John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


Bush Revisited

Posted on April 24, 2013

Thousands of Republicans are on their way to Dallas, Texas to commemorate and celebrate 8 consequential years at the turn of the 21st century.

President Bush is opening his Presidential library, which runs counter to his self-image as a simple, country bumpkin.

Bush was always smarter than he let on in his public image, which I have always thought was a big mistake on his part.   People don’t want a simple, country bumpkin as their President.  Well, I should rephrase that.  Many people don’t want a simple, country bumpkin as their President, me included.

Laura Bush, a former librarian, pushed literacy as her top issue as First Lady, and that helped to mitigate the President’s public image a bit.

Anti-intellectualism as a theme in the Republican Party would grow into a gale force wind throughout the Bush years, culminating into the Vice Presidential nomination of Sarah Palin, who made moronism cool for a brief moment in the election of 2008.  But being a moron in politics is never really that good of a long-term strategy.

Bush was no moron, despite what the late night comics would have you believe.  He was a disciplined campaigner who knew how to drive an agenda.

He campaigned in 1999 as a “compassionate conservative” and as a “reformer with results.”   He was not running as Ronald Reagan nor as his father.  He was somewhere in between.

He had a good agenda.  Education reform.  Medicare reform with a prescription drug benefit.  Immigration reform.  Social Security reform.

He wasn’t promising to get rid of these programs.  He was promising to make them work better.

He promised a more humble foreign policy too and by hiring Condi Rice, he was keeping his eye on China and especially Russia.

And then 9/11 happened, and his focus immediately shifted and the humility went out the window.

Bush successfully worked with Ted Kennedy to pass No Child Left Behind before the terrorists struck and he worked with Kennedy again to pass Medicare reform after that fateful day.

But when terrorists kill a couple thousand of your citizens on your soil, making sure that doesn’t happen again becomes your top priority.

And on that one issue, Bush was pretty darn successful.  We take that feat for granted (until the Boston Marathon attacks), but we shouldn’t.  It is hard to stop terrorists from killing Americans.  But Bush and his team did, and for that they deserve tremendous credit.

Bush had a shaky start on 9/11 the day, but rebounded nicely in the days that followed, and his Texas swagger proved comforting to a nation that wanted revenge.

His judgment, though, might have been clouded by the rage that engulfed the nation.   We mounted a quick campaign in Afghanistan to knock out the Taliban, a legitimate strike against a noxious regime that gave comfort, refuge and arms to the terrorist band that struck America.

But then he pushed to remove Saddam Hussein’s regime, a gargantuan mistake of epic proportions.  Hussein was a bad dude, but he had no love of Al Qaeda, and by taking him out, we did the dirty work of an Iranian regime that does have pretty deep ties to pretty much every Islamic terrorist group out there.

The Iraq war was poorly conceived and after we seized the country, it was poorly administered.  Because of the outright incompetence and arrogance of Jerry Bremer and his minions, the occupation become an insurgency and the insurgency became an expensive and costly embarrassment to America.

That is all on Bush.  He was the President and Iraq was a black mark on his record.

Katrina was another black mark on his record.  That might not be fair because Louisiana, run into the ground by an incompetent Governor, and New Orleans, run into the ground by an incompetent Mayor who would later to be proved to be a convicted criminal, refused to be helped in any meaningful way.

But Presidents get blamed when major American cities begin to look like Banana Republics, and that is what happened during Katrina and Katrina turned the American voters against the Republican Party.

The last two years of the Bush Presidency were bad for the country, chiefly because the newly ascendant Democrats did their best to tank the economy.

Bush handled himself well during the financial collapse.  He put aside his own misgivings and passed TARP and saved us all from a Great Depression.  It must not have been easy, but it was the right thing to do.

The financial collapse was not caused by Bush.  It was caused by Bill Clinton, who put in place policies that greatly inflated home-buying by people who had no business buying homes, and who greatly increased the ability of Fannie and Freddie to issue debt and take on risk.     The Bush Administration pushed hard to reform those GSE’s and the President himself warned of the risk, but those demands were rebuffed on the Hill, mostly because Fannie and Freddie did a wonderful job of spreading money around to powerful members of both the House and the Senate.

The financial panic caused panic in other sectors, especially in the auto industry.  Bush was right to push a limited bailout of GM and Chrysler.  His ideas were far superior to Obama’s and ultimately he deserves some credit for saving the auto-industry.

Bush’s biggest failures, outside of the Iraq war, were not policy failures.  Rather, the timing didn’t work out.

Bush was right to push for immigration reform.  He was ahead of his time on that, and his party was simply unwilling to go along, no matter how smart the politics were for him and the GOP.

Bush was also right to push for Social Security reform.   But his campaign to change the system was poorly conceived and too ambitious.   The President thought he could spend all of his political capital in 2005.   He didn’t realize he was already overdrawn.

Ron Fournier wrote yesterday that Bush was a “good man”, and I suppose that was true.  He was a gentleman, he had good family values, he stayed true to those values, and he didn’t seem to be too full of himself.

He had some notable successes and some pretty big failures.   He left the White House with an approval ratings charitably being in the low 30’s.   Some elements of the Republican coalition have turned against him and his team, and the GOP hasn’t really competed effectively for the White House since he left.   It still isn’t clear if that is because the voters still hate Bush, or that they love Obama, or that neither McCain and Romney were credible challengers.

There is another theory out there.  The demographics of this country have changed so much that a typical Republican just can’t win anymore, at least at the national level.

Bush wasn’t necessarily a typical Republican.  He was far more progressive on economic issues, far more conservative on social issues, and far more aggressive on national security issues.    And he did far better with Hispanic voters than either McCain or Romney did in the last two elections.

Historians may look at Bush like they looked at Truman and reevaluate him in a more favorable light.  Or they may not.   It is still too early to judge.

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