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The Bush Presidency - In Retrospect

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After 51 months of quiet retirement, former President George W. Bush stepped back into the public square this past Thursday to formally open his presidential library. Despite the comity of the event and the passage of time, many of the fault lines of the Bush presidency remain firmly entrenched.

With the library open, the time to correct the record is at hand.

Some of that correction is easy. So much of the narrative constructed by Bush opponents is tired, willfully uninformed or plain preposterous. A presidency that was partisan, reckless, imperious, callous, stubborn and doggedly unilateral. A president who was both illegitimate and obtuse.

The strawmen fall easily.

The popular narrative begins with the notion that Bush was elected by the Supreme Court, which stepped in and ended a recount of Florida ballots, ostensibly before Al Gore could be declared president.

Remember the “bitterly divided” Court, with conservatives on SCOTUS winning the day? While it is true that a 5-4 decision stopped the re-count in Florida, mostly forgotten is the 7-2 ruling - a clear bipartisan majority opinion – that affirmed the contention by the legal Bush team that the lack of a uniform, statewide system for counting ballots was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment; the Holy Grail of liberal election law theology.

But no matter, Bush would have won even if SCOTUS had not intervened, another, generally overlooked point.

A recount of disputed ballots by news organizations after the Court decision employed numerous counting methodologies, and in each, Bush won. Yes, Bush lost the popular vote to Al Gore. But for that, you can blame the Founders, not SCOTUS or the Bush campaign. Indeed, is hard to imagine that had Gore won Florida, but not the popular vote, that Democrats would have called for abolishing the Electoral College.

And there is the matter of basic intelligence.

The idea that George W. Bush was a real-life Chauncey Gardner – dumb as a bumpkin – is deeply imbedded in American culture at all levels. Some of this Bush did himself through occasionally mangled syntax and new word development, as well as his tongue in cheek celebration of those whose academic performance was less than robust. But the durability of the narrative has much to do with the way Bush was covered by the media, which used Bush’s direct speaking style, and eventually policy decisions in which they did not agree, as a general proxy for Bush’s smarts.

I experienced this first hand, regularly. Life long friends who know me well, trusting my judgement and experience, simply refused to believe me when I was forced to say out loud that the President of the United States wasn’t an idiot. For these folks, Bush’s degrees from Yale and Harvard were meaningless parchments given to a legacy and son of a powerful politician. As for his career, it was always someone else who was the brains behind the operation, whether it was his father, Karen Hughes, Karl Rove or Dick Cheney.

But it just isn’t true, as anyone who actually worked in close proximity to the President will tell you. 43 was America’s first MBA president, and it showed. His meetings were tight and results focused. And you never wanted to come to a meeting with Bush where you were not fully in control of your brief.

I vividly remember receiving a call from a White House aide, very early in the Administration, asking a follow-up question on an issue we had discussed several days before. His voice was strained, almost shaking. He was in the Oval Office, Bush glaring at him and impatient, waiting for the answer to his question, that he clearly believed the aide should have known.

Keith Hennessey writes here what it was like working directly for Bush and his experience, not the media narrative, is the norm.

Bush came to office with a plan. Anyone interested in Bush’s motives for seeking the presidency should read his acceptance speech, given in Philadelphia in August 2000. The speech wasn’t just a political introduction to the American people – it was a primer for his goals. He used the opportunity to tell the American people what he would do, and how he would govern, if they trusted him with power. The speech is remarkably prescient 13 years later.

Bush promised to cut taxes and reduce rates for everyone. He promised to deliver a prescription drug benefit for seniors. He promised to deploy missile defenses to guard America from rogue threats. He promised to reform education and give every child a chance. Bush did all of these things in his first term, on a bipartisan basis with Democrats.

Indeed, the only promise from 2000 that went unfulfilled eight years later was the reform of Social Security that would guarantee the benefits for retirees but provide choice for younger Americans. Bush gets points here for identifying a problem that has become an existential threat to the US economy and budget today, and for having the courage to try to fix it, even if his fellow politicians were more focused on short-term objectives.

It is a remarkable achievement that so much of Bush’s original vision became law – all the more so, as the intervening events of 9-11 fundamentally reshaped his presidency.

In the speech, Bush said, “we will write, not footnotes, but chapters in the American story,” and his Administration did.

