A Formal Debate About George W. Bush With Some Unusual Players
January 6, 2009 9:34 AM   Subscribe

On December 4, 2008, at NYC's Symphony Space, NPR's Intelligence Squared program conducted an Oxford-style debate. As their future debate schedules in Australia, England, 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.

The BBC 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."
posted by WCityMike (26 comments total)

This post was deleted for the following reason: Poster's Request -- loup

this is excellent stuff. kinda crazy way to make a post, but excellent stuff nonetheless.
posted by shmegegge at 9:41 AM on January 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Wait, Bill Kristol is Dan Quayle's brain? That explains so much.
posted by EarBucket at 9:46 AM on January 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

bill kristol is a masterful debater! i enjoy watching him :P

also fwiw: where have all the neocons gone? having wrecked the right, will neoconservatives revert to their left-wing origins or double down on the GOP?
posted by kliuless at 10:02 AM on January 6, 2009

having listened to this on Sunday, I was not impressed... statements were made with no real substantive backup from the conservative side. not much of debate, just two sides talking with no real challenges made. we needed a duel, instead.
posted by njohnson23 at 10:06 AM on January 6, 2009

This is wonderful stuff. It is my sincere hope that the true practice of debate takes a foothold in the Americas. Nothing is lost and everything is gained by sitting down and talking.
posted by alphathefish at 10:08 AM on January 6, 2009

Yeah, normally I would say this is not the way to make a post.

But, then there is always the exception that proves the rule.

Thanks for the post!
posted by absalom at 10:08 AM on January 6, 2009

I could never make it through more than 3 seconds of a show containing both Kristol and Rove, so thanks for the summary. I'm also very happy that even the mainstream frame is "Bush: Worst President or Worstestest President?"
posted by DU at 10:13 AM on January 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

Having listened to this show, I now know why people in the U.S. don't want debates. It was one step removed from a Fox talk show. Some good points were made here and there, but too often people made statements that were outright false and no time was allowed for response.

Real debates aren't an hour of people yelling back and forth, but take a full day, with each side forming structured arguments and doing research. And did I hear right that both people for the pro argument (Weisberg and Jenkins) were actually Bush supporters? Even on the upper west side they weren't able to get Democrats to debate?
posted by destro at 10:24 AM on January 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Absolutely fantastic post, but not much "lifting" done here. The question is badly put (see DU above), and a "debate" in which practically no one's mind was changed (see stats above) is not much of a debate. It's more of a "show." Which is what it was.

We won't be able to say much about the "legacy" of the Bush presidency for several decades, perhaps longer.
posted by MarshallPoe at 10:37 AM on January 6, 2009

Bush Republican Ducks Answer On Whether Bush Is Worst President Ever, Wants To Put Question Off Until He, The Bush Republican, Is Safely Dead (film @ 11)
posted by DU at 10:58 AM on January 6, 2009

In Britain pollsters have long had to allow for the fact that people will not confess to being supporters of the right-wing Conservative Party. It strikes me that so many of the undecideds in this debate breaking for Bush is an example of the same phenomenon: Rove and the other Bush defenders were forceful and powerful enough to provide a cover for people to confess to being Bush supporters all along, they didn't convince anyone. Of course, I can't support this argument with no other data.
posted by alasdair at 11:13 AM on January 6, 2009

We've got leading to do. I don't understand wasting time on Bush 43. Its 44 where the power is now.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:13 AM on January 6, 2009

... a "debate" in which practically no one's mind was changed (see stats above) is not much of a debate

Do people ever really change their minds much with such a polarizing topic? I would assume not, so that seems like a silly complaint.
posted by FuManchu at 11:20 AM on January 6, 2009

Thanks for the excellent summary, WCityMike.
posted by wastelands at 12:11 PM on January 6, 2009

So this debate really only represents the perspectives of those people who supported Bush at the beginning of his presidency (but later withdrew their support) and those who kept supporting the Bush administration all along. And how's that's supposed to shed light on the question of his legacy exactly when 48% or more of the US electorate, from the get-go, never supported the Bush administration or its policies at all.

How does this debate cover a contrasting enough range of viewpoints to illuminate its stated subject? Weisburg professes to having been sympathetic to Bush's policy goals at the outset; Jenkins indicated he liked him initially. So these guys don't really represent the side of the argument they're supposed to represent: The true opposition perspective, those who never supported the Bush administration or its policies--again, almost half of the electorate. Is the "never approved of Bush at all" perspective somehow just illegitimate on its face, too extreme merely by virtue of its moral distance from the extreme right-wing politics of the Bushies?

