still young century. On October 16, 2002, Bush signed a resolution authorizing the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Should war supporters apologize?...

I reread my columns from the period and promptly found one, from February 2004, in which I described myself as an, er, "advocate of the war."... So let me say for the record: I was wrong. Like most Americans, I have long since come to believe that the Iraq war was a strategic mistake -- with luck. (Without luck, it will be a strategic calamity.) But let me also say what I was wrong about....

Since 2004, it has become clearer that the Bush administration's prewar hype portrayed the intelligence on Saddam's alleged weapons of mass destruction as solider and starker than it really was.... I should have been more skeptical of the WMD hard sell. That was mistake No. 1.

Mistake No. 2 was forgetting the difference between experts and poseurs.... [A] lot of us in the media gave a lot of ink and airtime to pontificators who had never been to Iraq, who had never fought in a war or served in an embassy or worked on a reconstruction team, and who did not know Iraq's language, culture, people, leaders, history, or region. Other than that, they were experts....

Those, however, were small mistakes compared with the fundamental one. It was not, really, a mistake about the war at all. It was a mistake about the president.... Another Bush was president, and the younger one looked as decisive as his father had once seemed dotty. This, after all, was the George W. Bush who had impressively rallied the nation and the world after September 11.

His foreign-policy team looked easily the equal of his father's, or anybody's. Vice President Cheney was the wise man of Washington and the elder Bush's successful Defense secretary. Secretary of State Colin Powell was the magisterial architect of the Gulf War. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was the man whose plan had worked like a charm in Afghanistan. If Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, was not the equal of her 1990 predecessor, Brent Scowcroft, she was no lightweight. Surely if any war Cabinet could inspire confidence, this was it. Wrong again....

Some optimists say that in Army Gen. David Petraeus, Bush has finally found his Gen. Grant. That may or may not be true, but it is beside the point. The problem is that Petraeus has not yet found his President Lincoln....

I have come to say: I do not regret giving the president authority; I regret giving this president authority. I am sorry. I made a mistake five years ago. But not about the vote. About the leader.

The curious thing is that back in the summer of 2001 Jonathan Rauch appeared to have a relatively clear-eyed view of George W. Bush. He lamented the bait-and-switch from the campaign to the first four months:

Social Studies (06/15/2001): President Bush... [in] your 2000 campaign... you pointedly included New Center initiatives for Social Security, Medicare, and education, some of them heisted from the New Democrats. Why you spent your early political capital on a rightward-looking tax cut is beyond me, but it is not too late for you to begin sounding like a New Centrist rather than an old (albeit "compassionate") conservative...

And got downright snarky on the administration's law enforcement policies:

Social Studies (06/01/2001): According to law enforcement officials, a particularly significant event was the arrest, in Roxbury, Mass., of Cedric Grieg, the nation's last drug dealer. "We knew if we locked up enough of the dealers, eventually we had to get them all," a senior Administration official said in a White House briefing that preceded yesterday's Rose Garden event. "It's just basic arithmetic."

One concern, the official noted, is that eventually someone somewhere in the world may resume producing drugs and attempt to slip some into the United States. "We need to be as vigilant as ever," the official said, adding that, as a precaution, the Bush Administration will soon propose a ban on all powdery white substances. "Still," he said, "as long as all the distributors and dealers are in jail, the pipeline will stay plugged."... Attorney General Ashcroft.... "You know, there's a lesson here," he said. "Year after year, the doubters would look at the drug-use numbers staying put and the street prices declining and the revolving prison doors spinning, and they'd say we weren't getting anywhere. And some of us, just shouting into the wind, kept saying that if we could put men on the moon, we could win this thing -- and the American people knew in their heart we could win it, and that's why they stuck with us when we redoubled our efforts. It just shows that sometimes our hearts see better than our eyes"...

And understood the dangers of "compassionate conservatism":

Social Studies (11/03/2000): Too bad about Bush's fuzzy math. Actually, the problem is fuzzy Bush. He is no more willing to talk about hard entitlement choices than Gore is. In fact, Bush is the free-lunch guy. He talks as if the stock market can pay the retirement benefits of two generations at once, which it can't...

You would have thought that Jonathan Rauch would have been first among those asking the question Daniel Davies asked in the fall of 2002:

Daniel Davies's Question: Can anyone... give me one single example of something with the following three characteristics?

  • It is a policy initiative of the current Bush administration
  • It was significant enough in scale that I'd have heard of it (at a pinch, that I should have heard of it)
  • It wasn't in some important way completely f* up during the execution.

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