I've been looking at the race for the Republican presidential nomination, and I've come to a disturbing conclusion: maybe we've all been too hard on President Bush.
No, I haven't lost my mind. Mr. Bush has degraded our government and undermined the rule of law; he has led us into strategic disaster and moral squalor.
But the leading contenders for the Republican nomination have given us little reason to believe they would behave differently. Why should they? The principles Mr. Bush has betrayed are principles today's G.O.P., dominated by movement conservatives, no longer honors. In fact, rank-and-file Republicans continue to approve strongly of Mr. Bush's policies — and the more un-American the policy, the more they support it.
Now, Mr. Bush and Dick Cheney may have done a few things other Republicans wouldn't. Their initial domestic surveillance program was apparently so lawless and unconstitutional that even John Ashcroft, approached on his sickbed, refused to go along. For the most part, however, Mr. Bush has done just what his party wants and expects.
There was a telling moment during the second Republican presidential debate, when Brit Hume of Fox News confronted the contenders with a hypothetical "24"-style situation in which torturing suspects is the only way to stop a terrorist attack.
Bear in mind that such situations basically never happen in real life, that the U.S. military has asked the producers of "24" to cut down on the torture scenes. Last week Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, circulated an open letter to our forces warning that using torture or "other expedient methods to obtain information" is both wrong and ineffective, and that it is important to keep the "moral high ground."
But aside from John McCain, who to his credit echoed Gen. Petraeus (and was met with stony silence), the candidates spoke enthusiastically in favor of torture and against the rule of law. Rudy Giuliani endorsed waterboarding. Mitt Romney declared that he wants accused terrorists at Guantánamo, "where they don't get the access to lawyers they get when they're on our soil ... My view is, we ought to double Guantánamo." His remarks were greeted with wild applause.
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And torture isn't the only Bush legacy that seems destined to continue if a Republican becomes the next president. Mr. Bush got us into the Iraq quagmire by conflating Saddam with Al Qaeda, treating two mutually hostile groups as if they constituted a single enemy. Well, Mr. Romney offers more of that. "There is a global jihadist effort," he warned in the second debate. "And they've come together as Shia and Sunni and Hezbollah and Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda with that intent." Aren't Sunnis and Shiites killing each other, not coming together? Nevermind.
What about the administration's state of denial over Iraq, its unwillingness to face up to reality? None of the leading G.O.P. presidential contenders seem any different — certainly not Mr. McCain, who strolled through a Baghdad marketplace wearing a bulletproof vest, accompanied by more than 100 soldiers in armored Humvees while attack helicopters flew overhead, then declared that his experience proved there are parts of Baghdad where you can "walk freely."
Finally, what about the Bush administration's trademark incompetence? In appointing unqualified loyalists to key positions, Mr. Bush was just following the advice of the Heritage Foundation, which urged him back in 2001 to "make appointment decisions based on loyalty first and expertise second." And the base doesn't mind: the Bernie Kerik affair — Mr. Giuliani's attempt to get his corrupt, possibly mob-connected business partner appointed to head the department of homeland security — hasn't kept Mr. Giuliani from becoming the apparent front-runner for the Republican nomination.
What we need to realize is that the infamous "Bush bubble," the administration's no-reality zone, extends a long way beyond the White House. Millions of Americans believe that patriotic torturers are keeping us safe, that there's a vast Islamic axis of evil, that victory in Iraq is just around the corner, that Bush appointees are doing a heckuva job — and that news reports contradicting these beliefs reflect liberal media bias.
And the Republican nomination will go either to someone who shares these beliefs, and would therefore run the country the same way Mr. Bush has, or to a very, very good liar.
Krugman is Professor of Economics at Princeton University and a regular New York Times columnist.
© 2007 The New York Times