This week, various political luminaries gathered in Dallas, Texas, to celebrate the presidency of George W. Bush, who presided over one of the most tumultuous periods in modern American history. Among liberals, Bush is considered a uniquely awful president, having led the United States into the ill-fated invasion and occupation of Iraq and having passed into law deep tax cuts that contributed to America’s present-day fiscal crunch.
Conservatives are more conflicted. Some dismiss him as a big-government conservative who failed to heed the wisdom of Goldwater and Reagan. Others, including many who served in the Bush administration, believe that as time passes, he will be lauded for his achievements. The complicated truth is that for all his flaws, George W. Bush had a better understanding of the challenges facing Republicans than most Obama-era conservatives. His rocky tenure is best understood as a testament to how difficult it will be to modernize the GOP.
Many hero-worshipped Bush during the early days of the war on terror, seeing him as a humble Christian leader who was always willing to take the hard road rather than the easy one. But as the public turned against the Iraq War, and as his efforts on behalf of Social Security reform and immigration reform engendered a fierce political backlash, a growing number of conservatives came to see Bush as an apostate who expanded Medicare and the federal role in education while failing to roll back the growth of government. The Bush administration’s response to the 2008 financial crisis alienated conservatives even further, as the ominously named Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), engineered by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, struck many as a hardly-any-strings-attached Wall Street bailout. The Tea Party movement arose in no small part as a repudiation of Bush and his fitful efforts to transform the GOP.
Bush administration veterans, meanwhile, remain convinced that their president has gotten a bum rap. Keith Hennessey, who served as director of the National Economic Council during Bush’s second term, recently described Bush’s keen intelligence, and in doing so worked the former president’s liberal detractors into a frenzy. Among my friends and acquaintances who served in the Bush White House, the general view is that while Bush had solidly conservative instincts on domestic policy matters, he was hemmed in by the demands of the war on terror and the recalcitrance of Republican lawmakers. When the administration pressed for reform of Medicaid and, later on, changes in the way employer-sponsored health insurance would be treated in the tax code, congressional Republicans hardly ever gave him in inch. President Bush had little leverage, as he needed congressional Republicans to approve military spending and to defend his administration in the endless controversies over enemy combatants and surveillance that sapped its strength.
One of the ironies of the Bush presidency is that for all its failures, it was rooted in a clear-eyed diagnosis of the challenges facing Republicans. The end of the Cold War and the success of the Clinton-era Democrats’ centrism had badly undermined the GOP, which by the late 1990s risked irrelevance. Newt Gingrich’s efforts to shrink government were successfully countered by President Bill Clinton’s protean progressive centrism, and so George W. Bush, as governor of Texas, identified an alternative way forward.