Bush noted, “As governor, I’ve made difficult decisions, and stood by them under pressure. I’ve been where the buck stops – in business and in government. I’ve been a chief executive who sets an agenda, sets big goals, and rallies people to believe and achieve them…If you give me your trust, I will honor it. Grant me a mandate and I will use it. Give me the opportunity to lead this nation, and I will lead.” And he did.

“For me, gaining this office is not the ambition of a lifetime, but it IS the opportunity of a lifetime. And I will make the most of it. I believe great decisions are made with care, made with conviction not made with polls. I do not need to take your pulse before I know my own mind. I do not reinvent myself at every turn. I am not running in borrowed clothes. When I act, you will know my reasons. When I speak you will know my heart.” Looking back through the prism of experience, Bush accurately told the American people how he would govern.

More than most recent presidential candidates, Bush’s first national speech to the American people was not simply a job interview, but a governing blue print.

As president, Bush was accused of divisive, hyper-partisanship, but it is hard to find that in his legislative record, especially in comparison with 43′s successor.

The “divisive” Bush tax cuts? They passed the House 240-154 with 28 Democrats crossing the aisle. In the Senate they passed 62-38 with ten Democrats joining the GOP.

No Child Left Behind education reform? An overwhelmingly bipartisan coalition, 381-41 in the House, 87-10 in the Senate.

And then there is the Patriot Act. It passed overwhelmingly in 2001 right after 9-11, but became fodder for partisan attacks on Bush throughout his first term. Yet, when the Patriot Act had to be renewed in 2005, 43 Democrats joined the GOP in the House to pass the measure. In the Senate, it was 89-10 with both Teddy Kennedy and John Kerry voting yes.

And the Iraq War? The Iraq authorization passed the House 296-13 (81 Democrats voting in favor) and 77-23 in the Senate, with 29 Democrats voting in favor, including Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Chuck Hagel and John Edwards.

And in the context of these votes, it is important to remember that Bush did not come to office with commanding majorities. The Senate was 50-50 when Bush was inaugurated, with GOP control assured only by the Vice President presiding. When Jim Jeffords defected to the Democrats in June 2001, Democrats controlled the chamber until after the 2002 midterms. At no time in the Bush presidency did the GOP have more than 229 seats in the House or 55 seats in the Senate. And of course, Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress for Bush’s last two years in office.

This is hardly the legislative record of a go-it-alone conservative.

Bush was accused of cowboy unilateralism.

In truth, Bush was a national interest president, and did not believe the nation should be constrained by arrangements that had clearly outlived their usefulness, or for which there was little political support. Two notable examples where 43 was pummeled included his refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, and for withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty.

In refusing to sign Kyoto, Bush spoke of the negative economic impacts that would result for the US in the treaty limits which did not apply to emerging countries producing the vast new majorities of GHG. The Bush energy program was the beginning of what would become the “all of the above” approach, which was to tap all sources of energy with a priority on domestic sources, as well as investment in renewables and alternate power sources to develop these technologies to the point where they would be commercially viable. That America would move toward cleaner more efficient sources of power, but not at the risk of energy rationing that would harm economic growth.

But there was also a more practical reason. There was no way the treaty would ever be approved by the Senate – the same situation that President Clinton had faced in his second term. Bush saw no reason to sign a treaty that had no hope of being approved.

Bush wasn’t about symbolism and appearances as much as his opponents where.

The ABM treaty, which Bush withdrew from, was signed by President Nixon with a nation that no longer existed in 2001 (the Soviet Union). It was done specifically because American technical development of ballistic missile defense technology had pushed up against the limits of the ABM treaty, and no operational system could be deployed within the limits of the treaty. Americans living Alaska, Hawaii and on the West Coast have reason to thank Bush for his action. Without formally withdrawing from the treaty, the US would not have been allowed to deploy the anti-missile defense systems that now guard the US from North Korean, and other potential attacks.

In that Philadelphia speech, Bush said, “And at the earliest possible date, my administration will deploy missile defense to guard against attack and blackmail. Now is the time, not to defend outdated treaties, but to defend the American people.” And he did.

In the larger context of foreign policy, Bush wasn’t so much a unilateralist as a revolutionary. He never did find reassurance in existing arrangements for their own sake – the status quo for the sake of the status quo.

Bush shocked the foreign policy establishment by refusing to coddle Yassir Arafat, and demanded that if the Palestinians wanted a country, then its leaders would need to start acting as a responsible officials.

Bush’s strategic efforts with India led to one of the most strategically significant realignments in the global balance of power in decades, moving India closer to the US orbit in a relationship of equals. That effort was complemented by new US engagement and strengthened relationships in Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines, Japan and South Korea.

