Details from former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan’s memoir trickled out this week, and they’re not flattering to George W. Bush.
Mr. Greenspan reportedly writes, “I thought we had a golden opportunity to advance the ideals of effective, fiscally conservative government and free markets. … I was soon to see my old friends veer off to unexpected directions.” He continues: “My biggest frustration remained the president’s unwillingness to wield his veto against out-of-control spending.”
Mr. Greenspan’s criticism is only the latest affirmation of the Bush administration’s fiscal indiscipline, which takes its place on a long list of embarrassments that includes the mismanaged war, Harriet Miers, Katrina, the Dubai Ports deal, the Gonzales Justice Department, Walter Reed hospital and No Child Left Behind.
It’s a record, certainly, that will hurt the G.O.P.’s chances of holding the White House in 2008. But it will not hurt all of the candidates equally: two of them—John McCain and Rudy Giuliani—may have found a way to avoid the Bush albatross.
Mr. McCain has had a convoluted relationship with the president: first a thorn in his side, then an ally and now, ever so deliberately, a credible critic. One need only look at the McCain campaign Web site to see a timeline of his opposition to Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and the Iraq war’s mismanagement. Even now, as he maintains his devotion to the war’s prosecution, he is making a credible attempt to turn Mr. Bush’s wartime failings into an argument for his own qualifications as commander in chief.
But it’s not just the war. More so than Mr. Greenspan, Mr. McCain has been a poster child for fiscal discipline, training his guns on earmarks and Congressional pork long before it was popular to do so. (It must provide him with some measure of satisfaction now to hear Mr. Greenspan echo his own criticisms.)
Mr. McCain can argue that Republican primary voters angry at Bush for mangling the war and destroying the G.O.P.’s reputation for frugality should credit him for battling Bush on these very issues. Whether it will be sufficient to repair the damage done to Mr. McCain’s presidential prospects by the immigration debate and a list of complaints ranging from McCain-Feingold to the Gang of 14 remains to be seen.
Perhaps even more than Mr. McCain, Mr. Giuliani could be buoyed in the primary by the contrast between him and an administration so bereft of administrative competence. (And between him and a president so inarticulate as to have provoked pleas from conservatives not to deliver a nationally televised Iraq war address and trample on General Petraeus’ lines.)
Mr. Giuliani runs on a platform replete with references to the importance of accountability and the notion that what can’t be measured can’t be managed. In many ways the anti-Bush, he doesn’t drift, avoid conflict or praise incompetent subordinates. His record as mayor and, in particular, his now-famous CompStat crime reduction program are the precisely the sort of approach that can assure G.O.P. voters that conservatives can once again be reformers and managers, not just ideologues.
Likewise, while Bush struggled through a prime-time address on Iraq, it was Mr. Giuliani who led the rhetorical and public relations debate against the Congressional Democrats and in favor of the “return on success” slogan. It was Mr. Giuliani who took on Hillary Clinton and MoveOn.org and dared the Democrats to take issue with either the “return” or “success” part of the message. Mr. Giuliani showed clearly that he can sell conservative policies better than either the president or his primary rivals.
If Mr. McCain and Mr. Giuliani benefit from Mr. Bush’s shortcomings, the candidate who bears the closest resemblance to the president—Fred Thompson, an amiable Southerner who lacks verbal precision and any evidence of administrative skills—may be the prime victim of them. In the wake of this presidency, G.O.P. voters may well recoil from someone who until this summer uttered no criticisms of Mr. Bush’s failing policies and who offers little evidence he might best the Democrats in a debate or effectively manage his own campaign, let alone a badly broken federal bureaucracy. Mr. Thompson’s opponents could not ask for a better example than Bush for their argument that a pleasing personality and pro-life credentials don’t constitute preparation for the demands of the presidency.
The criticisms from Mr. Greenspan, at this point, were hardly surprising. But they did serve as yet another powerful reminder that the G.O.P. nominee who can best distinguish himself from this president may be the only one capable of succeeding him.