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An Inconvenient Truth: The Bush Administration Was a Disaster

In an event noticed by few and mourned by none [1], the journal Policy Review ceased publication last month. A product of the Hoover Institution, Policy Review was, at least in its final years, always serious, often well-written, and rarely interesting. As Reihan Salam observes [2], the problem was not the selection of authors or subjects. Rather, it was the blandness of the content, much of which repackaged the conventional wisdom of the conservative establishment at greater length and with more erudite footnotes.

The farewell essay [3] by editor Tod Lindberg in the final issue suffers from the same defect. Titled “Left 3.0”, the piece traces the rise of American progressivism from its nadir in 1972 to Barack Obama’s triumph last November. The bottom line:

…the Left differs from the Right in knowing where it wants to go: in the direction of more equality. Conservatives mostly know where they want to stay: in conditions in which liberty can thrive and the market can work its wonders in creating prosperity. Since the push in the direction of equality will sometimes impinge on liberty and on the market in ways that people will notice and object to, conservative reform will once again have its day. But today belongs to Left 3.0.

Lindberg gets some important things right, including his argument that the counter-culture of the ’60s is now simply the culture–and that political resistance to the sexual revolution is therefore doomed. The trouble with his analysis is that it operates almost entirely on the level of ideas. In consequence, it misses the main strength of the contemporary Left: the evident failure of (ostensibly) conservative government under the Bush Administration.


According to Lindberg, conservatives want to “stay in conditions in which liberty can thrive and the market can work its wonders in creating prosperity.” That’s certainly how establishment conservatives see themselves. But who else believes that they actually live under such conditions, or at least did until recently?

Most Americans remember the Bush years as a period of expanding government, ruinous war, and economic collapse. They voted for Obama the first time as a repudiation of those developments. Many did so a second time because most Republicans continue to pretend that they never happened.

Yet Lindberg’s essay contain only oblique references to the growth of government spending in the 2000s, to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the housing bubble, or to the long-term stagnation of wages. And, as far as I can tell, there’s no acknowledgment that self-proclaimed conservatives played any role in these calamities. It’s simply not credible to argue that conservatives want to preserve liberty and prosperity when neither has flourished under their favored politicians or policies. No analysis of the strength of Left is complete unless it is combined with an account of the implosion of the Right.

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#1 Comment By cka2nd On March 4, 2013 @ 11:06 am

Mr. Goldman writes: “Most Americans remember the Bush years as a period of expanding government, ruinous war, and economic collapse.”

I think you are correct about most Americans rembering the Bush years for “ruinous war” and “economic collapse” but incorrect to say that most Americans – as opposed to most conservatives or libertarians – also associate “expanding government” with the Bush years. I think it is incompetent governance, not its expansion, that stands out for most Americans when they think specifically of the Bush Administration. If I am right, I think this is an important point for Coservatives to get but most of you are projecting your objections to the growth of government (an objection that most liberals and progressives share when it comes to the military and the security state) onto citizens who have vague objections to the size of government but specific ones when it comes to the competence with which they are governed.

#2 Comment By Mightypeon On March 4, 2013 @ 12:36 pm

Well, Bush had some somewhat positive effects abroad.

1: Russia became resurgent, as unparalleled power always corrupts, it is better for everyone if the USA is somewhat balanced by others. For the record, Russian nationalists would have prefered Romney since they view Russia and the USA as “at odds” anyway and would strongly prefer a more incompetently led adversary.

2: There was some actual shows of central European unity. For the first time in history, the French were truely glad to see a German flag. There was talk of sending German soldiers to guard the dutch beaches from a possible US invasion in case the Bush would try to forcibly “liberate” potential US war crime suspects. Seriously, if US foreign policy had continued Bush like, a European unification, spurned by the threat of a agressive, some may say lunatic, USA may have actually happened!

3: Three cheers to the North-Korean-Iranian friendship! If you thought that a “Communist Cult” like the Kims, which strongly cracked down on any vestige of Abrahamic faith in its territory, would ever get along with the realm of the Ayatollahs, who murdered gross amounts of communists and socialists when they came to power, well, George Bush made it happen! With a single sentence! What incredible Diplomatic skill! Here is what could be done to actually create World peace:
1: Keep George Bush/John Bolton in charge of making foreign policy statements
2: Wait until the rest of the world is allied against the USA
3: Dispose of George Bush/John Bolton and join the world alliance
5: Profit!

#3 Comment By tz On March 4, 2013 @ 1:04 pm

@Veritas. . . .
The comments you post reaffirm my most obstinate objections to conservatism as it currently stands. Greed, selfishness, and deliberately lethal indifference. Having money as the end rather than the means. Materialism over morals. I got mine, f**k you. The only social contract is that we are all out to mutually exploit one another, we are a school of mutually cannibalistic sharks. Blame the losers.

