"We live in the era of the 'hanging chad' in which every question ... is a matter of heated partisan rancor." So says local radio talk-show host Jerry Bowyer in the introduction to his slender volume The Bush Boom: How a "misunderestimated" president fixed our broken economy.
In fact, the book itself has been a matter of heated partisan rancor -- even before it was published. When the online bookseller Amazon posted the book for advance orders this autumn, it drew dozens of online unfavorable reviews from "readers" -- obviously hoping to discredit it before it was even released. "What David Hasslehoff is to music, Bush is to the Presidency, and this book is to reality," reads one of the gentler critiques.
"They were saying the book's no good, and I hadn't even seen it yet," Bowyer grouses.
The book's defenders replied with reviews that weren't models of dispassionate discourse, either. (A few accused New York Times columnist Paul Krugman of anti-Semitism -- even though Krugman is Jewish.)
Both sides might be surprised to hear that Bush doesn't look that great in Bowyer's book. Nor does his Democratic predecessor look that bad: Bowyer readily acknowledges that "From an economic perspective, Bill Clinton was a terrific president." His book blames the recent economic downturn on factors largely outside any president's control: from your local phone company to Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who Bowyer says hiked interest rates too much because of bogus inflation fears.
In a book called The Bush Boom, though, people are bound to miss such nuances. And Bowyer does try to score political points, however irreverently. He notes that while revelations about Enron misdealings took place on Bush's watch, the misdealings themselves happened during the Clinton years. Without blaming Clinton, he observes -- fairly and humorously -- that Bush can't be blamed for fiscal misdeeds "that occurred while he was sitting in Austin learning how to pronounce 'Mogadishu.'"
Similarly, while some war skeptics thought the war in Iraq was all about oil, Bowyer contends the invasion was bad for oil companies. Invading Iraq, he suggests, would put more oil on the market -- bringing down both prices and the profits of Bush's oil buddies. As Bowyer notes, oil stock prices dropped significantly before the war.
It's an interesting, though not definitive, argument: If Iraq's oil is going to be pumped (and it is), Bush's buddies would no doubt prefer to be the ones pumping it. But if Bowyer's argument is simplistic, so are the arguments he seeks to debunk.
Not that he always succeeds. Like a good conservative, for example, Bowyer argues that while the Enron manipulations won't do lasting harm to the economy, "governmental regulations that could follow" might. But his evidence -- a 10-day drop in stock prices when politicians threatened more government oversight of accounting -- is thin. Good CEOs don't base corporate policy on day-to-day changes in stock price; why should politicians be fazed by them? (And if a drop in prices reflects anything, it could be a recognition that the jig was finally up.)
In other respects, the jury is still out. Bowyer contends that government job numbers mask economic growth: They factor in layoffs, he writes, but don't count the people who go into business for themselves -- cottage-industry entrepreneurs who will "eventually drive the ... economic growth in the country." Well, maybe: But it's also possible that the numbers underestimate the problem, since unemployment figures don't include the jobless who've given up looking for work entirely.
What might bother critics most, though, is the possibility Bowyer is right -- or at least lucky. Recent signs suggest the economy is turning the corner: Productivity and economic output are rising, while unemployment is tapering off. Whether that reflects the wisdom of George Bush is debatable, but it certainly doesn't hurt the image of the author: Bowyer has been appearing on CNN and elsewhere during recent weeks.
"I pushed this book back in July and August, when people said, 'Who is this crazy guy?'" Bowyer says. "And then the [positive] numbers started hitting and everybody said, 'Can we get that crazy guy?'"
Bowyer admits that he "rushed" the book "in order to be useful" and predict growth just as government data began showing it. As a result, the book is sometimes scattershot, with sometimes tenous connections between ideas -- and even between chapter titles and the material inside. It probably doesn't help that much of the material has appeared in columns Bowyer wrote for the National Review Online Web site.
All in all, though, the book reflects its radio talk-show host: breezily conversational, a bit more fun -- and a bit less partisan -- than either the cover or the coverage suggest.