Seventeen eighty-eight was a terribly unlucky year for George Bush. That's when a prior George captured the nascent United States' first presidential election. Had that event occurred one year earlier, its quadrennial repetition would now be over and the G. B. landslide might have rivaled that of G. W. But a year can be a long time in politics. The hero of Operation Desert Storm is now taking a battering in the opinion polls and may well be vulnerable to a Democratic challenge.
Whether the first Tuesday of November will indeed bring about a changing of the guard remains to be determined; I have no wish to add to the bulging pile of prognostication. It is, though, worth reflecting on how, against all odds, this has become a soured presidency. All the auspices were favorable for George Bush. The designated heir of the most popular American politician since Roosevelt was graced with, first, an inept Democratic opponent, then the chance to wage victorious war against a thug who looked as if he had been sent by central casting to play the heavy in a Hollywood B movie, and, as supreme benefaction, the final and irretrievable worldwide collapse of communism.
To be sure, much of this fell like a ripe plum into Bush's lap. More often than not he was the tardy follower of events rather than their statesmanlike manipulator. Still, the aura encircling a president is mostly an afterglow of the times during which he serves, and the Bush years have in many ways been good ones. I say that in spite of the undeniable economic woes consequent on the current recession. The economic dip midway through Reagan's first term was considerably steeper than the current episode, and it was unrelieved by any notable foreign triumphs. Nonetheless, there was no Reagan eclipse.
Why, then, the precipitous decline in George Bush's popularity ratings from 90-percent-plus heights to depths emboldening a coterie of undistinguished challengers?
It is not as if this administration has been negligent in attending to the signals of the opinion polls. There is nothing that it has minded quite so carefully. George Bush is a Texan whose two-step is Gallup and Roper, who seemingly never makes a decision without considering how it will play in the media. He is the antithesis of a Harry Truman or a Winston Churchill or a Margaret Thatcher, who would take and stick to a policy course although it led through the political wilderness. Nonetheless, and despite all inclinations to the contrary, Bush finds himself veering dangerously close to the thickets. The question is: Why?
One can point by way of partial explanation to any number of particular decisions that Bush has taken, most notoriously his acquiescence in 1990 to the very tax increase against which only 18 months earlier his lips had sonorously pledged unyielding opposition. And no doubt each of these decisions does account to some degree for the administration's current malaise. But that only pushes the riddle one level deeper. He took none of these shifts and swerves blindly; each aimed to buttress a corner of the Bush incumbency. Cumulatively, however, their effect has been the opposite, and that curious fact merits examination.
I believe it a mistake to attribute the decline of George Bush's presidency to any one fatal misstep or even to a handful of critical decisions. Rather, I shall argue that what we observe if we step back to examine the Bush presidency in its entirety is an almost textbook case of how the whole can be decidedly less than the sum of the parts. On each specific occasion when Bush has endeavored to fine-tune the administration's engine, he has tinkered so as to secure maximal political mileage. It is possible to dispute endlessly the perspicacity of the individual moves. So let us grant that most or, for the sake of argument, all have been shrewdly judged.
The crucial point is that even if that were so, it does not follow that the totality of these individually optimal decisions is itself optimal. To put the matter another way, it can and often will be true that one's overall advantage is better pursued by forgoing some opportunities to snatch at a particular advantage.
An example might help clarify the general point. Suppose that you and I agree to meet at 7 p.m. for dinner. We arrange to do so for mutual benefit. That is, I agree to the date because of the benefits I see in it for me, and you do so to suit your own interests. In the parlance of rational-decision theory, we are each acting as individual welfare maximizers.
Now suppose that at 6 p.m. another and better dining opportunity comes my way. My alternatives then become A) to keep the date I made with you or B) to duck out and take advantage of this new chance. If I want to do the morally right thing I will follow path A; to break promises, barring extreme extenuating conditions, is wrong. If, however, I am a consistent individual welfare maximizer I look instead only to my own self-interest.