Back to topic. Reading this essay reconnected me with the fact that the dreaded “liberal” mainstream media really did fall in behind Mr. Bush and his relentless drumbeat of propaganda and lies to railroad us into that war. I remember at the time going to the Internet and checking with such close ally’s press such as BBC and Sydney Morning Herald to get something other than the partyline viewpoint concerning the Iraq war.

There are many things I disagree with what the Obama administration is doing, that said however there’s a good many things the Obama administration is doing right. I cannot remember anything the Bush administration did that I agreed with, not one. He has done one thing right however, that is he has disappeared from the public eye after leaving office. I wish others of his administration would do the same (cough, Mr. Cheney, cough).
I literally lost sleep a good number of times over actions that the Bush administration took. I think Mr. Bush will go down in history as one of the most radical and disasterous presidencies ever.

#4 Comment By Anon On March 5, 2013 @ 12:27 am

Thanks Mr. Goldman; I have read very pieces that have simultaneously managed brevity, cogency, and accuracy in confronting the issues inclement to conservatism in America.

If you ever have an opportunity to expand on the themes in this piece, I might point out the obverse of one of your points. Specifically, the point that the counterculture of the 50 years ago is now normatively dominant.

You may want to reflect on the extent to which extent to which conservatives have won the corresponding argument with respect to labor relations and industrial autonomy. The Democratic party has gravitated repeatedly toward Republican positions in this respect. Apostasy or not, it’s pretty well established that both parties participate in the campaign of permanent expansion of regulatory authority. Differences may best manifest in how such authority is then exercised by the executive branch over time.

Just my two cents. Thanks for acknowledging the discrepancy between the echo chamber and the larger zeitgeist.

#5 Comment By fresno dan On March 5, 2013 @ 12:47 pm

Bush was CINO (conservative in name only)

#6 Comment By fredo On March 5, 2013 @ 3:41 pm

Indeed, and indubitably, I must concur with Mr. Anon in his expert analysis.

What a prescient and genius missive he has composed. It deserves to be published nowhere else than everywhere on the planet, on Billboards, for everyone to read.

Thank You Sir.

#7 Comment By Anon On March 5, 2013 @ 6:17 pm

You’re right, fredo. My bit is bombastic and clumsy on second reading. I was just trying to signal respect.

The point stands, though. The mainstream has moved leftward on social mores and rightward on economic and geopolitical themes. I’m just interested in supporting the self criticism Goldman exhibited in this piece, which, it bears repeating, is both rare and insightful.

So in what ways is the country and better and worse off for having economic relations organized more generally along conservative guidelines? Or vice versa for social relations and liberal themes?

I’m interested in everyone’s ideas here. What are yours, fredo?

#8 Comment By Gary Allgood On March 5, 2013 @ 6:44 pm

George Bush Presidency? I am extremely happy GW Bush was a strong President when our Country needed one. He was strong in his Patriotic Reaction to 911. He was Strong economically in his leadership despite the Worst Legislation in American History signed by Bill Clinton, which America was punished by, and continues to be punished by today. “Us Commodities Act of 1999 and Gramm Leach Bliley 2000” These 2 Bills are the Authors of the Housing and Wall Street Meltdowns, and we have Bill Clinton to thank for them, and the Bush and Owebama Presidency’s have been dogged by them.
As for me, my only criticism would be Bush invested too much money into Social Programs, and really wasn’t as fiscally conservative as I would have liked. Otherwise an Outstanding President! You aren’t fooling anyone!

#9 Comment By Rob in CT On March 6, 2013 @ 10:12 am

Regarding Mr. Allgood’s post: it’s gotten to the point where I don’t even know when a post is parody anymore.

#10 Comment By Miao-Lo On March 6, 2013 @ 1:02 pm

President Obama is a centrist. As Anon pointed out, he is right of center in many ways, particularly economic and international. He has reluctantly agreed to left of center social progress. The failure of the conservatives to recognize this pushed them even farther to the right and alienated the majority of America.

Those conservatives that maintained that President Obama is a liberal contributed to the decline of the Republican Party. No one, however, has mentioned yet, in these comments or the discussed article, the damage done by the embracing of torture, and the use of poisonous uranium tipped shells. Not to mention the bully on the block method of “shock and awe”, or the reluctance of Bush-Cheney to condemn the crusader mentality of the Republican base. The report that Bush said that “God told me to invade Iraq!”, confirmed that Bush was criminally insane.

I listened intently to the question asked of Romney about the Bush presidency during the second debate. I believe Romney’s reply ended his chance of becoming President.

#11 Comment By walt On March 10, 2013 @ 7:19 pm

@ tz. concur that it is ‘grab mine’ not libertarian values runing the deregulation agenda. And sometimes i feel those invisible hands of the market …..surreptitiously dipping into my pockets .

#12 Pingback By George W. Bush, Popular Again? | The American Conservative On April 24, 2013 @ 5:08 am

[…] But again, most of it, I suspect, is simply the unwillingness of the public to stay angry at former leaders. Forgiveness is an admirable quality—though forgetfulness certainly isn’t. […]