By W. James Antle III
Early in George W. Bush’s second term, a conservative band called the Right Brothers came out with a rocking affirmation of the president’s record. Entitled “Bush Was Right,” the lyrics also served to remind us who was wrong—Ted Kennedy, Cindy Sheehan, France. Reminiscent of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” but without the irony, the Right Brothers regaled listeners with vignettes of Bush-era glory: “Democracy is on the way, hitting like a tidal wave” and “Economy is on the rise, kicking into overdrive.”
Within a year, the song would sound like a liberal parody. Bush went from being a unifying figure in the aftermath of 9/11 to a deeply polarizing red-state folk hero by 2004 to a unifying figure once again by 2007—this time, with the country unified against him. With his approval ratings in the basement, by the time he left office many congressional Republicans (at least the ones who survived the 2006 and 2008 elections) would privately admit they weren’t sorry to see him go.
Now George W. Bush is back. He is promoting his recently released memoir, Decision Points. Over considerable protest, his presidential library is breaking ground on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Both projects seek to create a world in which the lyrics of “Bush Was Right” would be seen as a fact-based documentary rather than an amusing bit of campaign-year overzealousness.
In this telling, the war in Iraq was not a fiasco but rather the centerpiece of a global “freedom agenda.” That agenda was also advanced by every Bush initiative, from increased spending to alleviate AIDS in Africa to cuts in the capital-gains tax. The former president regrets the “Mission Accomplished” banner and telling Brownie he did a heckuva job, but he entertains no second thoughts about waterboarding or Guantanamo Bay. Bush sums up his decision about the former in just two words: “Damn right.”
When the Bush library officially opens in 2013, it will probably feature a pair of cowboy boots with the famous GWB monogram. There will be some gifts to Bush from world leaders. And most prominently, the library will display Saddam Hussein’s pistol, a 9mm Glock 18C confiscated from the Iraqi dictator when he was finally captured by American troops in 2004.
It seems the 43rd president has emerged from quiet retirement to lead his acolytes in one more rousing chorus from the Right Brothers. But for his party, this little reunion tour could not have come at a worse time. The Republicans have just regained power, taking back the House of Representatives and winning a majority of the nation’s governorships, in large part by promising to have learned from the mistakes of the Bush years. Seeing him in the flesh once again makes us ask, as he might, “Is our Republicans learning?”
How Republicans see the Bush legacy remains highly relevant for their political future. The Tea Party is an explicitly anti-Obama movement, rising up during his presidency and in reaction to his policies. But it is at least an implicit repudiation of Bush as well. The mounting budget deficits, the loose monetary policies that led to the financial meltdown, and the $700 billion Wall Street bailout they protest all began under Bush. The Tea Partiers also speak of constitutionalism and limited government, not “compassionate conservatism,” “big-government conservatism,” the “ownership society,” or other principle-dodging gimmickry.
This implicit repudiation carries over to elected Republicans. After the GOP’s comeback on Nov. 2, House Republican Whip Eric Cantor, who is in line to be the next majority leader, and Sen.-elect Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) each said the GOP was receiving a “second chance.” Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), a favorite among movement conservatives, frequently reminds audiences that he and his colleagues “lost our way.” While these are more or less direct criticisms of the last GOP congressional majority, it is not difficult to determine who the leader was when Republicans lost their way or blew their first chance.
Nevertheless, there remain a lot of rank-and-file Republicans who sing along to Bush’s tune. A billboard popped up in Wyoming, Minnesota depicting the former president under the question, “Miss me yet?” A poll came out in October showing that 48 percent of the American people thought Bush did a better job as president than Barack Obama. Republicans no longer automatically dismiss the idea of a Jeb Bush presidential candidacy—though some of the longing for Jeb also reflects buyer’s remorse with Dubya.
If the Right embraces an uncritical appraisal of Bush, the case against Obama quickly descends into partisan posturing. When it comes to bailouts, deficit spending, and expansions of the federal government, Bush and Obama exist on the same continuum. Obama may be further along that continuum, but in principle the two presidents’ spendthrift approaches to fiscal policy cannot be separated.
Consider: by the end of the 1990s, Bill Clinton and the Republican-controlled Congress had brought the annual growth in federal expenditures down to less than 4 percent. Then Bush became president and Republicans lost control—first of spending and then of Congress. Federal expenditures began to rise by 6 to 7 percent annually. Under Obama and the Democratic Congress, the increases were on pace to reach 11 percent per annum. This is a difference of degree, not kind. “A $220 billion increase isn’t nothing, and the damage it will do is likely to be compounded by the fact that it represents an addition to the baseline,” writes National Review’s Stephen Spruiell. “But it isn’t a gargantuan blowout compared to where we would be if the Bush-Reid-Pelosi trends had continued.”
In his first term, well before the Democrats retook Congress, Bush presided over the biggest increase in non-defense discretionary spending in 30 years. His Medicare prescription-drug benefit was the largest new entitlement since the Great Society. Farm subsidies, sharply curtailed by the Republican Congress in the ’90s, were substantially increased. So was federal education spending. Bush also chose to finance the trillion-dollar wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through borrowing rather than by cutting domestic spending, a major contributor to the collapse of fiscal discipline.