As the problem has been set up, it would seem that the individual welfare-maximizing course is B. And indeed that would be so if the transaction were a one-shot affair. But social life is many-shot; how I act on this occasion will have consequences for my future opportunities to transact with others. Even in this simplified scenario these consequences are of two kinds: how my choice will affect your subsequent predictions about my behavior and how that choice affects my own character.
These are mutually augmenting. If I stand you up this time, you will place less confidence in my future promises. And if I allow myself discretion to duck out on this one occasion I thereby loosen, if ever so slightly, the psychological barriers against doing so again next time. If people's characters are even imperfectly open to public scrutiny, then this change in me will lead you to discount yet further the reliability of any future pledges I might make. That will be so even if I preface them with the exhortation "Read my lips!"
To present the contrast graphically, the difference between an individual who follows course A and one who follows course B is as if the former is wearing a sign saying "I KEEP MY PROMISES" and the latter wearing one saying "I KEEP MY PROMISES—WHEN AND ONLY WHEN IT SERVES MY INTERESTS TO DO SO." Plainly, someone identified as the second type will enjoy far fewer opportunities for mutually beneficial social interaction. The paradoxical-sounding upshot is that by resolutely resisting opportunities to secure one's own advantage one can thereby secure greater overall advantage.
Considerations of this kind are now familiar in the philosophical literature of practical reasoning. They are advanced with special insight and rigor in David Gauthier's Morals by Agreement. Although the model Gauthier develops is highly theoretical and quite technical in its details, it can readily be applied to the decision-making strategy of George Bush.
Bush's own words suggest the connection. The one characteristic that he ascribes to himself most often and with greatest apparent pride is prudence. Although it is not clear exactly what he means by this, or even that he has any exact meaning in mind, we can take his sense of the term to connote a disposition to take on each occasion the course that at that moment promises the greatest net advantage. Negatively, it means not being bound by the dead hand of the past. To someone with Bushian prudence, previous undertakings are infinitely malleable in the light of new considerations.
Prudence so construed is the opposite of acting on principle. One who has principles (and by that I mean of course someone who is generally moved to act in accordance with those principles rather than one who merely lends them lip service) is someone who is relatively inflexible to gusts of fashion or nuances in the popularity polls. So a prudent promise maker is also a prudent promise breaker; he will do either with equal alacrity as may seem expedient.
By way of contrast, a principled promise maker will take himself to be tightly bound by the word he has given. This need not be taken to the point of fanaticism. If you promised to join me for dinner at 7 but were in a multicar pileup at 6:30, your principles don't oblige you to drag your hemorrhaging body off to the restaurant. The principled promise maker is, however, someone who will bear substantial costs in order to keep his word—and he will do so precisely because it is his word.
All evidence indicates that George Bush is the most prudent but least principled man ever to occupy the White House. He finds it impossible to undertake genuine commitments. Instead, he invariably sets his sights on the most pleasant bauble within six inches of his nose.
Examples of this tendency are legion. He reversed his support of abortion rights and his criticisms of "voodoo economics" when the pursuit of higher office made it expedient to do so. Once the tax pledge that had garnered him New Hampshire and then the presidency had served its purpose, he heeded the call of Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D–Ill.) et al. to do the "prudent and responsible" thing and raise rates. Taking a stand against racial quotas, he vetoed the Democrats' misnamed Civil Rights Act, but then he signed into law a substitute measure only cosmetically different.
Prior to Operation Desert Storm, he dubiously characterized Saddam Hussein as "worse than Hitler" yet for obscure political reasons let up the assault only hours before it would have swept Saddam from power. He then sedulously ignored the atrocities visited on Iraq's rebellious Kurds and Shiites—arguably the most unfortunate of those who have mistakenly ascribed to Bush a principled stance—until media depictions of the resultant carnage inspired him to a desultory "humanitarian" effort.
He could with a straight face tell an incredulous nation that Clarence Thomas was the best qualified candidate for an open Supreme Court seat, which is, curiously enough, an honest assertion for one who takes "best qualified" to mean "holding out the greatest short-term political advantage." Bush has spoken for free trade but now apes the popular Japan bashing of Rep. Dick Gephardt (D–Mo.) and Pat Buchanan, going them one better by adding Lee Iacocca to his traveling sideshow.
