A prophetic President Bush

By Reihan Salam
April 26, 2013

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.

During his first presidential run, Bush famously lambasted congressional Republicans for “balancing their budget on the backs of the poor,” and he touted his various efforts to raise literacy and math scores for black and Latino students in Texas. Bush recognized that Republicans needed to be seen not as opponents of government but rather as its reformers, and his moderation was essential to his razor-thin, hotly contested 2000 victory.

This is not to suggest that Bush had the right policy prescriptions all or even most of the time. There is a strong case that the Bush administration should have done much more to address the larger challenges facing less skilled workers.

Bush’s vision of an “ownership society,” which centered on increasing homeownership among low-income Americans, building on the work of his Democratic predecessor, seems in hindsight to have been ill-advised, particularly in the wake of the housing bust. Bush’s faith-based initiative, which aimed to empower religious organizations to take a bigger role in providing them, was always very limited in scope. The Bush-era tax cuts, arguably the centerpiece of the Bush domestic policy, were at best a mixed bag. The cuts in top marginal tax rates and capital gains may well have improved the incentives to work and invest at the top end, and the increase in the child tax credit benefited large numbers of middle-income families. But in the absence of a more ambitious overhaul of the tax code, it’s not clear that these gains were worth the loss of revenue.

Republicans would be wise to heed some of the political lessons of George W. Bush, positive and negative. The most obvious lesson is that the GOP won’t flourish unless it is seen as the defender of the economic interests of middle-income Americans. In 2000, Bush’s emphasis on K-12 education and tax relief was in tune with the voting public. By 2005, however, the Bush administration’s domestic policy was adrift, as it championed misbegotten, ill-explained Social Security reform just as defined benefit pensions were vanishing and middle-class squeeze became a national obsession.

And as James Capretta argues in “Recasting Conservative Economics”in the new issue ofNational Affairs, the right-of-center policy journal (where I am a contributing editor), Republicans need to tell a more compelling story about the Bush years and the 2008 financial crisis with which they will forever be associated. In 2012, it often seemed as though Mitt Romney had forgotten that Bush had ever been in office, and he struggled to articulate how and why his views differed from those of the former president.

The outlines of a compelling counternarrative of what went wrong during the crisis are emerging. One view, which has gained in popularity among right-of-center intellectuals but remains profoundly unpopular among the conservative rank-and-file, is that Senator John McCain was actually right to say that “the fundamentals of our economy are strong” in 2008 — the only problem was that the Federal Reserve failed to do enough to keep aggregate demand stable as the financial crisis took its toll. This has been dubbed a “market monetarist” interpretation of the Great Recession.

The conservative intelligentsia has also rallied around the position that the stability of the financial system can be attributed in part to the overreliance of America’s major financial institutions on debt rather than equity. Wall Street Republicans resist this interpretation, as more stringent equity requirements would reduce profits. Yet at least one prominent Republican lawmaker, Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, has joined forces with the populist Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio to push for much higher equity requirements for banks with assets of more than $400 billion, a measure that will tend to curb the size of the largest banks. The idea is that higher equity requirements will help cushion banks against losses, thus forestalling future taxpayer bailouts.

One can imagine a Republican party that embraces tough equity requirements and market monetarism in the name of preventing future financial crises and catastrophic economic downturns. One can also imagine a GOP that takes George W. Bush’s lead by at least trying to craft a compelling message for middle-income voters. But in 2013, over four years after Bush left office, the GOP still doesn’t know what to make of his legacy, and the result is a party and a movement that is very much adrift.

PHOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama (L) stands alongside (L-R) former presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter as they attend the dedication ceremony for the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, April 25, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed

23 comments

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If the USA wants to return to be part of the civilized world(*) George W. Bush should be jailed for torture and war crime. – The article above is written by just an other cowboy confirming the picture of the ugles American in the world. During my life time Bill Clinton was the only US president that was not ridiculous (moreover Nixon/Bush junior were criminals)
(*) In my opinion the USA is a third world county: high military spending and zero social security

Posted by christopherfrey | Report as abusive

Just disliking the policies of George W. Bush does not make you a “liberal”. In addition, there is a difference between a conservative and a militarist. There are few militarists who actually are “conservatives”.

