Wednesday, November 02, 2005

George Bush, the Peter Principle, and King Canute

I missed the discussion at Eschaton when this WaPo article was first noted, but it's just as well; I would have been long-winded anyway. Having been in a "leadership role," I understand acutely the pressures of the position. The pastorate is unique in that sense; one goes immediately to the "top." Rather like a President, it is not a role one can truly prepare for. One moment you are sitting in the pews, or perhaps even on a guiding council; the next moment, you are the person with all the responsibility, and much less authority than you ever imagined having in that position. You don't share responsibility with others, or work with or against them, a la Senators Reid and Frist at the moment. You are it, alone. It tends to bring out your character rather rapidly, and rather sharply. And if there is one thing that is virtually immutable about each of us, it is character.

I don't say that as a condemnation, but as a limitation. Leadership will quickly assess what you can, and cannot, do; mostly the latter. Everyone will want you to be the person they need, or think they want; and that means they will want to see in you whatever seems most useful to them. People become quite willful about what they see in the leader. When I was learning the ropes of ministry, Paul Simon's line went through my head over and over again: "A man hears what he wants to hear, and disgregards the rest." It's a line about self-delusion, but that self-delusion runs strong on both sides, and cuts both ways. The leader may delude herself about what she can do; but those who promote the leader may delude themselves, as well. Which is precisely what I hear in this WaPo article:

The building blocks of President Bush's career _ his credibility and image as a strong and competent leader _ have been severely undercut by self-inflicted wounds, leading close allies to fret about his presidency. They say he's lost his way.

These senior Republicans, including past and current White House advisers, say they believe the president can find his way back into people's hearts but extreme measures need to be taken. Shake up his staff, unveil fresh policies, travel the country and be more accountable for his mistakes _ these and other solutions are being discussed at the highest levels of the GOP.
The real question is not: what happened to Bush? The real question is: what "building blocks"?

Bush's credibility has always been built on sand. It was established in one crisis, and washed away by another. There is absolutely nothing in his past to indicate that Bush can do precisely what is necessary now. He's not a "people person," not in the public-persona, Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton sense. He's loyal to a fault to those who are loyal to him, ao shaking up his staff is no more going to happen than he's going to develop Bill Clinton's gift for touching people's hearts. And accountability? This is a man who has lived his entire life unaccountable for his failures, which have been multitude. His one success was when he acted as a figure-head rather than a leader, and he escaped even the consequences of that debacle by the skin of his teeth and some good timing.

There is no such escape available this time. Hurricane Katrina sealed his political doom, and there is no going back.

The WaPo article says that the Libby indictment "cuts at the president's hard-earned credibility." It would be more accurate to say it was hard-granted credibility. Bush has never been credible. Osama Bin Laden was Public Enemy #1; until Bush declared he didn't care about bin Laden anymore. Iraq threatened the world with WMD; until it became clear Iraq barely had the munitions to threaten its own people. His every political strategy has been to fear monger some new perceived threat: gay marriage; the care and feeding of Terry Schiavo; the "war on terror" which itself raised a huge specter of terror, the better to rally us around our "strong leader". Now the crux of the issue is here. It is the climax of the story, the go/no go point. Everything changes now, regardless of Bush's intentions or desires, and one White House staffer sums it up: "A White House official privately put it this way: Bush has to step up somehow and be accountable."

To put it mildly, from what we know of George W. Bush, he'd rather eat a bug sandwich.

The Peter Principle was formulated for just such a situation as this. Hierarchies, the Principle observed, have their own momentum, and because they promote on merit, they tend to promote people to a point beyond their merits, where they then fail. The Presidency is not part of a hierarchy in that sense, but the analysis of failure is still incisive. Why do hierarchies promote people to failure? Because there is a limit to the abilities of any one human being, and that limit is sometimes somewhere below the level of solitary leadership. Many a Senator who does well working within that collegial body, fares poorly when it is suddenly all their decision. LBJ famously called it the loneliest place in the world. In a leadership role, one quickly embraces one's limitations, or one fails in ever more miserable and spectacular ways.

George W. Bush has failed, and likely will continue to fail, to realize this. In any case, there is no reason to expect he will "be accountable" any more than he will switch political parties or embrace national health care. The hope stays alive among political consultants to the GOP:

"He's always been known for straight talk and blunt talk _ never shied away from that. And that just hasn't been there recently," said GOP consultant John Truscott of Michigan. He and DePino said they expect Bush to turn things around.
But any observer of Texas politics will tell you what a sham that is. Bush was neither blunt or straight with people in Texas. He left the tax system in shambles and the school funding system apparently irrevocably broken, a fact even the most partisan party officials have to now acknowledge (it is the key issue between GOP Governor Rick Perry and GOP gubernatorial candidate Carol McClellan Rylander, and I expect her to get a lot of traction with it in the GOP). Bush will no more change his "leadership style" than he will change his politics.

This article notes that "[t]he percentage of people who call Bush a strong leader has dropped more than 15 points since September 2003." What it doesn't note, however, is that 55% of the American people, according to one poll, judge this presidency to be a failure. "A patch of ice doth not a winter make," but the problem for George W. Bush is not an error in leadership; it is precisely the leadership he has always offered. He can no more change now than he can stop the tide from coming in or going out. King Canute knew he couldn't do that, and tried to demonstrate to his followers the real limits on his abilities. Whether George W. Bush understands his limits, and knows how to work with them, is very doubtful by now. Clearly his most rabid supporters still expect him to reverse the rising tide.

But he's not that kind of leader.

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