The Political Genius of George W. Bush

The political genius of George W. Bush (Carlos Watson, CNN)

Whether you are a Democrat, a Republican or an independent, it is hard not to look at President Bush’s re-election victory last week and conclude that he is probably one of the three or four most talented politicians of the last half of a century. Why do I write that? Think about it. In 10 short years, George Walker Bush has won not just one but three high-profile political races that most able politicians would have lost. In 1994, with no real previous political experience, he beat a popular incumbent governor in the nation’s second most populous state. Six years later, he beat a sitting vice president during a time of peace and prosperity. And last week, with a mediocre economy, an unpopular war and a well-funded and unified opposition, he not only won his race but also helped increase Republican majorities in the House and Senate.

Many people will point out that Bush has enjoyed advantages that most people never dream of — inherited wealth, a famous family name, unbelievable connections and multiple second chances. But while those are legitimate critiques, the reality is that FDR’s sons never won the presidency; there never was a David Eisenhower administration; and Ronald Reagan’s kids have never inspired much political fear.

Others will write that Karl Rove deserves much or all of the credit. But do you really believe that you can beat former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, Vice President Al Gore and Sen. John Kerry just by being a “puppet”? Sure, Rove helps — as all savvy advisers do. Remember Dick Morris, Lee Atwater and Michael Deaver? Politics is as much about the person as it is about the process. It is a tough, intense game, and the candidate has to be up to the fight. If not, he will eventually fail — if not against Richards, then against Gore; if not against Gore, then against Kerry.

One doesn’t hear “George W. Bush” and “genius” very often in the same sentence, let alone on CNN. Still, Watson is right that Bush’s political talents are seriously underestimated (er, misunderestimated).

Instead of just crediting his family name or Rove, Bush’s extraordinary political success is probably owed to at least five key things: (1) great political fundamentals, including an ability and willingness to raise large sums of money; (2) an ability to propose a clear, coherent and easily understandable policy agenda (e.g., “compassionate conservatism”); (3) an ability to attract, manage and retain a strong team of advisers (e.g., Rove, Ken Mehlman, Ed Gillespie, Karen Hughes, Matthew Dowd and others); (4) a willingness to go for the jugular — repeatedly and without remorse (e.g., the “flip-flopper” label, gay marriage issue, South Carolina primary in 2000); and perhaps most important (5) a willingness to take a risk repeatedly (e.g., targeting Democratic Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle for defeat, offering a Social Security overhaul plan proposal, relying and counting on an evangelical turnout plan).

All true. What’s especially remarkable to me is that he’s had such amazing success without the key attribute of political phenomena like FDR, Reagan, and Clinton–superb oratorical skills. He compensates for that somewhat by being a better manager than either Reagan or Clinton. There may indeed be something to the “MBA President” meme that emerged but quickly died after the 2000 win.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2004,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. McGehee says:

    What’s especially remarkable to me is that he’s had such amazing success without the key attribute of political phenomena like FDR, Reagan, and Clinton–superb oratorical skills. He compensates for that somewhat by being a better manager than either Reagan or Clinton.

    Er, James? Seen him on the stump?

    He’s not a great orator in the classical style, but he’s a master of political “stand-up.” Even with his verbal fumbles he gets his point across amazingly well.

  2. Dodd says:

    My favourite quotation on this topic:

    “Their single organizing philosophy is an irrational, all-encompassing broiling hatred of George W. Bush. Most of all, Democrats hate the president because on every political issue of significance since he came to office, he has beaten them like rented mules.” – Tom Delay

  3. Attila Girl says:

    I must admit that although I know he has charisma that comes across when he’s one-on-one or in small groups, it can be painful to listen to him speak sometimes. The guy’s ability to verbalize what he’s thinking can be compromised sometimes: I’ve heard it said that he has “an engineer’s brain.”