George W. Bush as a wishful thinker

Wishful thinkers aren’t necessarily bad people. But you don’t want them running wars.

Those of us who believe that George W. Bush is a pathological liar, a spendthrift, a reckless cowboy in foreign affairs, a sower of national disunity for political gain, and the current general in the class warfare being waged with increasing success by the very rich against the rest of us are already voting for John Kerry. To win the election, Kerry needs to get the votes of people who — unaccountably — do not hate and despise the Beloved Misleader.

What can and should he, and his friends, say about Mr. Bush between now and the election? Lots of things, of course, but which one should we repeat until it becomes an eponym, as Bush’s friends have pinned “flip-flop” on Kerry?

My candidate is “wishful thinker.” That’s what the President’s fiscal, environmental, and foreign policies have in common: a gay willingness to believe that things will turn out for the best in the teeth of logic, and that they are currently turning out for the best in the teeth of the evidence.

Wishful thinking isn’t seen as a horrible moral defect, like cowardice of meanness or dishonesty. It’s just a human foible, perfectly consistent with being a decent and likeable person. (No, you don’t think Mr. Bush is either decent or likeable, but you aren’t the audience for this message.)

And yet everyone knows that wishful thinking is the road to disaster; everyone with children has warned them of its dangers. In a military commander, in particular, wishful thinking is horribly dangerous, as it was when Mr. Bush ignored the National Intelligence Estimate that largely predicted the current disaster in Iraq.

Wishful thinking is, in Aristotelian terms, the excess of the virtue of optimism. Optimism enables one to attempt what looks hard and to persist when things seem to be going badly. It encourages hard work because it maintains hope. Wishful thinking, by contrast, encourages foolish attempts and stubborn insistences, and supports laziness; if thinking things are working out is all that’s needed to have them work out, then no hard work is called for.

Thus both Mr. Bush’s boasted optimism and his notorious preference for leisure over labor help make the charge that he is a perniciously wishful thinker plausible. In politics, the fact that a charge is true isn’t enough; it must plausible as well (or even instead).

I think that most voters will immediately agree that “wishful thinker” is a label that applies to George W. Bush; even his doubts about our ability to win the war on terror were transient. And I think that, on repetition and reflection, it will seem to them that having a wishful thinker at the helm in dangerous times is a risk they don’t want their country to take.

Sen. Kerry ought to say something like:

Optimism is a force multiplier; wishful thinking is the road to ruin. The difference is paying attention to reality. Our troops in the field need a Commander-in-Chief who knows that wishing for victory, and imagining that victory is on the way, are no subsitute for hard work and respect for the facts.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

One thought on “George W. Bush as a wishful thinker”

  1. Dilemmas in labeling

    I rather like this strategy, of pinning a label on Bush that clearly says what he is without being antagonistic…the idea that he is a weak, ineffectual "wishful thinker": What can and should he, and his friends, say about Mr. Bush betw…

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