It's not hard to find many, many other people who have never been even slightly sympathetic to Bush's policy goals or the neo-conservative worldview in general. Surely, people who fundamentally disagreed with Bush's policies from the start would have made better representatives for the worst-President-ever side of the debate?
posted by saulgoodman at 12:19 PM on January 6, 2009 [6 favorites]

Having listened to this show, I now know why people in the U.S. don't want debates. It was one step removed from a Fox talk show.

I've listened to Intelligence Squared a number of times on KQED (so glad the signal gets out to Sacramento), and I've enjoyed some and others not so much. I wonder if it basically comes down to the quality of the people invited to debate. It's not hard to imagine anything with Rove and Kristol sounding a lot like a Fox talk show because Rove and Kristol are basically avatars for the kind of communications Fox embodies.

There was an October debate, America is finally winning the war in Iraq that I was fairly impressed with. Like some of the audience, I actually found Kagan and Keane (on the positive side of the resolution) somewhat informative and persuasive. I'm aware of Kagan's neocon history, find that philosophy problematic, and think that he dissembled in a few places, but nevertheless, I found his arguments to be a plane above the likes of Rove and Kristol, in that he actually appeared to be something of a policy person rather than a completely transparent hack like they are. I learned some things listening to him -- the debate itself was educational as well as argumentative. I'd love to see more discussion like that.
posted by weston at 1:37 PM on January 6, 2009

19 comments in this thread. Man, I'm glad the election is over.
posted by absalom at 3:26 PM on January 6, 2009

the debate notwithstanding, i like how the main benefits of joining the oxford union appear to be pretty girls, cheap beer, and "snacks".
posted by camdan at 3:49 PM on January 6, 2009

Great post.

I love how people are doing the "MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!" thing again and claiming victory in Iraq. Talk a little louder and be sure to get quoted in all the press, please. It'll be that much more fun to rub noses in it when Iraqi students are re-enacting the Iranian Revolution and that decadent, lavish palace we call the American Embassy in Baghdad is occupied by militants with western hostages. Seriously, victory, are you fucking kidding me? Over what, reason?

It's finally online so I can link to it: Epic Bush Fail, or, The Janary 2009 Harper's Index. Read it and weep.
posted by mullingitover at 4:29 PM on January 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

We've got leading to do. I don't understand wasting time on Bush 43. Its 44 where the power is now.

I think analysis of the last decade is absolutely crucial. If we do not examine what went wrong and fix it, we stand to continue making the same mistakes. Refusing to bring the criminals in the Bush administration to justice would reinforce the current state of things: that there are no consequences. Ever since Ford pardoned Nixon "for the good of the nation", the precedent has been set: do whatever you like as President, for there will be no consequences, no trial, no punishment. We need to end this.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:04 PM on January 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

Dear god. It's as if Kristol and Rove only appeared on this thing as a propaganda opportunity. What's with this question about domestic spending when military spending skyrocketed? What's this breaking down the "worst" presidency by noting different types but not presenting an overall worst? Who's to decide who's a terrorist and thus not deserving of civil rights and Miranda before a court has to weigh in on it? Krystal comparing Vietnam body counts and civilians to ONLY Iraqi servicemen?

And although the number of people in the audience who thought Bush was the worst president of the last 50 years increased, and was over half, since the most undecided people (who, considering that "Islamofacist" question and general Rovian tactics, probably contained a good number of plants) went over to Bush's side, they get declared the winner, which they'll now go on Fox News and trumpet loudly (without explaining the "nuance" behind the decision of course) while doing the Infernal Chicken Dance.
posted by JHarris at 7:54 PM on January 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

(ARGH, Iraqi servicemen? Just "servicemen." Just, I repeat, "servicemen.")
posted by JHarris at 8:15 PM on January 6, 2009

I'd watch but it turns out I actually am sensitive to sulfur and brimstone. I have no wish to see Karl rove, other then in a prison jumpsuit.
posted by delmoi at 9:33 PM on January 6, 2009

Why choose a subject that's beyond debate?
posted by ronin21 at 1:08 AM on January 7, 2009

That was the worst IQ^2 debate I've heard yet. It was like the stacked the pro-side with lightweights to get Rove to sign up or something (pure speculation), no actual debating took place.
posted by Shutter at 2:13 PM on January 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Did Bush cause the financial crisis?
posted by Artw at 2:12 PM on January 9, 2009

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