Don't misunderestimate me in the political studies field

December 13, 2002

Huw Richards hears Dubya is nobody's fool and reports on a growing interest.

"George W. Bush is represented here as a bumbling idiot. He has bumbled, but he is no idiot." By "here" John Owens of the University of Westminster means Britain in general rather than the group gathered in the auditorium of the US Embassy for the recent annual colloquium of the Political Studies Association's American Politics Group and the British Association for American Studies.

Which is not to say that the occasion celebrated Bush either. Keynote speaker Richard Neustadt explained: "Al Gore was once my student, and a good one, and I voted for him." While the bulk of participants, being British, were unable to vote either way in 2000 it is unlikely, given the broad political proclivities of our academic social scientists, that many cheered when Bush was finally deemed to have won Florida.

The aim of the colloquium, under the title "Presidential Power Today", was neither to endorse nor repudiate Bush's policies, but to assess his effectiveness in office. As Neustadt put it: "You've not asked me here in my capacity as an ancient Democrat. I'm here, I must presume, because I've made a speciality of president-watching professionally."

The theme of the day was summed up in one of Bush's happier neologisms - that he has been consistently "misunderestimated" by opponents and observers alike. Nobody sees him as the second coming of Thomas Jefferson, but the overwhelming view was summed up by Owens's description of him as "a clever and effective politician".

Neustadt, emeritus professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, derives his authority from a mix of theory and practice. He served in Harry S. Truman's administration and John F. Kennedy's transition team, chaired the Democratic Platform Committee in 1972 and is author of Presidential Power (1960, revised 1990), the most influential text on the subject. Admitting to personal distaste for much of Bush's policy and rhetoric, he nevertheless concluded: "Given where he's coming from, in background and in party, he's doing pretty well so far - at least when his head rules his heart."

The proviso was important. In arguing that Bush had shown considerable astuteness in his recent management of the Iraq debate, Neustadt contrasted the inflammatory style of televised soundbites from speeches to Republican Party fundraisers with the measured approach of more formal addresses such as his United Nations speech. "As someone in Washington told me, the snippets represented his heart, the addresses his head. Up to now his head has ruled."

Drawing on a historical analogy, he suggested that Bush's tolerance of open dissent in his administration over Iraq - with a cabal of hawks thirsting for revenge for the failure to overthrow Saddam in 1991 jousting against more measured voices - possibly reflected considerable subtlety. "Some 60 years or more ago, it was the habit of a previous president to encourage dissent in his Cabinet. He used the press reports of quarrels to help him gauge public and interest group reactions and to help him weigh emergent balances of forces pro and con. Not until the 'long frazzled end', as Arthur Schlesinger Jr wrote, would FDR intervene to 'precipitate a result'." Theodore Roosevelt's tactics were not, Neustadt recalled, to all tastes, but were of immense help in the "political management of snarly public issues". He also credited Bush with getting "more of what he sought from Congress than any of his predecessors back to Johnson" and an extremely efficient transition - in contrast to the shambles under Bill Clinton.

Another US emeritus professor, Fred Greenstein of Princeton University, spoke to the colloquium by transatlantic video link. He saw the Bush administration as "a reverse videotape" of the common pattern - Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and George Bush senior are examples - whereby administrations start strongly, then decline. Bush junior's start had been "rather flat and wan", transformed not only by the effects of September 11 but an ability to "identify where you have leverage and transform the context so that it is more favourable to you". He pointed to Bush's identification of last month's mid-term elections - around which sitting presidents usually tiptoe for fear of being associated with bad news - as an opportunity and his consequent unprecedentedly close interest in candidate selection and willingness to be identified with those in close, potentially losing, races. Pollster Warren Mitofksy underlined this view, saying Bush "did more than any previous president in mid-term elections. He took a political risk and succeeded."

Neustadt argued that Republican success in the mid-term elections would alter British broadsheet views of Bush: "They will now take him as seriously as two weeks ago they took him lightly." This was in part based on a misapprehension that Senate "control" is the same as a parliamentary majority - "it assuredly is not". But, Neustadt argued: "Reputation need not be entirely accurate. What matters is belief in it, and expectations following from that."

So is Bush assured of re-election in what Neustadt terms "a referendum on his stewardship, retroactively assessed" in 2004 ? Beyond the imponderables of what Harold MacMillan called "Events, dear boy, events" - Neustadt pointed to two potential pitfalls of Bush's own making. One is the risk in his deliberate choice of "war" as the framework for responses to September 11: "Traditionally, Americans dislike long wars and positively despise lost ones." The other, ironically, is his mid-term success: "It has always been clear that, from the standpoint of his own re-election, Bush would be better off if, in the two preceding years, both Houses of Congress were not in Republican hands - lest expectations rise too high, while activists run wild."

Or, as Bush might put it, misoverestimation.

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