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Pundit Roundtable

Hello again, and welcome back to PUNDIT ROUNDTABLE. I am your host, Ken McCracken, bringing you another power-packed panel of pundits. Here are our topics this week:

Topic 1: This has been a rough last few weeks for the Bush administration. Maybe this is a good time to ask: what will be history's verdict on the Bush administration? Will it be that of a decisive administration that cut taxes and prosecuted the War on Terror, or that of a dishonest regime that lied to get us into a war of opportunity? Will it be seen as a success, or failure?

Topic 2: How should the Democrats play the Alito nomination to get maximum political gain? Should they fight tooth and nail and Bork him, filibuster the nomination, or just let it slide? What, if any, benefit can they get out of a nomination fight to go into the 2006 elections?

We have a new guest this week, Jay Tea of the mighty Wizbang! blog. What do you think?

I have always thought of historians as having a smidgen of a lazy streak, and I suspect that many future analysts of the Bush '43 administration will take the easy approach and draw many parallels between it and the Reagan administration. To wit:

1) The only Republicans to serve two full terms since Eisenhower.

2) Both were seen as intellectual lightweights.

3) Both campaigned on a promise to cut taxes, and did so.

4) Both had undistinguished, easily-mocked military careers during wartime.

5) Both had to deal with a highly-unconventional war against a monolithic opponent.

6) Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, and several other high-ranking Bush administration officials also served under Reagan.

7) Both had been governors, as well as dabbling in the business end of professional sports.

8) Both embraced the ranching life, and often retreated to their ranches during their administration.

9) Both strongly espoused family values, yet had "black sheep" relatives they kept at arms' distance (Reagan and his children, Bush and Neil).

But that is, as I said, the lazy approach to the situation. How will Bush be judged by history?

I think it's still too early to tell, but I get the feeling that I will not be allowed to weasel out. So, with the option of simply deferring the question taken off the table, and forced to actually express an opinion, I think that Bush '43's legacy will be much like Reagan's; seen as spotty at best when it ends, growing more and more respected as time passes.

One of the key elements of any president's legacy is the economy. Under Bush, the economy has grown significantly, with most of the indicators showing positive signs. The bubble of the 90's seemed destined to end in a crash, much like an aneurysm keeps expanding until it bursts, often killing the patient, but Bush managed to deflate it safely and resume steady, sustainable growth.

But the defining characteristic of the Bush administration will be the war on terror.

I've often said that Bush seemed to run for office with no clearly defined goals, just to "be president" out of some sense of obligation or entitlement. He didn't seem to have any single defining issue of his own, no great goal or objective that drove him to seek the office. (It was a feeling I had again last year, in the form of John Kerry.) I voted for him anyway, because Gore seemed even more so, except he intended to drift along in the general direction of Clinton's administration, and I'd had enough.

But sometimes when we lack purpose, one is provided for us. For George W. Bush, that was 9/11.

That attack energized him, gave his presidency something to fight for. (I've seen some people say that God made sure Bush was president because he was best equipped to fight the war on terror. I'm an agnostic, and don't put any stock in Providence micromanaging matters to that degree, but it seems a hell of a lot more probable than God steering hurricanes based on how much money people send Pat Robertson.) He saw the circumstances that over 20 years of appeasing terrorism had left us in then, Alexander-like, took out his sword and unraveled the Gordian Knot. Overnight, he redefined American policy towards terrorism and those who sponsor it, and did what no other nation in history had done: invaded and overthrew the Afghani government. And did it with such efficiency and effectiveness that the world was stunned.

Then he began the truly revolutionary part of his campaign: he started working towards replacing the Taliban regime with a democratic government. And it seems to be working.

People often talk about democracy as a "tree" or some other form of plant, and I'm going to run with that metaphor for a bit. Tyranny can be seen as a great dam, holding back freedom and staunching liberty. But no dam is perfect, and they all have their tiny cracks. These are not enough to substantially weaken the dam, but they are there. In this metaphor, democracy is a seed of a tree. The seed falls into one of these cracks, and starts growing. Eventually, it will outgrow the confines of the crack, and widen it. Eventually, the crack will become a crevice, and then -- if all goes well -- will eventually lead to the crumbling of the dam, and the release of the liberty.

(The metaphor falls apart here, as the tree often doesn't survive the death of the dam, but no metaphor is perfect.)