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive

Kissinger, a few years back, reflected on what he learned while in office. He observed that once in, smart people fail to change. They see the mistakes, but for some reason, maybe the pace of events, are unable to internalize the information and learn and adapt. The end up playing with the skill set that brought in with them, unable to incorporate new lessons.

Thus be it of Bush, a man that loathed nuance, and resisted structure. Thus be it of Obama, a man that needs to feel he is on the edge, a crusader, but with little substance. Neither has much in managerial skill, tho Bush of course had his Harvard MBA. We are stuck on extremes of oscillation. Bush gave the Left a generational opportunity, and Obama squandered it. And so, here we are. Thank god our enemies make as many or more mistakes.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

You can’t fault a conservative for being conservative. Refusing to change is what we call “conservative”.

Posted by pbgd | Report as abusive

The way he knew in advance he was going to collapse the economy was just uncanny.

FREE AMERICA

REVOLUTIONARY (DIRECT) DEMOCRACY

Posted by lao_shanren | Report as abusive

Oh yea, he was a good man and a fine president… well, except for having his cabinet lie about the nuclear capabilities of Iraq to spark an invasion, and sitting on his thumbs with the info that America was under attack on 9/11, and that he increased the size of govt from 18% to 24% of GDP while taxes fell from 19% to 14% during his reign. But I guess it was all the fault of his Congressional Republicans? He may be a good man of conscience, but he was overly religious and not in any way worldly – frankly a terrible combination for the presidency. I think he was best off as president of the Texas Rangers baseball team.

Posted by CDN_Rebel | Report as abusive

As far as many in the UK is concerned, Bush is nothing less than a WAR CRIMINAL – taking our country into his dirty, illegal war in Iraq, based on LIES! All to generate business for his chums – with the attendant MASSIVE corruption!

I don’t give 5 of your cents for him…he is & always will be a war criminal! His family’s ties with the Saudis & Bin Liner – a complete fraud!

Neither do I care about GOPs, commies, democrats, tea parties, liberals etc…Bush can go & rot!!!

Posted by randburg100 | Report as abusive

What kind of prophet takes an entire term to marginalize Dick Cheney?

Posted by snaildarter | Report as abusive

Remember the classic remark about putting lipstick on a pig?

Posted by dougriemer | Report as abusive

The article’s author reports that he “can imagine a Republican party that embraces tough equity requirements and market monetarism”, I.e., one that professes–and advocates policy on the basis of–a belief that the US economy has suffered from insufficient quantitive easing and stimulus, and that Wall Street has been allowed to run up too much debt. Perhaps it is an indicator of the current disassembled state of the GOP that a “right-of-center”columnist finds himself so utterly out of touch with it. Perhaps one can indeed imagine a Republican party that has somehow sidelined its libertarian, tea-stained, goldbug apocalyptarian loudmouths and thoroughly alienated its creamy Wall Street donors, and perhaps there would not be much left besides an impoverished club of right-of-center policy wonks, but I’ll bet you could fit all of them in a conference room at the Fort Wayne Holiday Inn.

Posted by SkepticReader | Report as abusive

While the author identifies some major identity problems for the Republicans and for ‘conservatives’ in general, he misses one major point. Everyone who signs up for a political tag like ‘liberal’ or Republican seems to feel that the major criteria for joining the group is opposition to the perceived ‘other side’. This is supposed to be about solving the problems, dealing with the issues, getting the job done. Instead, it all boils down to whether or not someone or some solution is ideologically pure (I can’t vote for this because the Tea Party doesn’t think it’s conservative enough). In the same breath, the ideologues haul out the flag and claim that only they are true Americans.
Most of these people, on both ‘sides’, are out of touch. Us folks in the street, by a huge majority, want the issues dealt with intelligently and competently. We don’t give a damn if its liberal, conservative or chartreuse. It is a constant mystery why politicians feel duty-bound to identify with one piece of the spectrum and ignore the rest of the population, particularly when, in many cases, up to 49% of their constituents voted for someone else.
If the Republicans want to redefine themselves, how about marketing themselves as the party that represents everyone.

Posted by mandrog | Report as abusive

The author’s thesis statement:

“Bush would have been a great President if he had been a great President.”

My rebuttal: “But he wasn’t, so he wasn’t.”

He wrote:

“The most obvious lesson is that the GOP won’t flourish unless it is seen as the defender of the economic interests of middle-income Americans.”

