President George W. Bush has generally kept out of the public eye since leaving the White House and … most people have been fine with that. But I’ve noticed a recent ramp-up in attention to his past administration and, in particular, a strain of thought running through various liberal and libertarian circles that Bush was actually a worse President than Trump. To wit:
Side note: IMO anyone who says Trump is “worse” than Bush sounds like an absolute idiot. Sure, Trump’s character is more repulsive, absolutely, but UHHHHH do y’all…remember…the Iraq war???????
— Ashley Reese (@offbeatorbit) August 26, 2018
I’m not very big on comparing Presidents to each other — I’ve been extremely critical of the much-touted and deeply flawed historical rankings of Presidents. Among other things, how you rank a President can depend a lot on your political opinions. And there are enough people who agree with Trump to keep his approval rating at 40% (although Bush currently has a favorable rating of 61%). But I still find myself disagreeing with this train of thought and I’d like to explain why.
Before we get going, I just want to clarify that I am well aware of Bush’s faults and failings as President. From my perspective, the largest failing of his Administration were:
- Fiscal Irresponsibility. Bush enacted massive hikes in domestic spending and started two wars. Rather than pay for this, he elected to cut taxes and keep them down, resulting in the country’s first trillion dollar deficit (FY 2009 was Bush’s last budget and was over a trillion in the red before Obama’s stimulus). Not only did we not get entitlement reform, entitlements were expanded, damaging the country’s long-term fiscal picture.
- Torture. Not much to elaborate on here.
- The Iraq War. I supported the war early on. And it should be remembered that, for a while, things went well. Iraq had elections, Libya surrendered their WMDs and Hussein was gone. But then it all fell apart. Whether it was a bad idea in the first place or collapsed because of mismanagement is kind of beside the point. The long-term result was a destabilization of the region that we are still paying for.
- The Patriot Act. Not only the act, but related actions, such as wire-tapping, that compromised civil liberties.
- The Financial Crisis. Lax regulation, a bizarre commitment to low interest rates, and a failure to heed the warning signs led to the biggest economic catastrophe since the Great Depression.
The thing about Bush’s worst failings is that Trump has matched several of them already. He supports civil liberties violations in pursuit of both the War on Terror and the War on Immigration. He has done as much damage to our country’s finances in two years as Bush did in eight. We are currently engaged in ongoing military operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Iraq, Uganda, Syria and Libya while also supporting a brutal war in Yemen. And it’s still early. It took a few years for the problem in Iraq to unfold and the full eight years of Bush’s presidency for the financial crisis to happen.
So that’s the bar I’m setting here: show that Trump is worse than that. And I’m so confident in this exercise that I’m going to tie one hand behind my back. I will not refer to Trump’s tweeting, philandering or corruption. I will not talk about Russia collusion or indictments or obstruction of justice. I will simply focus on policy. This will head off the most common thing I’m hearing from the Bush-Was-Worse crowd: that Trump’s obnoxiousness is what we don’t like. They have a small point: in 20 years, Trump’s policies will matter more than his behavior (unless he really does tweet us into a nuclear war). So, I’ll make this sporting. I’ll pretend that having the White House occupied by an obnoxious, corrupt, philandering pathological liar who spends his mornings in his bathrobe rage-tweeting about what he sees on Fox News is not a problem.
So … finally … without further ado and drawing some inspiration from P.J. O’Rourke:
Ten Reasons Why George W. Bush Was A Better President than Donald Trump
- PEPFAR. One of the reasons George W. Bush ran for President in the first place, according to those who knew him, was because he wanted to do something about the AIDS pandemic in Africa. And the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief has been a triumph. By some estimates, it has saved as many as 11 million lives, almost all of them people with far more melanin than President Bush. And this is a big contributor to Africa’s ongoing economic rise. This is the kind of thing that would usually get a Nobel Peace Prize. It dwarfs almost everything else the President did. PEPFAR has some flaws — notably its demand that organizations not support sex work and its support for abstinence-only initiatives. But I could not imagine Donald Trump starting such an initiative for countries that he calls “shitholes”. This was such an accomplishment of Bush’s, and his insistence on it such a stark contrast to Trump, I really could just drop the mic right now.
- Immigration. President Bush was in favor of enforcement, but he also supported a guest worker program and a path to legal status for illegal immigrants. Read his address on the subject and try to imagine Trump saying anything like that. It’s true that there were some bad aspects — there is a growing controversy over the Administration questioning American citizens’ birth certificates in the Rio Grande Valley, a program that started under Bush. But I could not imagine Bush breaking up families or cutting asylum rates in half as Trump has done.
- The Environment. No, really! Look, I’m not going to argue that Bush’s record on the environment was good. There is plenty to criticize. But some of the criticisms were unfair. Bush was criticized for withdrawing from Kyoto, a meaningless agreement that the Senate had rejected. He was bashed for delaying an arsenic rule that was eventually implemented. But he implemented pollution controls on diesel engines, proposed a sweeping update to the Clean Air Act and supported alternative energy. And while greenhouse gas emissions peaked in 2007, they grew much more slowly under Bush and have been falling ever since. Again, I’m not going to say he was great on this subject. But the Trump Administration is shaping up to be far far worse.
