Monday, January 19, 2009
In Requiem: The Bush Presidency
I first heard of this man at the age of 16 during my junior year of high school. I knew I was conservative by that point, and I knew I certainly hated Bill Clinton and just about everything he stood for. His ambivalence; his double-speak; his slick but sleazy delivery; his gutless, triangulating, finger-in-the-air, let's-take-a-poll and-please-as-many-people-as-possible-without-really-doing-anything response to just about every major problem facing the country at home and abroad really aggravated me (does anyone remember those days now?).
America, it seemed, was long overdue for decisive action, for moral clarity, for strong leadership. It had been 12 long years since Ronald Wilson Reagan's conservatism had departed from Washington and many saw W. as his reincarnation. The Right salivated over this prospect at the dawn of a new millennium, with endless opportunities and a Republican Congress to boot. I was one of those people, 100%.
I also loved Governor Bush simply because his style was so unlike Clinton's. His conviction, his swagger, his cockiness, his simplicity, his don't-really-give-a-damn, shoot-from-the-hip, cut-taxes-and-everything-will-take-care-of-itself, even-though-I-constantly-stumble-over-words-I'm-still-right-and-better-than-you style of rhetoric really won me over because it reminded me of someone who graduated from BC (or maybe, subconsciously, my father). Clinton could eloquently prattle for hours on end without missing a beat, yet no one in his audience could grasp what he really meant or what his positions really were. By contrast, Bush could stumble over a few short, choppy sentences yet you still understood exactly where he was coming from every time. This resonated with a lot of folks, and while he didn't win the popular vote in 2000, it's the reason he did as well as he did at a time when Democrats were presiding over a surging Dow Jones and the longest peacetime expansion in history.
It soon became apparent, however, that aside from issues of style and the initial tax cuts he gets passed, Dubya wasn't like Reagan at all. It's kind of like when you first get to Georgia and notice how all the fraternity guys wear boat shoes, polo shirts, and khacki pants. "Wow, these guys look and dress normal like they could have gone to BC. I bet they're cool." But then, for various reasons, you soon realize these guys have very little, if anything, in common with you, and that they give people that do dress normal a really bad name.
In his first term alone, W. more than doubles federal funding for education, pledges trillions into new welfare and healthcare entitlements, pours billions more into foreign aid programs, oversees a dramatic expansion in farm subsidies and corporate handouts, and clings to a self-professed philosophy that "when somebody hurts, government has got to move." It is true that in foreign affairs, he deserves lots of credit for demonstrating ballsy resolve in the weeks and months following 9/11, something Al Gore probably wouldn't have shown. But that ballsyness goes too far in pursuing what now looks to be a war of choice in Iraq and years of nation-building and an over-extended military, things Bush railed against during the 2000 campaign.
By 2004 many of us were agitated, but were told to grin and bear it because the alternative was far worse and that these compromises were necessary to win a second term that would truly enable the administration to carry out its "real" goals: downsizing the federal government, implementing a flat tax, slashing spending, and privitizing Social Security. The first part of this was true: John Kerry's stances were far worse. But the second part never even came close to materializing. Instead, all we got was more of the same.
I don't think Bush deserves a whole lot of blame for this country's bellicosity in the wake of that fateful September day during his first year. We all felt something had to be done after nearly a decade of fruitless half-measures. The days of bombing an aspirin factory or lobbing a cruise missile into some tiny tent in the middle of the desert were over, and action had to be taken. We were undoubtedly right to go into Afghanistan I still think we made the right decision invading Iraq and removing Saddam Hussein given the intelligence reports and what we thought was true (the presence of WMD) at the time. Knowing what we know now, would it make sense? Of course not. Trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives needn't be lost just so we can go around the world "spreading democracy" in places filled with irrational and ungrateful fanatics that will never get their act together.
Where Bush deserves tons of blame is on the domestic stuff, and what should have been achieved. Not since the 1920's has so much opportunity been wasted by a Republican president. Other than the supply-side tax cuts, which do deserve some credit for igniting a robust expansion between 2002-2007, he did not advance any semblance of a true conservative agenda on economic issues at a time when his own party controlled both houses of Congress. He was not able to effectively communicate a coherent message on what should have been key policy initiatives. He sat back and allowed the opposition and liberals in the media to dominate the discussion. He rarely exercised any form of restraint when spending other people's money, and never showed any skepticism toward government power. Alongside his colleagues in Congress, he instead abandoned much of what Republicans used to stand for.
How will history judge this man? I have no idea. More generously than right now? Probably. Almost certainly. But he's still the main reason why the party brand is in tatters and will remain that way for some time. Because of him, an entire generation of voters will predominately vote Democrat for decades to come. Because of him, many see the GOP as the party of big government, authoritarian federal mandates, corporate welfare, bailouts, foreign adventurism, and nanny-state socialism.
It's true that others will continue to see Bush and Republicans as evil "free-market," "far right," "trickle-down" ideologues. They blame capitalism, greed, and oil companies for our current troubles and see higher taxes and more labor unions as the way out (yay! let's create more GM's!). But these people have always been around, have always been wrong, and can never be reasoned with. They are the sorry folks that voted for Mondale in '84. They are the ignorant, partisan, Paul Krugman lackeys who remain firmly convinced that FDR somehow "got us out" of the Great Depression and that only through more bureaucracy, higher tax rates, and another trillion-dollar New Deal can the economy recover and can America become a "great" country again, and by "great" they mean more like France. Unfortunately, while a minority voice, their viewpoints constitute the false history now being written in the pages of Time, Newsweek, and even The Economist. They declare Bush's presidency the final demonstration that "small government" is bad and that the "free market" is dangerous and has miserably failed. Yet government has nearly doubled in size since Bush's arrival and our economy is in many areas substantially less free.
The bad news (or good news, if you're pulling for the Republicans), is that much of Obama's agenda promises even more of the same mistakes that Bush made on even a larger scale. Trillions in new spending. More entitlements. Additional bailouts. Maybe this will open voters' eyes a bit and help them realize that Democrats are just as bad, if not worse, and that we can't spend our way out of problems by creating make work projects or mailing out checks from the treasury. However, unlike Bush, Obama will have the media on his side and will always be seen as a compassionate figure with the best of intentions.
Has George W. Bush been the worst leader this country has ever seen? No, we've had far worse. But his 8 years illustrate the failures of a governing strategy that must never be repeated. With W. gone, we can hopefully redraw that line in the sand proclaiming Democrats and only Democrats to be the party of big government.