Look at a map and see what all those countries have in common. That wasn’t a mistake either.

Seeing that HIV AIDS was decimating generations in sub-Saharan Africa, Bush launched PEPFAR - the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief; one of the largest US humanitarian programs in history that has saved millions of lives and prevented a pandemic induced genocide. There was no strategic gain for the US in PEPFAR. In the face of human tragedy, it was simply the right thing to do – and Bush did it.

Looking at our own hemisphere, Bush engaged early with Mexico and pushed strongly for a free trade agreement that would boost the economic health and bilateral relationships between the US and Central America countries, and the Dominican Republic. The Bush administration also negotiated the free trade agreements with Colombia and South Korea that President Obama finally found time to support in 2011.

To understand Bush’s global perspective is to read his remarks at the library opening as well as his second inaugural and its “freedom agenda.” The 2nd inaugural - panned at the time as either a new form of American hegemony or just plain unrealistic, anticipated the forces that have since become known as the “Arab Spring.”

Charges that Bush was imperious or running an imperial presidency were amusing at the time, but in comparison to his successor, down right ridiculous.

Much was made of Bush’s “signing statements” – presidential notes in the margins of legislation that frame how the executive understands the law. From the press at the time, you would think that Bush was ruling by decree, though signing statements had been part of executive practice for decades. Not only did President Obama continue the practice himself, but there is now a laundry list of executive actions – from EPA diktats in contravention of congressional intent, to outright assault on the balance of power with Congress over the President’s appointment authority – that make Bush look like a color-within-the-lines Chief Executive in comparison.

The larger critique on Bush’s imperious actions are a reflection of the Bush administration’s response to the Global War on Terror (GWOT). Warrantless wiretaps, enemy combatants, extraordinary rendition, enhanced interrogation and above all, Gitmo. Indeed, this was a common line of attack by candidate Obama in 2008. But it speaks volumes to the legitimacy of Bush’s actions that as President himself, Barack Obama has adopted most if not all of Bush GWOT architecture.

Enhanced interrogation techniques have been banned, of course, though the most talked about procedures had not been used in years during Bush’s time in office. Targeted executions of foreign-born and American born terrorists however, have been greatly expanded, at the expense of capture and interrogation. It is left to the individual to assess which is a greater sin.

Despite promises to the contrary, the US still uses black sites for extraordinary rendition. Gitmo remains open. Communications continue to be monitored. Indeed, it is surreal to see the Obama administration refusing to provide Congress with Justice Department memos that rationalize the targeted execution of American citizens in terror organizations, or the drone campaign more generally. There is less noise in the media simply because it is Barack Obama who is doing it.

No one could quarrel with President Obama’s zeal to use every tool available to protect the American people. It is, after all, his #1 responsibility. It would not be the end of the Republic, however, if he or his aides acknowledged that they were wrong in 2008. It was Bush took the heat to do what was necessary in setting up the architecture to protect the American homeland. A hat tip after the fact is only fitting.

On other fronts, Bush’s economic record still rankles many.

President Obama spent most of 2008 and then most of his first term blaming every conceivable economic problem on President Bush. The attacks went from annoying to ridiculous to surreal. Worse, the critique of Bush policies is simply not supported by the facts.

The US added the equivalent of the GDP of Japan to the US economy during the Bush years. In addition, Bush’s stewardship of the Clinton tech bubble recession, and the after-effects of 9-11 on the economy kept the downturn shallow and moved the US quickly back toward growth. Under Bush, the US experienced 26 straight quarters of economic growth after the 9-11 downturn. That included 11 quarters of growth over three percent and four quarters of growth over four percent.

In contrast, since 2009, the US economy has only had three quarters of growth over three percent.

Until the financial crisis in 2009, the highest unemployment rate for Bush was 6.3 percent in 2003. It fell to 4.4 percent in 2007 and averaged somewhere between 4.5 and 5.5 percent through seven years. In contrast, the mean unemployment rate since 2009 has been 9 percent, according to official statistics.

The Bush administration did oversee an enormous growth in the national debt over eight years – $5 trillion. It is a policy failing, pure and simple – a doubling of the national debt. The impact was mitigated by the fact that economic growth kept the overall debt to GDP below 80 percent throughout the Bush presidency (it is over 100 percent today) , and that in terms of annual additions to the debt, the Administration lowered the national deficit to $163 billion in 2007; only a tenth of the annual deficits run up by Bush’s successor.

