In recent days, several members of the administration of George W. Bush have compared the Healthcare.gov roll-out with the war in Iraq and Bush's response to Hurricane Katrina. The proper lesson from their efforts: All presidential mistakes are not created equal.
As is the new tradition, Bush staffers regularly appear on talk and commentary shows to provide the "conservative" take on whatever's in the news. But as former employees of the president that left office at one of the lowest approval ratings in memory, there has been, of late, a certain subtext to those takes — a knee-jerk defense of their ex-boss and their ex-jobs. Their eagerness to make that case, however, has led to some particularly lame comparisons between the two presidents.
Matthew Dowd served as chief strategist to the Bush reelection campaign in 2004. That election, you may remember, came 20 months into the Iraq War, before the worst effects of America's mismanagement of the country after Saddam Hussein became obvious. As a contributor to ABC News, Dowd on Thursday outlined a six-step process that, he argued, suggested similarities between his former boss and President Obama's launch of insurance exchanges.
Each president pushed through this signature policy as a broader solution to an existing crisis. President Bush pushed the Iraq War as part of a solution in the aftermath of 9/11 to worldwide terrorism. As we all know now, this was at best tangentially related.
President Obama pushed through health care reform partly as a solution to the economic crisis he faced, and at best this too was only tangentially related.
First, that last point is inaccurate. Obama's push for health care reform was a platform in his 2008 primary campaign, predating the economic collapse. Any arguments about economic benefits — which were made — were ex post facto.
But second: This is a deeply tricky analogy to make. As we noted earlier, the focus on Healthcare.gov's problems is only the most recent attempt to attack Obamacare at large — and one of the only ones that's actually focused on a real problem. That problem, though, is that a website at which people can enroll for insurance through March isn't handling as much traffic as it should. That is not comparable to the War in Iraq. Media Matters' Oliver Willis put the difference starkly in the graph below.
why you shouldnt compare obamacare to katrina or iraq, in one chart. cc: all pundits pic.twitter.com/wcRANjeaa5— Oliver Willis (@owillis) October 22, 2013
But beyond the regrettable death totals — which only counts Americans, mind you — the obvious problems in Iraq eventually demonstrated that the tactics at the heart of the U.S. occupation were flawed. It is possible that Obamacare is deeply flawed as well, and the website glitches are a symptom of that. At this point, the analogy is not apt. It's not clear that it will be.
Willis also notes the death toll from Katrina, an episode that's also beem mentioned. Nicolle Wallace, former communications director for the Bush administration — that is, the person tasked with making compelling arguments on its behalf. On Tuesday, she appeared on Morning Joe, similarly debating the Obamacare website launch. After saying that Obama's response "does not have a whiff of leadership to it," she continued:
“The one difference was Katrina was a storm, the health care law was Obama’s creation. I’m not defending my White House’s handling of Katrina, but it was a natural disaster. This was a disaster of Obama’s creation and imagination.”
This is an even worse analogy, and more directly. The proper analogy isn't between the hurricane (the problem) and the website (an attempt to address the problem). It's between the hurricane and increasing health care costs and numbers of uninsured people (both problems) or Bush's response to the hurricane and Obama's response to the health care issues (both solutions). Wallace may be indirectly rebutting Willis' graph, by noting that many or most of the deaths from the storm were directly the result of the immediate impact of the storm. They weren't all. Critique of Bush in the wake of Katrina didn't center on his having allowed a hurricane to make landfall. It dealt with his failure to ensure that FEMA quickly responded. Comparing the Bush response to Katrina with the Healthcare.gov flaws is a better analogy than Dowd's — but it's still not an even comparison.
Then there's Dana Perino, former White House Press Secretary. As our colleagues at National Journal noted, she too compared Obama to Bush's Katrina response.
Obama still has it within his power to avoid suffering the post-Katrina fate of Bush. … Top Bush staffers still bristle that the first M.B.A. president was faulted on competence and, today, they see Obama's problem as bigger. "He's not dealing with incompetent state and local officials," former Bush press secretary Dana Perino told NJ. "The incompetence is on the federal level."
Perino's tack is different than Wallace's: The aftermath of Katrina wasn't Bush's fault, it was Louisiana's fault. New Orleans'. No matter what your opinion of that argument considered on its own merits, it's a bit ironic to then fault the federal government for the Healthcare.gov launch. After all, the federal system hosted at that site was supposed to have been handled by individual states. Republican states decided not to set up their own exchanges, forcing their residents to use Healthcare.gov. There are multiple levels of culpability, as there were in New Orleans, but Perino highlights the ones that put her and her boss in the best light.
There is a distinct whiff of told-you-so-ism to the responses. A defensiveness. In an appearance on Fox News, Karl Rove busted out his whiteboard to suggest that demand for Obamacare was actually low. But his most gleeful argument came later.
"Wasn't it classic what the administration does? It's blame everybody else. It's never this president's responsibility or his administration's policy. Generally it's his predecessor's responsibility. But know they're blaming who? The people signing up!"
On health care reform, it is indeed not Rove's former boss who bears the blame for any problems. And Barack Obama has certainly learned that the presidency is hard and perilous. Few would argue, though, that his mistakes have matched those of his predecessor. Except former employees of that president.
Photos: Top, Rove and Perino. Inset, Rove and Wallace in 2006. (AP)