Writing in the Financial Times, columnist Max Boot recently described the Bush team as “dysfunctional, not duplicitous,” arguing against the Left’s oft-advanced notion that Bush, et al, are liars. Noting that the embarrassing undercount of terrorist incidents by the State Department, which Secretary of State Colin Powell had to publicly disavow some time back, was too obvious to have been part of a planned effort to deceive, Boot nevertheless went on to add that continuing mistakes of this nature by the administration do seem to suggest problems.

Combined with intelligence gaffes concerning WMD in Saddam’s Iraq and some administration flip-flopping over support for former Iraqi dissident and Defense Department favorite Ahmed Chalabi, along with various other false starts and reversals, Boot argued that Bush appears to have failed to bang the necessary heads together to force agreement between strong-willed cabinet members.

Boot has a point. Bush, from the first, was under-credentialed for the job he took and it showed in his uncertain persona during the 2000 campaign and in the early months of his administration. With only a five-year stint as Texas governor under his belt, Bush won his office by presenting himself to voters as an outsider. And he was.

Unlike Kerry, his Democratic challenger who has a resume of government service decades long and oratorical skills that bespeak years of practiced speechifying, Bush does not exude “presence” or the easy confidence of a longtime politician accustomed to the perks and deference of public office. But if Bush came to office as a political tyro, no one can deny that he’s now had close to four years of very intense on-the-job training. So the question is what’s that worth to the country?

If Kerry’s policies (insofar as we can figure them out) are preferable to those of the incumbent, then Americans should certainly choose Kerry in the upcoming election. But if Bush’s policies have been right, on balance, then the fact that he’s been getting his seasoning on the run, so to speak, is not a strong argument against him.

Mistakes and errors are unavoidable in any administration. It’s how an administration handles things afterward, how well it navigates between the rocks and shoals of harsh (and often highly partisan) criticism, that determines a good captain and crew. Right now much is up in the air and the political enemies of this administration are having a field day surfacing every mistake they can find and worrying it to death as a dog will do with an old and treasured bone. But events have not yet run their course, particularly with regard to this administration’s big policies.

What does the Bush report card show now? Well, we know he’s had a problem with some crewmen who’ve gone overboard. Former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill and former administration national security coordinator Richard Clarke come readily to mind. George Tenet, the CIA director who recently resigned under the shadow of two highly critical reports, one by the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee and another from the 9/11 Commission, didn’t cast the Bush administration in a particularly good light either. (Tenet, like Clarke, was a holdover from the Clinton administration – suggesting still another flawed Bush tendency: an over-dependency on “experts” because of his own lack of detailed familiarity with their fields.)

There also seems to be an unfortunate feud going on in the Administration, just below the surface, between the departments of State and Defense, a feud that’s not doing the president or the country much good right now. As Boot notes, Bush needs to get hold of this one fast, too. 

Unfortunately, the most obvious way to do this, by firing or threatening to fire one or both of the key players, is highly problematic for Bush. Powell is popular with many moderate voters and seems untouchable for that reason alone, while Rumsfeld is too deeply involved in the critical restructuring of the military. As former defense secretary James Schlesinger recently noted in his report on the Abu Ghraib affair, Rumsfeld’s departure now would be a “victory” for America’s enemies. “Banging heads” means you have to have ultimate power over the “heads” involved, and Bush clearly doesn’t have a completely free hand at this point.

Still, his economic policies, despite Democratic carping about tax cuts being bad for the economy, seem to be working just fine. Taxing and spending is always a difficult balance and Bush has been too easy on the spending side, to be sure. But tax cuts have worked as promised, delivering an improving economy with continued low interest rates, even as the projected budget deficit begins to come back down because of increased revenues reflecting better economic times – again precisely as predicted by Bush and his people. A strong and growing economy is essential to the war on terror and Bush’s policies have clearly delivered that.

On the international front Bush has dealt proactively and energetically with the terrorists who declared war on us and brought us 9/11. So far (fingers crossed), further attacks within our borders have been avoided through a combination of tightened homeland security and aggressive search and destroy operations abroad. More, a tyrannical and internationally destabilizing regime has been replaced in Iraq (after a similar replacement in Afghanistan).

The results aren’t in yet, despite the critics’ eager pre-judgments of failure, but if Bush can pull this off, history will credit him with dramatically changing the face of the Middle East. Of course, he hasn’t made friends of the French and German leadership by his actions in this theater, and most Europeans seem to have issues with him. But he’s not Europe’s president, he’s ours, and his job is to look to our interests, not theirs. Since they’d as soon capitulate to the terrorists who threaten world stability today as fight them, it’s not clear that their preferences ought to make a whole lot of difference to American voters.

So when we come down to the wire this November the choice will pivot on two issues: Are Bush’s policies the right ones for the country and is Bush the man for the job? I think the evidence shows his policies on the major issues of the day are, indeed, the right ones. Whether we’ll judge him man enough, however, is another question, one dependent on how well he takes his administration in hand over these last weeks before Election Day.

But, at the least, no one can deny that Bush is, by now, an experienced hand – or suggest that his experience should somehow count for less than that of a lifetime politician like John Kerry who, as even liberal columnist Al Hunt noted in the Wall Street Journal, has only “a mediocre record as a legislator.”

There’s more to being president than the penchant for pompous self-congratulation andexaggerated self-importance Kerry exudes. As Vice President Cheney noted in his speech at the Republican Convention, while senators like Mr. Kerry can whiffle and waffle all over the place, changing their minds with the tides, presidents don’t have that luxury. The president is the tie-breaker in his administration. His decisions count.

So if you like Kerry’s policies, he’s the guy to vote for. And if you doubt Bush’s ability to guide the ship, you may want to take a chance on a career senator who made his name opposing the kind of military spending that has given us the tools we need to fight terrorists today and who has consistently favored higher taxes and spending.

But if you think Bush has chosen a tough but necessary course and is successfully guiding his ship – our ship – into port, despite fiercely adverse headwinds, then the fact that he came to the job without a lifetime of political posturing behind him is no reason to fire the captain now.


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Stuart W. Mirsky, a former New York City official and longtime Republican activist, is the author of several books, including a historical novel about Vikings and Indians in eleventh-century North America (“The King of Vinland's Saga”); a Holocaust memoir about a young Jewish girl trapped in eastern Poland at the height of World War II (“A Raft on the River”), and a work of contemporary moral philosophy (“Choice and Action”) exploring the linguistic and logical underpinnings of our ethical beliefs.