On December 4, 2008, at NYC's Symphony Space
's Intelligence Squared
program conducted an Oxford
debate. As their future debate schedules in Australia
, and America
show, the propositions of such debates are routinely phrased strongly to provoke debate, and this was no exception. The motion that was put forward was: "Resolved, that Bush 43 is the worst President of the last 50 years.
" [mp3, 23 MB, 50 min.]
What lifts this above the reams of media and multimedia
already spent on this issue is that, moderated by ABC's John Donvan
, this premise was debated — under formal debate guidelines — by Jacob Weisberg
, Sir Simon Jenkins
, Bill Kristol
, and ... Karl Rove
airs "Intelligence Squared
", in which Oxford-style debates are conducted. In Oxford-style debates, experts take opposing sides of a proposition. Each has an opening statement, which are followed by rebuttals, audience questions, and two-minute closing statements. (The show itself would be worthy
of its own front-page post, given the caliber of intellectual discussions that take place.) The American version of the show is distributed by NPR, who makes a free podcast
of it available (iTunes, RSS)
Jacob Weisberg, Slate
's editor-in-chief, argued for the premise, as did Sir Simon Jenkins, a Guardian
columnist, formerly of the Sunday Times
. Arguing against the premise was Bill Kristol, the Weekly Standard
's editor-in-chief and the chief of staff to former vice-president Dan Quayle (in 1990, his debate opponent had called him "Dan Quayle's brain
"), and Karl Rove, who has advised Bush since his initial 1977 House run and served as his Deputy Chief of Staff (for West Wing fans, think Josh)
from February 2005
to August 2007
The debate opened with opening argument from all four debaters.
- Weisberg stated he was sympathetic to many of Bush's causes, which he felt were executed badly, and said that the invasion and occupation of Iraq were mismanaged, constitutional rights were trampled, goodwill was ruined, and the economy was mismanaged.
- Kristol stated we've been safe since 9/11; that we've won Iraq; that they increased the economy by 18%; began offering the prescription drug benefit; that, when Bush entered, al Qaeda was ascendant, Hussein wasn't contained, and North Korea and Iran were developing nukes; and that "Obama's presidency will be the major respect and continuation of the Bush presidency."
- Jenkins opened by saying he liked Bush initially, but that what made America's reputation was the moral founding of our actions, and that Bush "snapped the backbone."
- Rove apologized to any audience members sensitive to sulfur or brimstone1 and proceeded to address what he termed the "drivebys" in the other arguments: that No Child Left Behind was per-state because the states should be engaged; that the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief had offered 2 million retroviral drugs; that 21 of the 22 Democrats in favor of NAFTA voted against for CAFTA and free trade purely for politics; that March '00, under Clinton, had the Dow down 38%, the NASDAQ down 78%, and the S&P down 50%; and stated that as to Iraq, "Look, do we wish ... that the weapons were there and it was justified under those terms? Yeah." (The audience at that point booed loudly.)
Audience questions proceeded.
- An audience member asked that if the gross American population is generally wise en masse, and if what Rove said about Bush's successes are true, why is his approval so low? Rove replied it was an unpopular war and a tough economy, and that four had lower approvals: Carter, Nixon, Johnson and Truman.
- Jenkins was asked if Bush's low approval rating was good for Obama (in terms of how he would be compared to Bush), or bad for him (in terms of what point from which he starts his Presidency). Jenkins said that 9/11 was Bush's starting point, and that we'd done what the terrorists wanted: restrict liberties and behave in a certain way. The moderator noted Kristol had said elsewhere that we won, as the terrorists were on the run. Kristol replied that al Qaeda was now a losing proposition; that we curbed civil liberties less than Roosevelt post-WW2 or Kennedy, Johnson or Nixon during Vietnam; and that Goldsmith and Mukasey moved some of those curtailings back. Weisberg noted that Goldsmith was drummed out for that. Kristol said that terrorists don't get civil liberties, Rove noting that terrorists shouldn't get Miranda rights. Weisberg didn't think so either, but said they should have some. Rove replied that the policy wasn't as if they were going to round up the audience, but that if they ran into a U.S. citizen on a battlefield abroad, he'd be treated as a terrorist, not a citizen. Weisberg noted acquittals, and Rove championed that as the system working. Kristol went on to indicate America didn't go to war against Muslims; Jenkins disagreed, saying that there were "lists of people who vanished." Rove called this lunacy.