This record damaged both the country’s finances and the Republican Party’s image of responsible stewardship of taxpayer dollars. It also tarnished the reputations of some of Congress’s leading economic conservatives. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman-to-be of the House Budget Committee, has championed an ambitious set of entitlement reforms. But after the Bush era, he has to reconcile those proposals with a record of voting for the prescription-drug benefit and the “Troubled Asset Relief Program” bailout. Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), one of the strongest voices for budget control in Congress, also voted for the Medicare expansion, a fact that briefly endangered his bid for chairman of the House Republican Conference. Incoming House Speaker John Boehner, meanwhile, was instrumental in passing No Child Left Behind. Even Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) voted for TARP.
How Bush is perceived will have an even bigger impact on the Republican Party’s foreign policy. Since the 43rd president left office, congressional Republicans have begun to question whether U.S. troops should still be in Afghanistan and whether they should have ever gone to Iraq in the first place. But there remains a large and vocal faction of the Capitol Hill GOP that would like a replay of Iraq in Iran: a preventive war to dislodge an unfriendly but not terribly powerful foreign regime and disarm it of weapons it may not possess. Only seven Republican members of Congress voted against the Iraq War in 2003, and today just two remain.
Preventive war is not merely a departure from the Old Right non-interventionism of Robert Taft or the cautious internationalism of Dwight Eisenhower. It requires a lower threshold for the use of military force than was embraced by Ronald Reagan or George H.W. Bush. Given an expansive enough definition of risk, preventive war imposes no principled limit on the resort to arms. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, it is understandable that many patriotic Americans were slow to grasp the inherent radicalism of the Bush Doctrine. After nearly ten years of reflection—and with the benefit of hindsight in Iraq—its reckless character should now be apparent.
Once the regime change is over, the connection between these wars and this country’s national interest becomes still more remote. Much of our blood and treasure in Iraq was poured out not to keep Iraqis from killing Americans but to keep them from killing each other. Toppling the Afghan government that harbored the 9/11 masterminds was one thing. Spending the next decade propping up a different corrupt Afghan government is quite another.
Bush isn’t the only one seeking to rebuild the GOP in his image. While the former president went back to his ranch for a time, many of his aides never left the political scene. Karl Rove is ubiquitous on television and was active in the 2010 campaign. Michael Gerson continues to drop his compassionate conservatism in the Washington Post. Peter Wehner is as hard at work trying to persuade conservatives of Bush’s greatness now as when he was a White House speechwriter.
The new Congress would have a hard time escaping from Bush’s shadow even without his former staffers keeping the memory alive. The ex-president will loom large in the first big legislative battle between the Obama administration and the resurrected Republicans: the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts. Here the GOP would be better off framing the debate as about avoiding Obama tax increases rather than extending the Bush tax cuts. In this political and economic climate, even Democrats are unlikely to let taxes go up on the middle class. And once the tax cuts have been retained for everyone else, the deficit-reduction argument for letting them expire for higher-income taxpayers loses a great deal of force. So the Bush-era tax cuts should survive. But if congressional Republicans are wise, Bush’s name will disappear from their lips as completely as Richard Nixon’s did after 1974.
At least Nixon didn’t spend his retirement advising his party to have more Watergate scandals. In his rehabilitation tour, Bush is busily encouraging Republicans to travel once more down the path that led to their 2006-08 defeats. In an interview with Rush Limbaugh, the former president engaged in sophistry about illegal immigration. “I couldn’t have said it more plainly: I was against amnesty,” Bush told Rush. “I don’t know many people who were for amnesty when it comes time for comprehensive reform.”
“Comprehensive reform” itself consisted of legalizing at least 85 percent of the illegal immigrants already in the United States. And based on the country’s experience with the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, even more illegal immigrants would be likely to arrive in anticipation of this supposedly one-time status adjustment. If this was not an amnesty, it is difficult to imagine what would be.
Bush’s biggest whoppers concern spending. Decision Points contains a graph purporting to show that the average spending-to-GDP ratio during his presidency was lower than under Clinton, Bush’s father, or Reagan. Bush also brandishes a deficit-to-GDP ratio that compares favorably to Bush père and Reagan. But in a bubble economy, these statistics obscure more than they illustrate. And the averages completely ignore the upward trajectory of both spending and the deficit for most of his presidency. Bush’s first budget was $2 trillion and his last was $3.1 trillion. The $127 billion surplus he inherited in 2001 was a more than $1.4 trillion deficit by the time he left in 2009.
In an interview with Kim Strassel of the Wall Street Journal, Bush even denied creating a new entitlement in the form of Medicare Part D. “The entitlement already existed, and the entitlement was Medicare,” he insisted. “And that’s the threshold question—should we have Medicare? If the answer is no, my attitude is fine, go debate it. If the answer is yes, then let’s modernize it.” But the expenditure of $800 billion did not already exist, nor did the additional unfunded liabilities of Medicare Part D that amount to at least $7.2 trillion.
This bizarre revisionist history is not the message Republicans want to be taking into the next election. Yes, Obama’s liberalism breathed new life into grassroots conservative activism. But swing voters also gave the GOP a second chance because Obama merely continued Bush’s borrowing, inflating, and war-making to no obvious benefit.
The Republicans lost because they were Bush’s party. They cannot hold on to power the second time around by singing “Bush Was Right” again, no matter how catchy they may find the tune.
W. James Antle III is associate editor of the American Spectator.
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