Yet, despite this record, President Obama continues to parrot a tale about the Bush economic record that bears little resemblance to reality; that our budget woes can be traced to, ” two tax cuts and a prescription drug benefit that were not paid for.”

The fact is that the Treasury never “lost” revenue from the tax cuts. Declines in receipts to the treasury were the result of the Clinton recession and that aftershock of 9-11. Receipts to the Treasury were steady after 2001 and 2003 and then began to grow. To the President’s specific charge, in 2007, with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at all times highs, and with the drug benefit implemented, the US took in record revenue and had the smallest budget deficit since 1997.

When it comes to policy matters, it is not only Bush opponents that could learn something from a clear-eyed review of Bush’s presidency.

It is not conceit to note that no Republican has won the White House since he left. If there is a better way to run and win the presidency, the GOP hasn’t found it. 2012 should have been a Republican year. Yet, the grass-roots and congressional wing of the Party have moved to distance themselves from “compassionate conservatism” or “Big Government Conservatism,” so named to the horror of traditionalists.

to critics who maintain Bush was not a conservative, it is worth remembering that Bush spent most of 2005 actively campaigning for Social Security reform that would have saved the program and provided a new mechanism for younger Americans to save. Democrats and wavering Republicans killed the proposal before it ever got a decent shot.

Far from “big government conservatism,” Bush’s widely panned prescription drug benefit serves as proof to tea party conservatives and Democrats that Paul Ryan’s plan for premium support for Medicare will actually work when competition is at the heart of the system to drive costs down. The Part D coverage is wildly popular with seniors and the overall costs of Part D are a fraction of estimates before the law took effect.

Electorally, Bush showed that Republicans could attract minorities, if only they would learn to talk to minorities. As a former border state governor, Bush favored comprehensive immigration reform, and never forgot that immigration in any form is at its heart, about people with dreams and destinies. Self deportation is a long way away from the McCain-Kennedy immigration bill that Bush supported in 2007. The drop in GOP minority support is predictable given the policy path since ’07.

On other subjects, significant controversy remains. Katrina, the financial crisis and TARP bailout and above all the Iraq war.

With Katrina, the complicity of Governor Kathleen Blanco and the sheer incompetence of Mayor Ray Nagin in the lead up to the crisis serve to modify the harsh judgements on Bush. For FEMA’s conduct specifically, there is no such saving grace.

Next to Iraq, no public policy matter is more identified with Bush than the financial crisis of 2008. In 2012 a majority of voters still blamed Bush for he economy. While it is true that any president will get the good or the bad of what happens on his watch, it is simply untrue that Bush policies triggered the financial panic and resulting recession.

In hindsight, there is no doubt that the SEC and Treasury could have/should have taken a closer look at the exotic financial instruments that proliferated in the early 21st century. But it is equally true that those products only existed in the first place due to three decades of increasing government involvement in the housing/mortgage markets – using the enormous power of the federal government to distort private mortgage markets through government support for sub-prime loans as a tool of social and racial equity.

The Bush administration was aware of the flaws in Fannie and Freddie in the first term. In 2005 Bush proposed changes to the mortgage giants, which were rejected immediately and loudly by Democrats (Barney Frank and Chris Dodd come to mind) who were satisfied with Fannie/Freddie’s financial soundness and its crucial role in enabling home ownership among financially distressed minorities.

The Wall Street/Main Street model only worked so long as housing values continued to appreciate, and when that stopped, the bottom fell out. The implicit guarantee of Freddie and Fannie to private lenders was at the heart of the financial meltdown.

At that point, Bush had a choice.

He could maintain his free market bone fides and insist that any government intervention in the financial sector to secure banks against their own losses would be an unacceptable “moral hazard,” as many in the GOP actually did. But it wasn’t one bank. It was every bank. Seeping into every country. It was a virus, spreading at the speed of the Internet, that was about to freeze credit globally, and trigger an economic collapse.

A government bailout – TARP – was the only way to stem the panic and bleeding, and stabilize the market. Bush stepped up. Got behind the proposals and got them through a Democratic controlled Congress with only weeks left in his presidency, in the middle of a national election, with the support of both major party candidates.

It was an extraordinary feat.

In the aftermath, Bush was reviled within his own Party for TARP, while he received most of the blame for the crisis and recession from citizens and Democrats. But he did what was necessary, not to be popular, but to secure the United States.

A variation of this is at work with Iraq.

