Smart Republicans have passed through three distinct phases of progressive rationalization about George W. Bush’s brainpower. Phase One was: He isn’t dumb. This phase began during Dubya’s first term as governor in Texas, when his surprise victory over Ann Richards and his growing reputation as an effective moderate made the concept of a quietly smart Dubya an easy sell to the mainstream media. “Bush is young (51), he’s smart and he’s got the Name,” Newsweek’s “Periscope” column enthused at the end of 1997. Phase Two was: He’s dumb, but it doesn’t matter. This phase was kicked off by Dubya’s failure to pass a TV reporter’s foreign policy pop quiz. “The press just never got the point, which is that people look for leadership and character and principles and they don’t expect complete mastery of every detail,” Bush’s then-spokesman, David Beckwith, was quoted saying in the July, 19, 1999, issue of U.S. News & World Report. Phase Two proved a harder sell than Phase One, as evidenced by the headline U.S. News put on that story: “Is It Wrong To Call Him George Dumbya Bush?”
[Correction, 8/24: Phase Two actually began before the pop quiz, which occurred four months after Beckwith made his remarks to U.S. News.]
Now Robert Bartley, editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal, has kicked off Phase Three. What is Phase Three? Read this passage from Bartley’s Oct. 23 “Thinking Things Over” column, “The Question of Competency,” where he invokes the memory of Ronald Reagan:
The Gipper was cut from a different cloth. “It’s true hard work never killed anybody, but I figure why take the chance,” he once quipped. In cocktail party chatter Clark Clifford, a Beltway doyen before the BCCI scandal, dismissed the president as “an amiable dunce.” His biographer Lou Cannon sums up, “Reagan both began and ended his presidency as a popular leader who essentially pleaded no contest to the accusation that he failed to mind the store.”Yet somehow President Reagan resolved the economic malaise of the 1970s, set off an economic boom, restored the nation’s spirit and won the Cold War. Because he didn’t talk like a policy wonk, his detractors attribute his success to luck and historical inevitability. The secret is that precisely because he refused to get bogged down in detail, he was able to get the big things right. In the executive how-to manuals they call this “focus.”
Phase Three, then, is: He’s dumb, and that’s good!
Like Reagan, Bartley argues, in the debates Dubya “projected an image of someone who could keep his eye on the main issue, someone you might trust to short his way through the complications that bedevil serious decisions in either business or politics.” Then, perhaps because he wants to avoid quoting Dubya’s inelegant generalizations, or perhaps because he’s channeling Dubya’s management style, Bartley fails to give any examples.
The trouble with the Reagan-Dubya comparison is that Reagan was an ideologue, and Dubya is not. As a result, Bush is unlikely to be as responsive to Bartley and his fellow conservatives as Reagan was. Obviously, though, Bush will be more responsive than Gore. That’s why Bartley is bothering to make this argument at all.