The "Loath to Admit Failure" Meme–and What it Means

The Left liked to talk about how the Bush administration, and particularly Bush himself, were unwilling to admit failure.  There were weeks when it seemed as though the press corps could ask nothing other than, “Why won’t you admit that you were wrong?”  (A nice way of phrasing it might have been: When are you going to admit that you cannot admit that you are wrong?”)  And this was not without reason.  Bush did admit mistakes in certain things–expectations going into the Iraq War, Katrina, Dubai Ports, Harriett Myers–but for the most part he seemed to have a difficult time owning up to the shortcomings in his record and in his person.

The “refuses to admit mistakes” bit is resurfacing now, at least on the right side of the media (with the stimulus, with Iran, etc.), as it was a practical obsession on the left side of the media before.  We’re early in the Obama administration, and I do recall Obama admitting some sort of minor mistake with regard to vetting; the meme reappeared now especially in relation to Obama’s walking back of Biden’s “admission” that the Obama crew misread just how bad an economy Bush had given them (but Biden rushed to say that they had done everything right; they just didn’t realize how bad things were–nevermind the apolocalyptic oratory about an economic crisis from which we could never recover).

This is mostly political brinksmanship.  Let’s say that Bush was wrong in his overall approach to Iraq, including prior to the Iraq War; and let’s say that Obama was wrong to believe that a stimulus of the kind Congress designed would substantially help the American economy (though we still reserve judgment on this one).  Neither side can really admit mistakes without admitting the impoverishment of its political ideology.  I wonder whether some mistakes are not too big to admit, without committing political suicide for oneself or for one’s party.  The loss of credibility would be so great–at least the politicians must fear–that they would not be able to regain political capital.

This is not to excuse the mendacity of politicians who cannot admit their failures.  It’s still sin, from a Christian perspective, to be prideful and deceitful in that way.  I also wonder whether these politicians underestimate the American people; it would take time to regain credibility, but perhaps it could be done.  Yet the politicians are also beholden to the party machinery that elected them and continues to support them.  If Obama admitted that the stimulus was a bad idea, he would be bankrupting all of the Democrats who supported him, and undercutting some of the basic ideology of the Democratic party.  If government spending (given that it requires taking money, in some form or another, out of the private sector) has a negative impact on the economy, then all of a sudden many years of liberal economic theory have to be thrown out.  In the same way, had Bush admitted that his administration was wrong to take the approach it had against Iraq in the U.N. and so forth, it would have turned its back on years of conservative thinking about international affairs.

About Timothy Dalrymple

Timothy Dalrymple was raised in non-denominational evangelical congregations in California. The son and grandson of ministers, as a young boy he spent far too many hours each night staring at the ceiling and pondering the afterlife.
 
In all his work he seeks a better understanding of why people do, and do not, come to faith, and researches and teaches in religion and science, faith and reason, theology and philosophy, the origins of atheism, Christology, and the religious transformations of suffering


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