Now I ask you, is that a difficult concept? No.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive

Salam is putting lipstick on a pig. George W. Bush, WORST PRESIDENT EVER.

Posted by dreadzeppelin | Report as abusive

The fact of the matter is the USA Government systems, is a freight Train that is about to collide head on with a oncoming freight train. Just run the numbers on health care with the New Bees (30 ) Million, if they can not afford insurance today, what makes anyone think they will have 30% of the policy cost to contribute? The department of Health and Human services still has not released a budget for the first year? “GO FIGURTE” 9 months until the largest government take over of business the Health Care Industry and NO ONE KNOWS WHAT IT IS GOING TO COST?

Posted by DavidLewenz | Report as abusive

He could have been, But he wasn’t. He was a complete failure, Starting with his choices of Reagan era cabinet members and his tax cuts without proper thought of the consequences. Maybe he intended to run the country into the ground, so giving future Republicans the ammo to slash funding and programs that they have hated from day one. Or is that giving him to much credit?? As to the Iraqi war— Totally unneeded. His attempt at privatizing SS, a huge give away to Wall Street was just TOO blatant. IN SHORT he was Awful

Posted by DOOM2U | Report as abusive

While I loathe these type of misguided attempts to brainwash unthinking pedestrians I have to first off, strenuously disagree with ARJTurgot2. After historic and monumental obstructionism, covered in depth, how can anyone say Obama (slash his administration) “squandered” the opportunity? The real reason they didn’t go for the public option is because the dems caved to the knee-jerk Birchers, for example.

While I’m not a conspiracy lunatic, like the ever present trolls found in comments, I heartily agree
with many sentiments from UK citizens and believe W was a tool and a puppet of the right. In my own experience, while guv of Te-Xass, Bush not so famously raised a judge in the middle of the night to overrule federal inspectors attempting to shut down 1 of a dozen + industrial hamburger processing ‘turbines’at a factory, simply because it would hurt profits. Good ol boys over safe food for children.

A perfect example of what he was ‘groomed’ for. I have other examples but even the educated among the right wouldn’t listen. The pig reference fits like a glove.

Posted by Mac20nine | Report as abusive

The truth is that the Republicans are the 47 percenters.
And the Republicans are made up of people who got the economy rigged so that they have done very well over the last 5 years while the rest of the country suffered and people who are racist, xenophobic and sexist. You are not going to “modernize” such people. Ann Coulter, Limbaugh, Hannity and Beck speak for these people and they are so far gone, there is not much anyone can do but tolerate them as best as we can and keep as many out of office as possible.

Posted by Feebwillis | Report as abusive

The politi-speak buzz, GOP bloviaters and blogs have their knickers in a knot about his ‘presidential library’ grand opening. The GOP revisionists, including Herr Rove, are claiming that History will prove his ‘greatness’ or whatever. More of the GOP Big Lie deceit trying cover-up the evidence of the laws he broke, he crimes he & Cheney committed or authorized, he issued more secretive, Executive Orders than all other Presidents combined, he authorized Federal agency actions that violated US citizens’ Constitutional rights and protections, he deliberately used President powers to deceive, to lie and spread WMD fears and create national alarm then use citizen fears to pressure Congress into passing laws that abrogate US civil rights and give him authority to declare war against & attack Iraq. Let’s not forget, he authorized torture on Iraqi prisoners, authorized secret kidnapping of foreign nationals then threw in a Balkan country’s prison. That violated the1949 Geneva Convention Treaty rule prohibiting torture, specifically water-boarding. The US was a signatory of that treaty and the US indicted and convicted ex-Nazi army officers and civil officials for war crimes, specifically water-boarding. When his lies and Cheney’s deceits were exposed, rational Americans realized that Cheney *colluded with CEOs of the US Oil cartel could control and profit from Iraqi oil reserves;[remember those secretive meetings to develop a National Energy Plan, that he refused to release names of who attended?]. The total cost of the economic damages his dishonest, illegal acts and lies, caused to America and all citizens,[2013 dollar cost est. approx: Iraq & Afghan $7Trillion and rising, [US GIs KIA -6689, WIA -50356]. His two moronic tax cuts, favoring US corp. and richest, a 10 year revenue loss of $10B. His unofficial and probably illegal, ideology based, cut back of Federal Regulatory Agency’s financial system oversight and enforcement actions and that gave Wall St. banks and stock brokers a free ride and seven years later, the US banking system, undermined by bank fraud & greed, financial and housing market crash of 07. The est. total dollar loss, 2008 to present, est. $29 Trillion and still rising.
*Dick Cheney’s stock options in Halliburton rose from $241,498.00 in 2004,& sold all HB shares at top market value,[May 06 value $83.15], a profit of $34,851,638.000 while Halliburton continued to rake in billions of dollars from no-bid/no-audit government contracts.
I’ve noticed that Bush hasn’t left the county much; if at all. That’s too bad, now that he is retired, his daughters are grown adults, got jobs, he should travel more, visit new places, [The Netherlands], meet new, interesting people.
AND ‘Chimpo McFlightsuit’ got away with it!! No Special Prosecutor, no criminal investigation, no criminal indictments, no conviction, no restitution; no moral high ground for America to stand on, EVER AGAIN!
That’s what happens when US voters elect “the common man’, a Forest Gump approach.