The popular narrative is that Bush faked the intelligence to force the US into a war of choice with the goal of seizing Iraqi oil for the President’s energy buddies and friends of Cheney. Like many of the characterizations of Bush, this falls apart on its face.

In 2002-03, everyone believed Saddam had WMD. Not just Bush and his staff, but Democrats of every persuasion (including President Clinton), Mossad, and the intelligence services of most western European nations. The intelligence was wrong – catastrophically wrong. That WMD was only but a component of the war case against Iraq does not change the fact that what for many was the primary reason for war turned out to be an error.

The invasion of Iraq was actually one of the finest moments in the history of the US armed forces. From Kuwait to Baghdad – over 400 miles – in 25 days. However, extensive pre-war planning focused on potential events that never occurred. In addition, decisions to disband the Iraqi army and purge any government official who had been a member of the Baath Party were costly and short-sighted failures. As the insurgency took hold, the US faced competing requirements with a political objective of literally remaking Iraq, and a military objective to stabilize the country with a minimum of force, and leave.

The Bush administration never reconciled the ambitions of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) with the available military forces on the ground. During this period, the Administration was strangely passive, deferring to military and on-the-ground political leaders, who in turn, deferred back to Washington, with no one taking full responsibility or accomplishing their objectives.

It was only after three years of costly guerilla warfare when, faced with disgrace and defeat, Bush refused the advice of all the Big Feet in Washington and doubled down with a troop surge and a general who could get it done. Not many believed it would work. Most of the current Obama administration and its alumni – including President Obama – said at the time that the effort was doomed to failure.

But it worked.

The surge troops and the Sunni Awakening in Anbar province turned the tide, defeated Al Qaeda in Iraq and the other insurgents, secured the cities and provinces and set the stage for the Status of Forces withdrawal agreement that Bush signed with the Iraqis in 2008, which set the terms for the honorable return of US troops.

It was one of the most courageous decisions Bush made during his presidency.

The longer term verdict on Iraq will depend in large measure on the success of Iraq as a free and democratic nation. While Americans have turned against the war as a costly failure, Iraqis consider themselves lucky that one of the 20th century’s most brutal dictators and his regime of terror are no longer in charge. A young democracy, host to warring ethnic and sectarian factions unfamiliar with the use of the political process to settle problems, Iraq has a long road to travel. But with its oil wealth, educated work force ans strategic position, the future potential for Iraq is bright.

The opening of the Bush library will shed light on this an all the other consequential decisions that the Bush administration made that changed the course of history. Perhaps now, after a decent interval, a more accurate portrait of Bush’s actions and policy choices is possible.

No discussion of the Bush presidency is complete without reference to 9-11.

9-11 was the first significant attack on the US mainland since the British burned Washington DC to the ground in 1814. It was also the first that modern technology allowed the American people to monitor and see their government and president operate in real-time as the nation was under attack. It has never been done before, and there was no manual on how to do it right.

Yet, on 9-11 and in the days and weeks that followed, Bush wrote the book on how a president should respond.

The remarks from the Oval on the terrible evening of 9-11. The sense of national purpose and redemption as he spoke at Ground Zero. The moving tribute at the National Cathedral. His speech to a joint session of Congress on the nation’s next steps in a new and unfamiliar war; one of the best presidential speeches before Congress in recent memory.

In a nation that had been knocked off-balance, Bush steadied the ship and moved the public and bureaucracy to prepare for the fight ahead. It was a remarkable demonstration of iron will and determination. And on his watch, there was never again a terrorist attack on American soil.

Bush promised to keep us safe – and he did.

A closing thought on George W. Bush the man.

So much of popular thought remains focused on his swagger and “arrogance.” But what I remember most was hs humility and decency.

Bush revered the office he served as a sacred trust and expected those who served him to see it the same way. He had faith in our people and an abiding love of our country. He honored our institutions and history.

Regardless of the political battles that brewed and the heated rhetoric that was cast into the public square, he always showed basic respect to his opponents. While John Kerry was savaging Bush’s Iraq policy before and after the election in 2004, it was Bush, who interrupted his own remarks to recognize Kerry (who had arrived late) at a White House ceremony for the Boston Red Sox. Bush rose above the petty power plays that so often define Washington.

Bush made bold and controversial choices, but always with the understanding that it was in the service of something much greater than him or his Administration. That was the North Star of his leadership

He changed history.

Now let’s get on with history’s verdict.

It will be bright, indeed.

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