The Presidency That Republicans Would Rather Forget
The Republican candidates for President have apparently forgotten that this guy was their party's nominee twice.
During the past year of campaigning by the Republican candidates for President, there have been plenty of references to Republican Presidents of the past like Ronald Reagan, Calvin Coolidge, and even Teddy Roosevelt (mostly by Gingrich) on the Republican campaign trial, but almost nobody has made reference to or even uttered the name George W. Bush:
PERRY, Iowa — A funny thing happened recently in the presidential campaign in Iowa: The last Republican president’s name actually surfaced.
“We’ve had, in the past, a couple of presidents from Texas that said they weren’t interested in wars … like George W. Bush,” a voter said to Ron Paul, the Texas congressman who has been sharply critical of U.S. military entanglements overseas. “My question is: How can we trust another Texan?”
It was an odd, almost discordant moment in a GOP contest where Bush, a two-term president who left office just three years ago, has gone all but unmentioned. While the candidates routinely lionize Ronald Reagan and blame President Barack Obama for the nation’s economic woes, none has been eager to embrace the Bush legacy of gaping budget deficits, two wars and record low approval ratings — or blame him for the country’s troubles either.
“Republicans talk a lot about losing their way during the last decade, and when they do they’re talking about the Bush years,” said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont-McKenna College. “For Republicans, the Bush administration has become the ‘yadda yadda yadda’ period of American history.”
The eight-year Bush presidency has merited no more than a fleeting reference in televised debates and interviews. When it does surface it’s often a point of criticism, as when former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum told CNN on Sunday that he regretted voting for the No Child Left Behind education law Bush championed.
The former president himself has been all but invisible since leaving office in 2009 with a Gallup approval rating of just 34 percent. His predecessor, Democrat Bill Clinton, had a 66 percent approval rating in early 2001 when he stepped down after two terms marred by a sex scandal and impeachment.
In a presidential contest dominated by concerns over the weak economy, government spending and the $15 trillion federal debt, the Republican candidates have been loath to acknowledge the extent to which Bush administration policies contributed to those problems. Republicans also controlled Congress for six of the eight years Bush was in the White House, clearing the way for many of his policies to be enacted.
There is no question that Obama’s policies, including the federal stimulus program and the auto industry bailout, have swollen the deficit and deepened the debt. And three years into his presidency, Obama often falls back on complaints about the bad situation he inherited when seeking to defend his own economic performance.
This isn’t entirely surprising, of course. President Bush left office with one of the lowest job approval ratings in recent memory amid the worst recession the nation had suffered through in at least a generation. While the nation was involved in trying to pick a new President, Bush was forced to preside over a financial collapse that threatened to undermine not just the economy but also confidence in the financial system itself. In fact, it was not until recently that polls started to show the public placing at least an equal amount of blame for the state of the economy on President Obama as they do on former President Bush. Internationally, his foreign policy successes in the War on Terror has been eclipsed to some extent by President Obama’s own successes, most notably the killing of Osama bin Laden and Anwar Al-Awlaki. Bush’s foreign policy failures, meanwhile, are contrasted with the recently concluded withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, which was heavily supported by the American public even while being criticized by most of the Republican candidates for President. The fact that Obama has succeeded internationally largely by continuing the policies of the Bush Administration doesn’t seem to have enhanced public opinion regarding Bush himself.
While George W. Bush still isn’t very well regarded by Americans as a whole, it does seem that Republicans continue to have a high opinion of him, but the election has revealed the truth about the Bush years. In fact, judging from the standards of the Tea Party George W. Bush was a pretty atrocious President:
Taking office in 2001 with a balanced federal budget and a surplus, Bush quickly pushed through sweeping tax cuts that were not offset by spending cuts. The tax cuts have cost about $1.8 trillion, according to estimates by the Congressional Budget Office and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The Bush tax cuts were set to expire after 10 years, but Obama allowed them to remain in place temporarily in exchange for an extension of unemployment benefits and a payroll tax cut.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks never were budgeted and have cost taxpayers about $1.4 trillion so far. Obama ordered the last troops out of Iraq in December, but the Afghanistan conflict will extend into 2014.
Bush signed legislation in 2003 enacting a prescription drug benefit as part of Medicare, the government health care plan for seniors — a huge entitlement program projected to cost as much as $1.2 trillion over 10 years.
The Troubled Asset Relief Program, the bank bailout program widely loathed by many conservatives, was another Bush-era program. Congress authorized nearly $700 billion for the program at the recommendation of Bush’s treasury secretary, former Goldman Sachs executive Henry Paulson, in response to the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the subsequent financial crisis in the fall of 2008. As a presidential candidate, Obama supported the TARP bailout, as did his GOP rival, Sen. John McCain.
To be sure, today’s GOP candidates occasionally acknowledge that not all was perfect pre-Obama.
“The reason we find ourselves in the problem today is because we had Republicans and Democrats — you couldn’t tell the difference in the way they were spending,” Rick Perry told a campaign audience in Cedar Rapids.
Of course this is criticism you almost never heard from Republicans during the time that Bush was in the White House and the Republicans controlled Congress. In fact there were only 19 Republicans in the House who voted against Medicare Part D, and for the most part even the most fiscally conservative of Republican loyalists were silent during the Bush era, even though it was fairly apparent what was going on. As The Cato Institute’s David Boaz pointed out after Bush left office this is the President who:
- expanded federal spending by more than a trillion dollars a year, before his disastrous last hundred days
- federalized education
- laid out “a smorgasbord of handouts and subsidies for virtually every energy lobby in Washington.”
- protected the steel, agriculture, and textile industries from foreign competition
- backed farm bills with lavish subsidies for producers
- created the biggest new entitlement since Lyndon Johnson
- bailed out Bear Stearns, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, AIG, Bank of America, Citigroup, and dozens of other banks
- provided government support for mortgages, credit cards, auto loans and other consumer debt, and
- bailed out Chrysler and General Motors in direct defiance of Congress’s refusal to do so
An intellectual honest fiscal conservative would have been screaming at the top of their lungs during the Bush years, and while some of them were the truth of the matter is that most Republicans gave George W. Bush a pass and continue to do so. The candidates desire to distance themselves from him is merely a recognition of the fact that the Bush years remain an albatross around the neck of the Republican Party.
Democrats recognize it too. That’s why we can expect to see the 2012 campaign to include an effort by the GOP to tie whoever the Republican nominee is to what they continue to call “the failed policies of the Bush Administration.” They wouldn’t use this kind of attack if it didn’t poll well, and it definitely does poll well. The Obama Campaign is likely to try to frame the election as a choice between going forward with Barack Obama or going backward to the Bush years with the Republicans. Will it work? I suppose it depends on the state of the economy. If things are improving then the argument that we don’t want to return to the past could resonate quite well. If the economy tanks again in 2012, whether due to another European crisis or for some other reason, then it probably won’t. In either case, though, the GOP cannot escape the legacy of the Bush years by ignoring them completely. Instead, they need to repudiate them and figure out how not to repeat them.