Posted by JBltn | Report as abusive

This is a good time for such an article, reminding us that Bush campaigned as a centrist. Described himself as a compassionate Conservative.

But you really seem to miss the point. Bush didn’t ‘need’ to spend his political capital on ‘enhanced interrogation’ special rendition and enemy combatants, let alone invading Iraq. He chose to.

Small government conservatives have a right to feel peeved. All these policies increase the power of the federal government over individuals. That is where George W Bush’s instincts lay if one chooses to assess him via his actions rather than his rhetoric.

This leaves him to be judged by history against the success of those policies, along side the failure to do anything about the seeds of the financial crisis, immigration reform and the expanding gap between rich and poor domestically.

Bush had been to both Harvard AND Yale. Again it was his choice to project the image of an idiot. Ever mindful of his base voters distrust of intelligence and ‘the elite’ Geirge Bush, son of a president, gradson of a congressman, brother of a governor managed to portray himself as a man of the people versus Al Gore is testament to his political skills. But also to his dishonesty.

In the same way Bush fooled conservatives he was one of them, he fooled the electorate that he was one of them.

The only thing Mr Bush seemed to genuinely believe in was his own right to rule. As such Bush was more like a British Tory than a US republican.

Posted by Urban_Guerilla | Report as abusive

During his 8 year terms, Bush’s inability or unwillingness to articulate and defend the freedom of ordinary Americans betrayed his true intentions.

Yet another Statist intent on expanding Federal power at the expense of the freedom of ordinary Americans. He just never got that every expansion of the State is the diminishment of the citizen.

Posted by ArmsMerchant | Report as abusive

the moneyed interest that backed GW can celebrate him all they want. the reality is that it will maybe take 30 or 40 years to undo his blunders, which the moneyed interests feasted on, much to the detriment of the common good. it seems that the presidency has become another reality show for the uninformed.

Posted by rikfre | Report as abusive

The problem with the Vitter-Brown notion of shoring banks up by adding to their capital is that it assumes that “bank capital” is some sort of solid “thing” that other “things” can rest on.

The fact is that capital is simply a bookkeeping entry, and what it might represent varies wildly from time to time, from one institution to another, and so forth. Whether it does in any sense “represent” what it is supposed to is equally variable, relying as it does upon the trustworthiness of bankers, or the reliability of regulators, two perhaps uncertain foundations.

A fairly common way of arranging financial capital is for a number of “partners” to write IOUs to each other, and put these in a safe place. Auditors will then from time to time ascertain that the paper is in the right place, and government agencies will from time to time consult other pieces of paper written by these auditors. More than “fairly common,” this is in essence the way all financial capital works, and many and wondrous are the forms the IOUs take and the skeins the auditors weave.

Banks stay up the same way bicycles do. Their passsengers have to make continuous small adjustments as they continually threaten to fall over. One can hold a bicycle firmly in place with a lock and a stanchion, but then it doesn’t do anything useful.

Banks, like bicycles, will stay up if they are driven skilfully on well-maintained roads. In recent years both competent drivers and maintainers of the roads have been lacking.

Why are these Vitter and Brown people allowed to go around talking in such a silly way?

-dlj.

Posted by DavidLloydJones | Report as abusive

Had Bush been a one term president, the damage would have been minimal, but the fact that Americans re-elected this dangerous idiot to office proved that America is a country with a simple minded population that worships war & money.

Posted by euroyank | Report as abusive