- Jenkins was asked by an audience member that if Bush had gone only to Afghanistan, what would Hussein have done: been neutral, allied himself with us, or supported al Qaeda? Jenkins responded he didn't believe terrorism to be state-sponsored. Weisberg indicated he was in support of Hussein's removal, but not without allies and not unilaterally.
- Kristol was asked who he believed the worst President in the last 50 years to be, and responded that he believed Johnson made the worst mistake (Vietnam), but did great things with civil rights and Medicare; that the most corrupt was clearly Nixon, and that the most incompetent was Carter.
- Rove was asked if the intelligence had been accurate, would the invasion have still happened? Rove responded no; that Bush was concerned about human rights abuses and Iraq's disregard for U.N. resolutions, but would have pursued a containment strategy.
- An audience member asked that if Bush got credit for our post-9/11 safety, does he then get the blame for 9/11 itself? Rove responded that they wish they had been more alarmed. Weisberg noted that Clarke's book said that because Clinton had been focused on Iraq, Bush wasn't interested as he was actively reversing all of Clinton's policies.
- An audience member asked as to the Bush Administration being the biggest domestic spenders, excepting Homeland Security and Iraq. Rove responded that Clinton's last budget (FY01) increased discretionary domestic spending by 15%, and that Bush reduced it to 7% (FY02), 4% (FY03), 2% (FY05), and 0% (FY06-8). Kristol indicated the biggest domestic expenses were for the two most popular implementations: the tax cuts and prescription drug benefit.
- Weisberg and Jenkins were asked to name courageous decisions by LBJ and Carter, and to compare Bush and Iraq to JFK, LBJ and Nixon and Vietnam. Jenkins noted he had been in Vietnam at war's end, and felt its withdrawal was more competent ... that we had just lost by a bit, and could've stabilized it had we stayed longer. He felt that the punitive element was one of the fundamental problems of Iraq. Weisberg noteed that Johnson said goodbye to the South for Democrats for generations in order to further civil rights.
- Weisberg and Jenkins were asked how Obama should deal with "Islamofacism" and how such dealing would differ from Bush. Weisberg responded that the focus should be on Afghanistan, on withdrawing from Iraq without it reverting, and questioned whether our lack of post-9/11 incidents was due to policy or chance. The audience member said that he didn't feel that the answers were responsive; that Hussein was supporting terrorism with payments, medical treatment, and a training camp; that Democrats such as Sen. Kennedy had echoed the WMD claims; and that Gaddafi had been successfully cowed by our actions.
Two-minute summaries closed the debate.
- Kristol compared Vietnam body counts (55,000 servicemen and 2 million citizens) to Iraq (4,000 servicemen), believing Vietnam to be far wose than Iraq.
- Weisberg said that Bush's failure to unite the country as he himself did as a Texas governor and as Roosevelt did after Pearl Harbor showed a lack of character: that he wasn't interested in policy, and didn't tolerate dissent or opening his mind to alternatives.
- Rove stated that dissent was allowed, echoed Kristol's Vietnam claims, and stated that "[t]o suggest that he's not interested in ideas is that pecuiliar form of Bush hatred that causes people to lose their rational senses about the man."
- Jenkins noted 2 million Iraqi citizens were camped outside Damascus because of their fear to return home, and that 66% of Iraqi Christians had been driven out of the country; he said he liked Bush's initial courtesy, moderation, and belief in humble governance, but that he believed Bush allowed the politics of fear, the "most corrosive of all forms of politics", to ruin him; and that America's power obligated it to show restraint, which it had not.
Intelligence Squared judges who "wins" a debate not by who has the greater number of people agreeing with them at debate's close, but instead by how many people changed their opinion during the course of the debate.
The debate opened with 65% believing Bush was the worst President in the last 50 years, 17% disagreeing with that, and 18% undecided.2
It closed with 68% (+3%)
agreeing to Bush being the worst, 27% (+10%)
disagreeing, and 5% undecided; since Rove and Kristol had acquired the larger portion of the undecided, they were considered to have won the motion.
1Not editorializing by yours truly, he actually did.
2Upon hearing this, Rove joked, "I demand a recount."