Though evincing pride in being the premier spokesperson for the democratic free world, he has routinely displayed far greater empathy for tyrannies such as China and Syria than he has for democratic Japan and Israel. Note too that the Bush rhetoric is consistently vapid: The Thousand Points of Light cast no shadow, and his vaunted New World Order is neither new, nor applied consistently across the world, nor in any sense an order.
The political consequences of Bushian prudence are now coming home to roost. Voters tend by and large to be inattentive. Elections are infrequent and the efficacy of an individual ballot is minuscule. So, aside from any pleasures inherent in politics as a spectator sport, it does not pay them to invest substantial resources of time and energy in scrutinizing the doings of political actors. What this means is that the fine points of platform and policy are largely lost on them. Their perceptions of candidates will tend to be drawn with a very broad brush. That does not mean that these perceptions are necessarily ill-formed. Sometimes, indeed, they can be substantially less distorted than those of the pundits whose views are taken through a political microscope.
I believe that the current popular perception of George Bush as an ineffectual lightweight is a product of the vague yet basically well-founded apprehension that he is a man who is committed to nothing other than his own re-election, someone whose pursuit of the expedient is unchecked by any deeply held beliefs, principles, or attitudes. Nor is this perception entirely new.
For the past decade, Bush has been running away from the detested "Wimp" label. He tried to put it behind him by "kicking butt" in the vice-presidential debate with Geraldine Ferraro and, seemingly, laid it finally to rest by his handling of the war in the Gulf. But now, albeit transformed, the tag reemerges. If a wimp is someone who will not stand up to the challenge of a bully, then George Bush is no wimp. But though he will stand up, he remains unable to stand for. One distrusts him not because he won't be brave in a fight but because there is no way of telling what he will take to be worth fighting for. He is, ultimately, a man lacking a center, and no legerdemain of Peggy Noonan and Roger Ailes can replace that missing core.
What is it that accounts for this missing dimension of George Bush? In the absence of close psychological examination, one can only speculate, but perhaps his political career prior to being elected president affords a clue. Except for a single term in Congress, Bush never won office in his own right prior to the presidential election of 1988 (and even then he played Elisha to Ronald Reagan's Elijah).
Rather, the offices he occupied were always appointive: ambassador to China, CIA director, Republican party chairman. Success in those capacities, and as vice president, involved adeptly facilitating the directives of others. To display a wit and will of his own in those settings would, indeed, have been a liability. Bush's capacity to internalize the requisites of sophisticated servility proved truly profound, and it landed him the nation's highest office.
Unfortunately, those traits that enabled him to capture the presidency aren't similarly conducive to its effective exercise. Thus, the abject and desperate attempts to bend to every quiver in the polls by, for example, taking a choreographed trip to the mall to buy socks.
By saying that Bush is a man without principles I do not mean to imply that he is altogether a bad person. Quite the reverse: genuine evil requires commitment to (evil) principles—witness Hitler, Pol Pot or, less monstrously, Ralph Nader. Besides, the evidence will allow no such imputation. By all accounts George Bush is warm and affectionate with friends and family, and he is personally loyal to an uncommonly high degree toward those with whom he does business. I do not mean to deny that these are genuine virtues.
But, when untempered by commitment to valid principles, they are insufficient. To wit, the dogged attempts to bolster a thoroughly repudiated Mikhail Gorbachev despite clear indications that the latter could do no more good for either the Soviet Union or the United States.
Coming from Raisa this was admirable; coming from the world's most powerful officeholder it was folly. What the failure of the Bush presidency demonstrates is that a myopic prudence is not enough, nor is even personal decency enough. Adherence to principles matters too, and that is the one lesson of the polls that George Bush will not or cannot learn.
Contributing Editor Loren E. Lomasky, a professor of philosophy at Bowling Green State University, is the author of Persons, Rights, and the Moral Community.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Importance of Being Earnest".