In an essay entitled A Campaign of Narratives in the March issue of First Things (currently behind a firewall for non-subscribers), George Weigel writes:
Yet it is also true that the 2008 campaign, which actually began in the late fall of 2006, was a disturbing one—not because it coincided with what is usually described in the hyperbole of our day as “the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression” but because of how it revealed some serious flaws in our political culture. Prominent among those flaws is our seeming inability to discuss, publicly, the transformation of American liberalism into an amalgam of lifestyle libertinism, moral relativism, and soft multilateralism, all flavored by the identity politics of race and gender. Why can’t we talk sensibly about these things? For the past eight years, no small part of the reason why had to do with what my friend Charles Krauthammer, in a nod to his former incarnation as a psychiatrist, famously dubbed “Bush Derangement Syndrome.”
Raising this point is not a matter of electoral sour grapes. Given an unpopular war that had been misreported from the beginning, plus President Bush’s unwillingness to use the presidential bully pulpit to help the American people comprehend the stakes in Iraq, plus conservative aggravation over a spendthrift Republican Congress and administration, plus that administration’s failure to enforce discipline on its putative congressional allies, plus public exhaustion with a familiar cast of characters after seven years in office, plus an economic meltdown—well, given all that, it seems unlikely that any Republican candidate could have beaten any Democrat in 2008. Indeed, the surprise at the presidential level may have been that Obama didn’t enjoy a success of the magnitude of Eisenhower’s in 1952, Johnson’s in 1964, Nixon’s in 1972, or Reagan’s in 1984.
Still, I would argue that the basic dynamics of the 2008 campaign, evident in the passions that drove Obama supporters to seize control of the Democratic party and then of the presidency, were not set in motion by the failures and missed opportunities of the previous seven years but by Bush Derangement Syndrome, which emerged as a powerful force in American public life on December 12, 2000: the day American liberalism’s preferred instrument of social and political change, the Supreme Court, determined that George W. Bush (the candidate with fewer popular votes nationally) had, in fact, won Florida and with it a narrow majority in the Electoral College. Here was the cup dashed from the lips—and by a court assumed to be primed to deliver the expected and desired liberal result yet again. Here was the beginning of a new, millennial politics of emotivism (displayed in an astonishing degree of publicly manifested loathing for a sitting president) and hysteria (fed by the new demands of a 24/7 news cycle).
I think this analysis gets things exactly backwards.
Certainly, there was a contingent of people who opposed President Bush (and, also, President Obama) from day one. But Bush won convincingly in 2004, regardless of whether some voters were afflicted with the (apparently powerful) “Bush Derangement Syndrome.” The arguments of Bush’s harshest critics only began to gain traction when Bush’s “failures and missed opportunities,” as Weigel describes them, began to accumulate.
Bush’s approval rating never dropped below 45% until after Hurricane Katrina in September of 2005. Shortly thereafter, his approval rating dipped briefly below 40% during the Harriet Miers debacle, before rebounding slightly at the end of the year. Then, as the situation in Iraq worsened, his approval rating dropped into the high 30’s in 2006, then to the low 30’s/high 20’s in 2007-2009. In short, the polling data suggests events, rather than a mysterious political pathology, were responsible for Bush’s unpopularity.
Certainly, as more people came to dislike George Bush, ‘Bush Derangement Syndrome,’ spread. But blaming growing dislike of George Bush on, well, growing dislike of George Bush is a rather circular proposition, which calls for a more satisfactory causal explanation. Something is amiss with Weigel’s denunciation of ‘Bush Derangement System,’ rather than the failures from which it derived its potency.
Furthermore, Bush’s unpopularity was arguably responsible for the second trend Weigel bemoans: the lack of substantive debate in the campaign. Within a week of clinching the Democratic nomination, Barack Obama had a five point lead on McCain. Obama basically held this lead the entire race, apart from a brief window after the Republican convention and before the financial crisis. He could afford to choose his battles.
There was a good reason why, as McCain noted at the Al Smith dinner, Obama’s ‘pet name’ for him was “George Bush.” Barack Obama didn’t need to engage John McCain substantively when he could simply describe him as someone who wanted to ‘continue the failed policies of George W. Bush.’ It’s the same reason why many Democrats refuse to discuss Roe; when the status quo is in your favor, debate carries more risks than benefits.
Certainly, the picture is slightly more complicated. McCain’s apparent inability to articulate a coherent vision on domestic policy made it easier for Obama to avoid substantive debate. And the press embarked on what was, in my view, a credibility-shattering love affair with the Obama campaign; it became difficult for me to separate the official Obama campaign spokesmen from the unofficial, honorary spokesmen at our major newspapers. Finally, it must be acknowledged that Obama is a very skilled politician, and that he ran a very good campaign. Nevertheless, I would argue Bush’s failures (real and perceived) were a sine qua non for everything from McCain’s primary victory (who really liked McCain, anyway?), to Obama’s play-it-safe campaign, to the spread of the ‘Bush Derangement Syndrome’ this past campaign season.
Later on in the article, Weigel bemoans the post-modernist tendency to describe campaigns in terms of narratives without reference to underlying issues. In this way, he argues, cynical manipulation takes the place of substantive debate:
The American people elected a young president with less governmental experience than any major-party nominee since Wendell Willkie, because—well, because he was the winner on American Idol: The 2008 Election Edition. We all hope and pray that President Obama is far more than that. We should not delude ourselves on this point, however: Narrative, not substance, is what put the forty-fourth president into the White House.
I think Weigel is right about the dangers of narrative over substance, and I agree that narrative played an important role in the 2008 election (and most recent elections, for that matter). But I think the ‘Bush Derangement Syndrome’ narrative Weigel attempts to create above is typical of the postmodern approach he criticizes. It is a narrative of victimhood rather than responsibility. It reflects an unwillingness or inability to recognize that yes, in fact, George Bush’s actions had a profound impact on the most recent election, and that his unpopularity was an important reason the campaign lacked substance. The primary lesson to be taken from the 2008 election is not that irrational syndromes sometimes take hold of electorates. It is that poor governance has consequences. To discuss those (allegedly) suffering from ‘Bush Derangement Syndrome’ without discussing the merits of their complaints, is to favor the type of narrative-over-substance account that Weigel rightly decries elsewhere in the article.