Stanley Fish points to recent facts corroborating his year-old prediction that Bush’s rehabilitation was imminent. I don’t begrudge Fish an “I-told-you-so” moment. He earned it by sticking his neck out far enough to offer his original prediction when most everyone was still swooning over Obama. The strange thing is that, a short year ago, it seemed so improbable that a man who’d managed to get himself elected to the presidency twice, the second time with more votes than any presidential candidate had yet received, would ever again be the object of public expressions of affection and respect.
Take yourself back five years to the 2004 presidential election. Voters had taken account of the absence of WMDs and a deteriorating situation on the ground in Iraq and reelected Bush anyway. He thought, understandably, that the doubts about the legitimacy of his presidency that had first arisen during the 2000 Florida recounts, and had been exacerbated by charges that he’d snookered the Congress into authorizing the Iraq war, had been laid to rest. “I’ve earned . . . political capital,” he observed, “and I intend to spend it.”
But Bush's political checks started bouncing almost as soon as he started writing them. Although the idea of an “ownership society” had been the principal domestic theme of his reelection campaign, he couldn’t get his own party to back his proposal for private Social Security accounts. When you compare it, say, to the present administration’s efforts to close Gitmo, the incompetence displayed in the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina no longer seems all that extraordinary. But Katrina furnished a handy pretext for most of the electorate to give up on the Bush presidency. The voting public couldn’t have undergone an ideological conversion that quickly. Yet it was already retracting the authorization it had given Bush to act in its name less than a year before.
That’s why I used the scare quotes in this post’s title; it’s strange to say that Bush is being rehabilitated when his reelection hadn’t habilitated him with a cloak of legitimacy in the first place. You might have expected, for example, that Bush’s reelection would have moved the Democratic opposition to stop contesting the legitimacy of his decision to go to war and concentrate on the wisdom of how he was prosecuting it. But that didn’t happen.
Whatever you think of Bush and Republicans, this recent history points to a malfunctioning political system. The point of elections is to generate a legitimate government. That means, among other things, that the losers be prepared to give the winners a fair chance to govern according to their values in the expectation that the loser's restraint will be reciprocated when the electoral tables turn. Political contestants aren’t expected to live up to the Golden Rule which requires them to do good things unto others even if they expect the others not to reciprocate. They’re only required to do unto others as they reasonably expect others will do unto them when their positions are reversed.
So Democrats can excuse their intemperate opposition to Bush in light of the Republican's having impeached Clinton on frivolous grounds. And Republicans can probably justify their conduct by pointing to some Democratic misconduct before that. The way that Democrats are now deploring "nihilistic" opposition of Republicans to the Obama agenda is just the latest chapter in a continuing saga of political decay.
This, I submit, is the context in which Bush’s rehabilitation should be understood. I doubt that many people have changed their evaluation of the man and his policies in last year. But now that the passions of the Bush years are starting to cool, some people are starting to change their minds about the legitimacy of the Bush presidency. Too bad that a representative political system like ours can’t work when legitimacy is recognized only in hindsight.