After the fall of Afghanistan, many would have been content to say that 9/11 had been avenged. Indeed, it had. But 9/11 wasn't an isolated incident. It was the culmination of a series of attacks by Al Qaeda, beginning in 1993 with their first attempt to bring down the World Trade Center. More importantly, it was the single most successful of a long line of terrorist attacks, all motivated by Islamist drives and their desire to re-establish the Caliphate, and to drive out all the unbelievers (meaning Christians, Jews, Animists, Buddhists, and the "wrong" type of Muslims) from the Lands of Islam. That would be followed by the expansion of the Lands of Islam until the whole world was united under Allah -- more specifically, His chosen leaders, the Islamists.

Bush could easily have called it a day after Afghanistan, contenting himself to hunt down the last remnants of Al Qaeda and said the battle is over. And he would have been right -- that battle was won, and won handily and decisively. But battles are not wars. We never lost a single battle in Viet Nam, but we didn't win the war.

The seeds of democracy growing in Afghanistan were working wonders, but they were too far removed from the center of gravity of the conflict. More seeds had to be planted, in the heart of the Arab world, if the war was to be won.

And that brings us to Iraq.

Much has been made about the "pretext" of our invasion of Iraq. I'm not going to go into that here, but I'm simply going to discuss it in the context of the greater war. The Arab world has stagnated for far too long, a motley collection of monarchies, tyrannies, and other forms of dictatorships, eagerly exporting terrorism and unrest and death around the world, fueled by Islamist radicalism and the great good fortune of sitting atop a huge percentage of the world's oil. It was a status quo that had stood for far too long, and needed to be shaken up -- but no one had had the right combination of nerve and vision to attempt anything radical enough to succeed.

Until Bush.

Iraq represented the "perfect storm," the confluence of events, circumstances, geography, history, politics, economics, and a host of other factors needed to trigger cataclysmic change throughout the Middle East.

1) It had a brutal dictator with a history of initiating wars of aggression.

2) It had repeatedly violated the terms of its surrender from the first Gulf War, giving us a pretext for attacking.

3) It had a minority faction tyrannizing the population, including an oppressed majority and a persecuted minority.

4) It was geographically near the center of the Islamist movement, with borders with Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia -- all noted sponsors of terrorism.

5) It had borders with two reliable allies, Kuwait and Turkey.

6) It had significant oil of its own, to fund the reconstruction and development of a democracy, but because of sanctions was not allowed to sell it freely, minimizing the impact on the world's day-to-day oil supply.

7) Its military was still debilitated by its defeat in the first Gulf War, and had not been allowed to regain its former strength.

8) Saddam had repeatedly refused to comply with sanctions, on the one hand insisting that he had no weapons of mass destruction nor programs to develop them, while on the other hand denying inspections and hinting strongly to his neighbors that he, indeed did have them, to keep them at bay.

9) He had long been a supporter and sponsor of terrorist acts and groups. He gave bounties to the families of suicide bombers in Israel, had several training camps for terrorists, and had frequent contacts with Al Qaeda itself both before and after 9/11.

With all that, the idea of invading Iraq, removing Saddam, and establishing a democracy in his place seemed the perfect solution. And it seems to be working -- despite the best efforts of Saddam and the countless people he bribed to stave off our attack. (See George Galloway, France, Kofi Annan, Russia, and Germany for examples.)

The invasion and conquering of Iraq, and the beginnings of a democracy to take its place, are already showing signs of progress outside Iraq's borders. Libya's Qaddafi might not have "seen the light," but he felt the heat, and he promptly surrendered his entire nuclear program, kit and kaboodle, to the United States. Lebanon, inspired by the Iraqi people's own efforts towards freedom, started stirrings of their own to remove the Syrian yoke they'd worn for decades. And when Syria clumsily tried to crack down on the movement, it exploded into a full-fledged national drive towards freedom. Syria itself is now finding themselves on the hot seat over Lebanon, with the United Nations coming down on them for their actions in Lebanon. And Pakistan, who helped spread nuclear weapons technology throughout the Muslim world, is now seeing India as less of a threat than its own Islamist extremists, and is starting to crack down on them and ease the tensions with their fellow nuclear power just to their east.

The question remains, though -- will this hold? Will Bush's efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq actually continue to send reverberations of freedom throughout the world, shaking tyrants and dictators out of their sinecures and letting loose the tide of freedom?

I honestly don't know. The critics of Bush's policies raise some valid points -- we are stretched very thin, militarily, and the general sentiment of the world seems to be pretty strongly against his efforts. It's still a very questionable thing, which way the matter will be resolved. It's still questionable of whether Bush's plan could ever have worked.

