The Towering Legacy of George W. Bush
Conventional wisdom errs when it says that George W. Bush was incompetent. He was a president of overwhelming influence, the most effective chief executive since FDR. We live in the world that W. created, for good or — mostly — for ill.
Weirdly, Powerline’s John Hinderaker, of the first and I believe only Time magazine Blog of the Year sort of… well… he was completely, absolutely, right:
It must be very strange to be President Bush. A man of extraordinary vision and brilliance approaching to genius, he can’t get anyone to notice. He is like a great painter or musician who is ahead of his time, and who unveils one masterpiece after another to a reception that, when not bored, is hostile.
Four years out of office, W. still can’t get anyone to notice. Electing Barack Obama was supposed to be a repudiation of his predecessor’s policies, and in many ways I wish it had been, but the truth is that it’s been nothing of the sort. W’s policy innovations have been so popular among the governing class that there have been few serious challenges to them from any corner at all. When these policies, all of them less than twelve years old, are challenged,the challenger is typically presumed to be a crank.
Let’s start with the budget. The Bush deficits continue, driven by a combination of the Bush war spending, the Bush nonwar defense spending, the Bush discretionary spending, the Bush Medicare Part D spending, as well as the Bush tax cuts.
But the deficits are also driven by something a bit more insidious — when the supposed party of deficit hawks goes on a spending binge, we can all guess what the other party will do. And of course they did. One never pivots away from free candy.
The manner of governing has changed permanently as well: Bush’s administration was notoriously opaque; Obama, who campaigned on running the most transparent administration in history, has done exactly the opposite, making it dramatically harder for journalists to do their work. Was the previous administration prey to special interests and lobbyists? This one too, but if anything more. The campaign so far has given no indication whatsoever that government transparency or accountability will improve in either a Romney or a second Obama administration.
Even the Bush policies that we all presumed were temporary have had remarkable staying power: The Bush tax cuts never expired, and it’s possible they never will. The USA-PATRIOT act was supposed to sunset in part, but it was reauthorized and strengthened. The Guantanamo Bay detention camp was targeted for closure, but it never was closed. Half of its prisoners have been cleared for release, at least on paper, but they have “little chance” of ever being freed, says former president Jimmy Carter.
Do I use the passive voice? It fits. We’ve had a passive president. Passive even, it seems, when ending wars: We all know that wars are supposed to end, but Bush’s war in Afghanistan hasn’t. (Iraq? Obama didn’t end that war, either. Bush did.) And if our troops ever do leave Afghanistan, we will still be governed by Bush’s Authorization for Use of Military Force, now incorporated in all its most troubling aspects in the National Defense Authorization Act. It gave the president a carte blanche to wage war anywhere in the world, on terms of the his own choosing, “in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States.” Who reviews his decisions? No one. Where is the battlefield? Everywhere. How long does the war last? Could be forever.
Domestically, the Bush legacy lives on as well. As Matt Welch noted, when Mitt Romney was asked in the second presidential debate how he would be different from George W. Bush, he repeated his five-point plan for prosperity—of which all five points were policies of George W. Bush’s. Not that the other team hasn’t gotten in on the act. “Like Romney’s Five-Point plan?” asks a skeptical Raoul Kleven. “Vote for Obama.”
There has been only one really notable legislative accomplishment in Obama’s first term, one thing I might never have expected from a third Bush administration, and that’s Obamacare. Other than that, George W. Bush would appear to have gotten exactly what he wanted, a very little more or less, and if he were somehow to return to the Oval Office, he would find things very little changed. He might even worry, with the passage of Obamacare and the targeted kill list, that the president now had too much power.
And that would be a hoot, of course, because the narcissism of small differences always is. But it wouldn’t answer the real questions. Questions like: Why exactly is W. still viewed as an incompetent? And why, if his policies are so much in demand, is he still personally so unpopular? The man appears to have delivered exactly what the American electorate wanted, and he’s made it stick, and it’s what the American electorate apparently still wants, and they only disagree about whether it’ll be blue bunting, not red. (Could one of these colors ever mean something different from what it did just a few years before? Of course it could. Just take a look at W., who made it happen back in the day.)
One would never infer Bush’s accomplishments from his reputation. A poll conducted this month found that America’s favorite recent presidents were Ronald Reagan (38%) and Bill Clinton (34%), and that’s maybe unsurprising. But despite two terms of good economic times — and being at war — George W. Bush garnered a meager 1%. The same poll showed him tied Obama, at 28%, as the people’s choice for our worst recent president.
So what gives? And where’s the monumental architecture? I’ve got two answers. And honestly, I sort of hate both of them.
First: W. was hardly the most competent orator or interview subject. The press, whose job it was to shape public perceptions, didn’t care for him for that very simple reason. W. wasn’t a words guy. Press people are words people by definition. It’s hard to deny that there’s a presumption among them that if you can play our game, you can play any game.
If you can’t, you can’t. And W. couldn’t. But he did. And eventually, someone’s going to notice. The revisionism hasn’t been written yet, but it will be. As W. transitions from news to history, his reputation will rise. With only very rare exceptions, historians like presidents who do big things, even if they’re terrible things. In this regard, W. resembles Woodrow Wilson a good deal more than either Richard Nixon or Gerald Ford.
With the press, both Romney and Obama have an advantage that Bush never did: Both speak coherently and appear intelligent under questioning. That counts for a lot with people who when they aren’t writing would be editing, and who would in general prefer to write stories about each candidate’s occasional verbal stumbles rather than tackle the details of their policies. Verbal-stumble stories are easy. Especially when your primary trade is in words. And at the end of the day, they’re the lowest-risk stories around, a choice that only makes sense in a tough employment environment for journalists. (Mistaking these kinds of stories for substantive news? We learned that from W. as well. Gaffes we’ve always had with us, but rarely did they seem so much to be talked about merely for their own sake.)
That’s, anyway… that’s the first reason. Words. I like the second reason even less.
The second reason is that while many of us apparently like W.’s policies — they still poll pretty well — we Americans generally aren’t so comfortable with the sheer fact that we like them. We don’t like what that fact says about us: America used to be a much freer nation, and by that we mean: Most of us at one time knew better. We were more self-confident. At ease. Unsurveilled. A bit more able to trust. We’d defeated the Soviets, defeated the budget deficit, invented the Internet (and let’s not quibble just now about who exactly did it, or how, or with what aims in mind), and we were well on track to get our entitlement systems in order and make them solvent again.
Then something terrible happened, and we were told that it all had to go away. Confidence and freedom were dismissed as ignorance and naivete, or worse, as evidence that you were on the other side.
People thought that way for a while because they were — we all were — genuinely scared. There’s nothing wrong, in moderation, with being genuinely scared of things that are, let’s face it, genuinely frightening. Nowadays the emotion just doesn’t fit so well anymore, and yet the policies are in place now, and they’ll be very hard to change. Vested interests are seeing to them, caring for them, making sure we remain afraid, just afraid enough that we won’t bother fighting too hard. The various aspects of the Bush legacy are here to stay, and all that’s left is quibbling about the details.
Imagining that we might be better — that we might do without the constant, free-form authorization of war against any and all; that we might not need Gitmo; that unreviewable targeted killing of American citizens anywhere in the world is an abomination; wow, that we might even be able to balance the budget — all are extremist views now. Not to be taken seriously.
Karl Rove — at least, we think it was Karl Rove, viz. that secrecy thing again — was also right:
We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.
Image from Wikimedia Commons. By White House photo by Eric Draper. September 13, 2007.