- Scooter Libby. Despite enormous pressure from within his Administration, Bush refused to pardon Scooter Libby, commuting his sentence instead. According to insiders, this was because Bush understood how serious Libby’s crime was. Contrast that against Trump, who has already pardoned Joe Arpaio and is dangling pardons to his various cronies and thugs. I think Presidents are far too stingy with the pardon power. But that’s nothing compared to a President turning into a naked political weapon.
- The Iraq Surge. I place this here not because it worked, although it did on its own terms. I put this here because it was a rare case of a President admitting that he was wrong.
- TARP and related financial stabilization. Yes, this was cleaning up the mess he made. And I have many many complaints about how TARP was done. But in the fall of 2008, we seemed headed for a complete financial meltdown. Bush worked with both his economic team and a Democratic Congress to staunch the bleeding. It was bad; it could have been way worse.
- Support for Science. Republicans have a reputation — not entirely undeserved — for being “anti-science” (by which we mean denying global warming). That’s not entirely wrong but, where the rubber hits the road, the GOP has been generally supportive. There’s plenty to criticize with Bush — the ban of new cell lines for stem cell research and so on. But funding was never a problem. Under Bush, NSF funding increased 46% in constant dollars, faster than it did under Clinton and markedly faster than it did under Obama. NASA funding grew 30%. NIH grew about 10% in constant dollars. While Trump’s proposals are never going to fly in Congress, he did call for dramatic cuts in science, including a 20% cut to the NIH alone.
- Trade. Bush got off on the wrong foot with a wave of steel tariffs. But overall, he was strongly supportive of free trade, supported NAFTA, and began the process that led to the TPP agreement that Trump eventually nixed. And Bush would never have claimed that trade wars were a good thing.
- John Roberts. It’s kind of funny to look back now at the Roberts confirmation. Conservatives were convinced he would be another Scalia and liberals feared he would be. Instead, he’s been a moderate and guided the Court to a much less aggressive approach to cases. Even though I often disagree with him, I like his approach to cases and the way he manages the Court. He’s one of the best things Bush did. Gorsuch, while I am tentatively positive on him, is unlikely to be as good. And Kavanaugh seems more of the Alito mold, which is a bit too rigid for my tastes.
- Bush’s Post 9/11 Speech. Push past the 17 years of fog and try to remember where we were on 9/12. Bush unified the country — at least for a while — and provided a leadership I hadn’t thought him capable of. His speech after 9/11 was one of the best I’ve ever seen a President deliver and in one of our darkest moments. His “I can hear you” moment at the WTC site was a spontaneous and earnest expression of camaraderie. The good feeling didn’t last, of course. But it was miles better than anything Trump has done or ever will. Moreover, at a moment when American fear of Muslims as at its peak, Bush went to immense lengths to show that we were not at war with Islam and that Muslims were welcome in this country. You can contrast that against Trump’s … everything.
Now I don’t expect that list to resonate with everyone, including fellow conservatives and especially fellow libertarians. But I would hope that most of you would see at least a few things on that list you would agree with. And I doubt anyone could produce a similar list for Trump where items (1) through (5) were not “owning the libs” or “enraging the libs”. And if you made a comparable list of issues where Trump might be better, it would mostly consist of “well, he hasn’t plunged us into a recession … yet”.
Of course, I’ve looked at all of these from my conservative/libertarian position. But I’ll throw out four bonus points for the Left Wing: things they should appreciate.
- McCain-Feingold. I opposed it at the time and still think it was a mistake. I don’t think it did much to clean up politics. But it was an attempt to stymie the influence of money on politics and had bipartisan support.
- Medicare Part D. Yes, many liberals hated it at the time. But it represented the largest expansion of Medicare in the program’s history and set the stage for Obamacare.
- Diversity in the cabinet. Trump’s cabinet is the whitest in thirty years. And Bush made a number of historic appointments, such as Colin Powell and Condi Rice, who were far from tokens. He even carried over one Democrat.
- NCLB. The country has soured on this legislation for various reasons as have I. But it’s to be remembered that this was a bipartisan piece of legislation written with Ted Kennedy and included massive increases in federal funding for schools.
When all is said and done, I would rate Bush as a poor President but far from the worst. PEPFAR looms very large in my mind — an act of generosity that has unquestionably bettered the world. But the more I turn over his record and compare it to where Trump is going, the more it becomes obvious that this isn’t just about a personal animus for Trump. At every turn — the environment, the budget, trade policy, immigration — Trump is shaping up to be worse.
And just in case you weren’t depressed enough, here’s a final thought. Writing this list has only amplified something that’s been bothering me all year: we’re only 18 months into the Trump Presidency. We’re only 18 months in and I can already make a reasonable case that Bush — a poor President — was better than Trump. What’s going to happen when Trump’s economic, fiscal and foreign policies really come home to roost?
That’s what scares me. Things are going pretty well right now. But the pieces of a disaster — trade wars, diplomatic chaos, swelling deficit — are already in place. What happens when things stop going so well? I can easily see, in 2020 or 2024, the United States being in a far worse position than we were in 2008: a second Great Depression, a potential default on the debt, another war or three.
There’s a story baseball writer Bill James tells in one of his baseball books. In high school, he knew a man who drank like a fish and drove like a maniac. Everyone swore he would be dead in a car accident by the time he was 30.
Boy, were they wrong.
He didn’t kill himself in a car accident until he was almost 40.