I sincerely hope it does. And I hope that history will judge it to have been the right action at the right time, and that Bush will be one day regarded with the same respect and admiration as Reagan, both Roosevelts, Lincoln, and Washington.

For while Bush will accept the judgment of history, the rest of us will have to live with the consequences of his legacy. And I would much rather have that be a successful one, than a failure.

Our next guest is also new to Pundit Roundtable, Robert Mayer of Publius Pundit. Robert?
Topic 1: At the moment I really don't think there's much lower that the Bush administration can get in terms of its domestic agenda, though at times I've felt confused as to just what exactly that is. This makes it the perfect time to get back up on its feet and push forward with much needed reforms. I think the Alito nomination has definitely been the event needed to fire up the Republicans and, afterward, that energy can be projected on other issues like reform of the tax code, immigration, and entitlement programs.

History will judge the Bush administration based on whether it has been able to live up to its promises or not. If President Bush succeeds in creating a democracy in Iraq, he will be judged as successful. If the opposition outmaneuvers him and forces a pullout, and Iraq fails, then Bush will be judged as a failure. The same goes for his domestic policies, but up until this point, he has generally failed at implementing them. Let's see if he can do that, and if he does, then history will judge him as a visionary leader.

Topic 2: I don't really believe that the Democrats have much to gain from either. If they don't fight it, their base will be incredibly disheartened and want a leadership change. Their only chance is to fight, and the merit of their fight in the eyes of the people is what will help or hurt them at the polls.

But aside from the polls, the reason the Alito nomination is so important is because it will draw the Supreme Court closer to the right. And, as we know, the Supreme Court is one of our three most powerful institutions which could take the Democrats decades to get back if they lose it. They'll want to do everything in their power to ensure that a candidate as close to the center as possible is placed in that position.

Now, back to the polls. A fight for the Democrats will liven up their base, but like I said, the merits of their fight will determine whether or not the American public sides with them. They'll need to brand Alito as a far-right ideologue prone to judicial activism. Then they can attempt a filibuster. However, the Republicans seem lined up and ready to support Alito, and they realize the powerful impact of swinging the court to the right, so they'll defeat a filibuster under any circumstances.

The way this could be bad for the Republicans is if the Democrats campaign against Alito and the Republicans don't step up to the challenge of disproving their accusations, something the Republicans are known to be bad about. If they step up, not only will they get their candidate in, but they won't take a hit at the public opinion polls and the Democrats will come out empty handed.

Besides, I think that our electoral districts are so hopelessly gerrymandered that any turnover will be minimal. In a roundabout way, this relates back to my answer about President Bush's legacy. The only way that the Republicans could lose seats at this point is if their supporters stay home on election day, which makes the Alito nomination the starting point for getting the Republicans to come back out and vote in 2006. Otherwise, the Democrats might actually make some gains.

Next we have Rob Port of Say Anything, a return panelist to Pundit Roundtable. Rob?
Topic 1: I don't think Bush's regime will be seen as a failure, but he's always going to be a "bogeyman" to a certain kind of person. Justlike Reagan is now. To this day the mere mention of Reagan's name is enough to set some people off on a rant. I think Bush's situation will be the same for a few decades after his administration. Once we get thirty, forty years out from his term though a lot of the controversy from his administration will fade from memory and he'll be remembered more for what he accomplished. For the most part that will be the liberation of Afghanistan and Iraq and (now I'm speculating about the future) the positive, stabilizing effect that will have on the troubled middle-east region. To a lesser extent he could also be remembered for some fundamental changes to our Social Security program and the tax code, if he ever gets around to those things in his second term. One legacy that will undoubtedly be felt in this country for decades to come is Bush's re-shaping of the federal judiciary. Once Alito is confirmed (and I'm quite confident that he will be) the President will have succeeded in appointing a fair number of judges with an originalist bent. Depending on the cases that come in front of these judges, there is no telling how important this could be. If some terrible rulings like /Roe/ or /Kelo /get overturned a lot of the thanks should go to Bush.

On a negative note, he'll also probably be remembered as the President who signed the Medicare prescription drug entitlement program and the McCain/Feingold campaign finance legislation into law, both of which will undoubtedly be causing problems for us in the next decade or so.

Really, though, it's hard to say what Bush's legacy will be. The media and Hollywood /hates/ Bush, and they (more than anyone else) will be responsible for how we remember his administration. It's been said that history is written by the victors, but in the modern political environment history (for the average citizen) is whatever the media and Hollywood tells us it is. One need look no further than the people who think that JFK was murdered by the CIA because they saw Oliver Stone's movie to see proof of that.

