Sunday, January 03, 2010

Man Of The Decade: George W. Bush

Damn Straight!

by Dan Calabrese

suppose some will agree with a mouthful of ashes: “Damn right Bush is the man of the decade – a decade that sucked!”

As you prefer. But the argument here is that George W. Bush ought to be the man of the aughts mostly for the right reasons. I would also argue that he is smack dab at the center of what was best and worst about this decade.

The best, because Bush was a rare president who saw governing as a higher calling than his own political self-preservation. This frustrated his opponents – who couldn’t intimidate him with polls and attacks – as well as many of his supporters, who couldn’t get him to fight back with the sort of ferocity it seemed might be necessary to fend off attacks from Democrats and the media.

The worst, because Bush’s presidency is a good example of how willing people were in the decade now past to believe the hints, innuendos and impressions they received from the popular discourse, without really thinking for themselves.

After twice cutting taxes in his first term, Bush ran for re-election with a strong, growing, job-creating economy. And yet his opponents and the media continued to insist that the economy was terrible. (For a real bad economy, see: Now.) For the most part, the public believed this nonsense, and seemed to re-elect Bush in spite of an economy that was actually quite good.

The public was willing to believe the conventional wisdom that Bush had alienated our allies, in spite of the fact that he had allies working with us on all kinds of innovative and effective counter-terrorism measures, and had good personal relationships with most world leaders. The public had no idea what kind of progress Bush made with world trade markets and opening up emerging parts of the world like Indonesia.

They just kept hearing on the news every night that the whole world hated us because of Bush, and they believed it.

They believed lots of other things. They believed Guantanamo Bay was a torture hell that needed to be shut down at the earliest opportunity, and didn’t start to believe the opposite until they elected a president who actually tried to do what they thought they wanted, and they started to realize Bush had been right.

And yet, in spite of the 29 percent approval rating with which he left office, Bush accomplished a lot. Throughout most of his presidency, unemployment hovered around a ridiculously low 5 percent, even as Democrats howled that it was somehow too high. If unemployment came in at 5 percent tomorrow, Democrats would throw the party of the millennium.

He ended the reign of terror of Saddam Hussein, ended Mohmmar Khadafy’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, drove the Taliban from power in Afghanistan, marginalized Yasser Arafat in the Middle East and, best of all, accomplished all this over the objections of the United Nations, which he righteously told where it could stick its objections.

Bush was not perfect, and he was not effective at pushing through every good idea he had. But it counts for a lot in my book that he tried to do desperately necessary things most politicians are afraid to do.

He was the first president who took a serious crack at trying to reform Social Security, the third rail of American politics. He tried to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil exploration. He tried as far back as 2003 to reform Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Now, he would deserve a hell of a lot more credit if he had actually gotten these initiatives through Congress. But it’s never made sense to me that the one politician who had the courage to propose these things is blamed because the pantywaist cowards on Capitol Hill – mainly worthless pieces of crap from his own party – couldn’t muster the courage to get behind him on them.

If the departed and unlamented GOP Congress had possessed half the courage of George W. Bush, we’d be drilling in Alaska, setting up privatized Social Security accounts and maybe, just maybe, not picking up the pieces of an obliterated mortgage market.

Conservatives hold a grudge against Bush for the explosion of federal spending during his administration. This is an area where I believe he should have fought harder.

But there are some worthwhile arguments to make in Bush’s defense here. The vast majority of the increase in federal spending came from legally mandated, formulaic increases in entitlement spending, which Bush could not have stopped absent an overall reform in the entitlement programs, and from war spending. As Bush found out in 2005, Congress wouldn’t touch entitlements, and whether you liked it or not, Bush believed the right approach to fighting wars was to simply spend whatever it took.

Granted, Bush contributed to the problem with the Medicaid Part D expansion, although it can be said in his defense that at least it’s one of the few federal entitlement programs that actually seems to be working well for its recipients.

To the extent that the big-spending GOP Congress contributed to the spending spree in the areas of discretionary domestic spending, many criticize Bush for refusing to veto these budgets. I think he should have too. But if Bush felt he could only spend his political capital in certain areas, and he chose the war as his hill to die on, it’s hard to argue with that.

Supposedly Bush feared that taking on the Republican Congress publicly over their free-spending ways would create a media cause celebre that would help hand Congress back to the Democrats. If that was his thinking, it was obviously a political miscalculation. But I can’t repeat often enough that a Republican Congress never should have presented a Republican president with such a dilemma. They had the power of the purse. They could have exercised their power responsibly. They did not wish to do so.

Bush made other mistakes. He appointed Ben Bernanke to lead the Federal Reserve. He imposed steel tariffs for a brief time in 2001. He pushed through his own ineffective “stimulus,” although it was a pittance compared to Barack Obama’s, and at least Bush’s went directly to the American people instead of being plowed into pork boondoggles. He tried to put Harriet Miers on the Supreme Court, although he redeemed himself with his other choices.

And of course, it’s easy to forget now the courage, strength and resolve he exuded in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. When Bush quoted Flight 93 hero Todd Beamer in imploring the country, “Let’s roll,” you knew that he would follow his words with real action. And he did.

But a debate on the wisdom of Bush’s choices, or on the effectiveness of his style of governance, could last forever, and surely will.

In my mind, one thing sets Bush apart, and earns him the honor of representing the best of this decade: He did what he believed was right, without regard to polls or political consequences. Whether that applied to policy on embryonic stem cells or the war in Iraq, Bush was no finger-in-the-wind politician.

He was a leader. He led with class, grace and compassion. He may or may not have been a “true conservative,” whatever the hell that is supposed to mean, but he understood the presidency, and he understood this country. And he understood that he held the office to serve the interests of the people, not to serve his own.

A lot of things were wrong with the decade now passing. But the fact that Bush was president for most of it was one of the really good things. I realize not much of the public has thought so in recent years, although I suspect many are now starting to appreciate what they used to have, and are starting to ask, “Why exactly was it that we didn’t like him?”

And thinking it wouldn’t be so bad if we had him back now.

Oh, and Dick Cheney too.

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