The Real Ghost of George W. Bush

Ryan Lizza has a nice post about the current GOP crop of candidates and George W. Bush. Lizza notes that candidates last night piled on against TARP, against Bush’s post-September 11 policy of actively engaging with the American Muslim community, against (at least to some extent) staying in Afghanistan. He makes a reasonable case.

But I think ultimately he’s wrong in important ways. Yes, TARP was Bush’s policy — but it was hardly Bush’s policy in the sense that huge tax cuts or No Child Left Behind or Social Security privatization were. Afghanistan? Bush famously upon taking office ignored the threat from bin Laden, and I don’t think it’s hard to argue that Afghanistan was never a very high priority for him. On respect for American Muslims, it’s a harder call…one could say that his policy in late 2001 was very much forced on him by events (did he really want to pick a fight with all of Islam?), and once the crisis passed Bush did relatively little to follow through.

My real feeling about Bush’s policies is that the best way to think about them is all dessert, all the time. Tax cuts and spending increases forever. Pretty speeches about democracy, but little to back it up. Spectacular invasions, with little thought to the aftermath. Short term electoral gains from using patriotism as a partisan weapon, regardless of long-term costs.

The real rebuke of Bush isn’t TARP or tolerance; it’s domestic policy. Bush’s interest in domestic policy was intermittent at best, but there really was some of it: No Child Left Behind was a serious policy, as was Medicare expansion, and even the faith-based initiative was a real (proposed) policy. Do any of the current GOP candidates have anything like that? I’m not hearing it. Tax cuts, spending cuts, shutting down programs…that’s pretty much it.

Beyond that, however, it’s the same old dessert-intensive nostrums. Remember, the problem with Tim Pawlenty’s 5% GDP growth isn’t that it’s a problem to set unrealistic goals; the problem is that if you rely on an assumption that you’re going to achieve unrealistic goals, you can get into all sorts of troubles, beginning with your budget. Just as there’s nothing wrong with wishing that invading medium-sized nations will be cost-free, but acting on that often has all sorts of awful consequences. To the extent that dessert-always was the true essence of Bushism, I think the current GOP field is embracing, not rejecting, Bush’s legacy.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.