Topic 2: I think that Alito is a bit of a hot potato for the Dems. He was appointed to his current position by a unanimous vote in the Senate, many of those votes coming from some very, very partisan Democrats who are still in the Senate today. It's going to be hard for the Democrats to paint Alito as an "extremist" who is unfit to sit on the Supreme Court after getting that kind of partisan support. And if they want to take a step as extreme as filibustering a Supreme Court nominee (something that has never been done before in the history of this country) they're going to /have/ to try and paint him as an extremist or else look like a bunch of foolish, sniping idiots.

If they fight the Alito appointment with cries of "extremist" and threats to filibuster I think it will end up hurting them in 2006. If they offer some token resistance and then let him pass it won't matter, outside of some resent from the more extreme (read: NARAL, et. al.) wing of the lefty base.

And now we turn to Dean Esmay of Dean's World, also a return guest. Dean, what's on your mind?
Topic 1: The most reliable barometer of a pundit's worth is how reticent he is to pronounce on the verdict of history. The truth is that every President (and most Governors) go through pretty good periods and pretty bad patches. That doesn't even correspond to where they are in their Presidencies. Harry Truman was massively unpopular for a while but rallied to a great election victory in 1948 against Dewey (the famous "Dewey wins!" year). But by the time he left office almost no one liked him, including most in his own party. Now he's viewed as a great or near-great President. Woodrow Wilson was popular and admired much of his time in office but is generally viewed as a failure today. Ronald Reagan had poll numbers this bad during a couple of periods in his presidency and now almost no one even remembers those days.

What will the verdict of history be on Bush? Too early to say, but trying to guess based on how surly voters feel about him at the moment is foolish--just as it would have been dumb to judge him based on his 80-90% approval ratings a few years ago.

Topic 2: Were I advising the Democrats I'd tell them to do the honorable thing and behave as Republicans did when Ginsberg was nominated. An extended fight on this may please some donors but will alienate a lot of others. There comes a point when you tell your donors to pick and choose their battles--even if Roe v. Wade is overturned it doesn't mean abortion becomes illegal and they know it. A big fight on this will NOT make them look good to most moderate voters, and is only likely to result in the "nuclear option" being used anyway.

Here is the host's last word: man, I hardly know what to say after that, those are some great responses. One of the benefits of getting the last word is I get to cherry pick one of the great points made and run with it. I agree with Dean Esmay that the lens of time has made Harry S Truman look like the true hero he is, instead of the unpopular failure he was perceived to be during his tenure as president. I don't detect quite the same breadth of disaffection with Bush, though certainly the disaffection that's out there is deeper, more vehement, and damn-near psychotic in some cases. But, like Truman, I firmly believe that Bush will be vindicated by history,and that the liberation of Iraq will be seen as the turning of the tide that pulled the middle east into the community of nations. Right now, most middle eastern countries resemble bandit clans with seats at the UN, rather than legitimate and responsible nation states, and I think the Iraq War will do more than anything in our lives to change that, both for our benefit and for the benefit of the downtrodden middle eastern masses.

As for the Alito nomination, I hate to say it, but I think the Democrats need to put up a big fight short of a filibuster if they want to have a chance in '06. The Dems constituency needs a fight to whip up the troops and get them in line, and to bring home some big tasty donations. If the Dem leadership didn't at least put up some token resistance, the more heated elements of their base would never forgive them, and who knows, they might even turn to the Green Party. If the Dem leaders aren't there to fight Chimpy McBushitler at every turn, what are they there for?

Finally, I am so glad we got Jay Tea on board, I was persistent with him and it paid off. I have to apologize to him and the other pundits for sending out questions on Saturday. From now on, it's Friday so people have a better chance to respond. Also, Will Franklin could not make it this week, because he is busy changing the spark plugs on his Playstation 2, and I think we all know how involved that can be. He will be back next Sunday though, for our next edition of PUNDIT ROUNDTABLE!

Posted by Ken McCracken · 6 November 2005 11:01 AM


Man, this is really great stuff, guys. I just now got around to reading the entirety of all of the responses, 'cause I was out of town this weekend. Seriously, great stuff.

Posted by: Will Franklin at November 7, 2005 10:48 AM

You all should be on Television!...

Posted by: Zsa Zsa at November 8, 2005 12:54 PM