Today being the day America chooses a successor, it’s worth reflecting for a moment on the abysmal leader we have right now. I think an issue like asking whether or not George W. Bush is the worst president we’ve ever had gets a little too imponderable considering the historical issues. I mean, say what you will about Bush, but unlike many American presidents he didn’t believe in slavery. That said, by any kind of absolute standard the man is an appalling moral leper. He’s not a good man outmatched by circumstances. And he’s not a bad man getting through by cunning and pragmatism.
He’s inept, a buffoon. But also perverse — reveling in the idea of inflicting death and destruction on others, avoiding military service in a war he supported when he was of the appropriate age, while claiming to envy the experience of the soldiers he’s sent to be maimed or killed in a war there was no need to fight. He’s presided over an incredibly rapid decline in the government’s fiscal position in order to funnel more money to the wealthiest Americans at a time of growing inequality. On his watch, the country suffered the most catastrophic terrorist attack in its history, and he’s been relentless ever since that day in trying to turn his own inability to keep the country safe into a political bludgeon to wield against his opponents.
A major American city was nearly destroyed, in part because of the predictable incompetence of his clearly unqualified appointees. Bush has taken eight years’ worth of time when we could have been getting a jump on our energy/climate problems not content to do nothing, but fanatically determined to do everything he can to make the situation worse. Even if we act as rapidly as possible following his departure from office, tens of thousands of people will likely die as a result of his actions on this front. The costs of his 2002 farm bill in terms of American public health and global poverty are beyond my ability to calculate. One could find a redeeming feature amidst the wasteland of Bush-era policymaking, but it would be difficult. It’s tempting to see the horrors of the Bush administration as mostly reflecting a largely, more impersonal rot — some fundamental decay of the conservative movement. But the truth is that Bush could very plausibly have been a much better president. He could have taken foreign policy advice from his Secretary of State, Colin Powell. He could have taken environmental policy advice from Christie Todd Whitman. He could have taken economic policy advice from Paul O’Neil. The results of an administration animated by figures like that probably wouldn’t have thrilled me, but they would have been much, much better than what we got. But instead, we got what we got. Not because the political coalition of which Bush was a part was so rotten that nothing else could happen, but in large part because he was so rotten that he drove or suppressed the best elements of his coalition and spread the rot around.