One early summer day in 2000 I was summoned to the Oval Office along with several other White House staffers to get instructions from President Bill Clinton on what he wanted to say in his upcoming speech at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, a speech I was assigned to cowrite. But the president was in political strategist mode that day, and in the midst of downloading his thoughts on the speech he launched into a long soliloquy about the dynamics of the presidential contest and the nature of the man Al Gore was up against, Texas Governor George W. Bush. “Let me tell you something,” he said at one point. “Bush is a lot more conservative than people realize.”
I remember that line distinctly, because it struck me at the time as not true. From everything I’d read, Bush had governed Texas as a relative moderate, working with the Democratic legislature to pass, among other things, a sensible school reform measure. Sure he favored tax cuts, tort reform, and other hoary Republican policies, but so had his father, who as president had resisted the growing conservative extremism in his party. If anything, I thought the political danger of a Bush win would be that he’d tame the GOP’s right wing and create a center-right version of Clinton’s New Democratic movement, one that would be hard for Democrats to beat in 2004. I knew President Clinton had the best political instincts in the business, but on this one, I suspected he was indulging in the narcissism of small differences. I could not have been more wrong. Clinton understood what the rest of professional Washington, myself included, did not: that a George W. Bush victory in 2000 would mark not a normal, modest, healthy swing of the political pendulum, but the start of something much more radical.
Evidence that Clinton was right began to emerge within months. There was, during the presidential debates, Bush’s “fuzzy math” denial of the obvious fact that his proposed tax cuts would overwhelmingly benefit the wealthy. There was the brass-knuckle way he and his fellow Republicans (including those on the Supreme Court) dealt with the election recount. There was the successful push by the White House and the GOP-led Congress to pass even bigger tax cuts than Bush had campaigned on, ignoring the assumption within the Beltway that, having lost the popular vote, Bush lacked a mandate and would therefore compromise.
These were early signs of the mendacity and partisan ruthlessness that would come to characterize Republican rule in the Bush years, yet few in official Washington recognized them as such. I certainly didn’t, at least not right away. In May of 2001 I took over as editor in chief of the Washington Monthly. In my first nine months I struggled to get a handle on the job, and on the new administration, and after 9/11, like most Americans, I felt the need to rally around the president.
But finally, in the winter of 2002, through a combination of my editors’ reporting and conversations with sources of my own around town, it dawned on me that something quite new and dangerous was going on. The GOP under Bush was playing by a different set of rules than Washington veterans were familiar with, in the service of an agenda few of them grasped.
Over the next seven years my editors and I used the magazine as a vehicle to try to figure all this out and explain it to our readers. We exposed small, telling lies, like the president’s insistence that he never read polls (we showed he had an extensive polling operation). We pieced together the story of how the White House and congressional Republicans were building a modern political machine based on increasingly unilateral control of K Street jobs and contributions. We made the case that Dick Cheney, whose deep knowledge and experience of government was widely seen as a steadying influence on the young new president, was in fact the source of many of the administration’s most disastrous ideas.
And we did all this at a time—at least in the early years,2002 to 2005—when almost no other mainstream print publication was writing pieces like this. Indeed, much of our work focused on why the Washington press corps was, with rare exceptions, so reluctant to accept what seemed to us (and to the growing liberal blogosphere, our media ally in this period) obvious. Why did reporters and pundits consider the recently hired New York Times columnist Paul Krugman “shrill” for writing about the GOP’s continuing budgetary deceitfulness? How could Robert Novak out a CIA spy at the behest of White House aides and still be accepted in the clubby world of Washington journalism?
We’ve compiled the best of our stories from those years in a new ebook, Elephant in the Room: Washington in the Bush Years—available here. The stories are worth reading—or, for longtime Washington Monthly fans, rereading—for the simple reason that the Bush years still in many ways define us. We are still feeling the effects of eight years of zero net job growth, falling median incomes, declining rates of business startups, rising deficits, soaring health care costs, and a cataclysmic recession in which millions of jobs and trillions of dollars in household wealth vanished almost overnight.
Mitt Romney had hoped to make the 2012 race a referendum on Barack Obama, but it has turned out to be more of a referendum on George W. Bush. In poll after poll, larger percentages of voters blame the poor economy on Bush than on Obama. Though Romney and others in the GOP seldom mention Bush’s name, he remains the proverbial elephant in the room, a presence too embarrassing to recognize but too overwhelming not to matter.
It has not helped Romney that his policies are hard to distinguish from Bush’s. In the 2000 debates, Bush dissembled over his proposed tax cuts for the wealthy because voters would not have liked them; Romney did precisely the same in this fall’s first debate. Bush ran on a plan to privatize Social Security and tried to pass it; Romney and Paul Ryan have put forth a plan that would privatize Medicare. Bush adopted an aggressive, neocon-influenced foreign policy after 9/11; that policy is now the GOP party line and is reflected in Romney’s choice of advisers and his belligerent rhetoric for most of the campaign.
In retrospect, it’s relatively easy to see why the Bush years still weigh so heavily on us, and why they were such a sharp break with the past. His ascension to the White House gave Republicans control of both elected branches of the federal government for the first time since 1953, but the uniqueness of the moment goes much further. In 1953 the president was Dwight Eisenhower, a cautious moderate distrustful of subsidy-seeking corporations (recall his warnings about the “military-industrial complex”) and contemptuous of the reactionaries in his own party. With a steady and often hidden hand, Ike neutralized extremists within the GOP and his own administration who wanted to bomb the Soviets and roll back the New Deal. Bush was a much more conservative and decidedly less competent man who, like his vice president, had made his fortune in the government-subsidized corporate world. He became the means by which the burgeoning far right and crony-capitalist wings of the GOP took over the government.
While Bush’s personality and decisions were important, deeper political forces were at play. What happened during the Bush years should be understood not as the results of the empowerment of one man but, as Alan Wolfe explains in his essay in our ebook, of an ideology:
Contemporary conservatism is a walking contradiction. Unable to shrink government but unwilling to improve it, conservatives attempt to split the difference, expanding government for political gain, but always in ways that validate their disregard for the very thing they are expanding. The end result is not just bigger government, but more incompetent government.
The ideological contradictions unleashed within the GOP during those years have only grown. We see it in the increasingly stormy and dysfunctional relationship between the corporate and Tea Party wings of the party, in the freak show that was the 2012 GOP primary, and in the bottomless, robotic mendacity of the Mitt Romney campaign.
Most Americans today don’t want to think about the Bush years. The former president’s face comes on the television and they think, Please, no. For liberals, the very thought of the man summons the emotions we felt during his eight years in office, the slow-motion experience of a passenger in a car wreck: rage, fear, and powerlessness. For conservatives, contemplating Bush provokes the discomfort of cognitive dissonance, of having to reconcile one’s fervent former support of the president with his disastrous record. The opinions of Red and Blue America may be more divergent than ever, but on this one point we can all agree: we want the memory of Bush and his administration to just go away.
But the understandable urge not to think about Bush—not to reexamine his record, his policies, and his ideology—needs to be resisted, because comprehending what went wrong in Washington during the Bush years is, I believe, key to understanding what can be done to set the country right.