Today marks the official dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, an event that is already sparking reexaminations of the Bush legacy. In reality, Bush left office unpopular and he earned that unpopularity. President Bush presided over the near collapse of the American economy. He neglected a war that was thrust upon us to fight a war that he never should have begun. His judicial appointments consistently place conservative ideology before the law. And his administration flouted the laws banning torture. On the eve of President Obama’s first election, only 23 percent of Americans approved of Bush’s job performance.
More than four years later, Bush’s record of unnecessary wars and economic catastrophe speaks for itself. And yet, Republicans have largely decided that the lesson of his failed presidency is to tack even further to the right. In comparison to today’s GOP, George W. Bush appears downright moderate:
- Medicare: Bush signed Medicare Part D, a popular program that expanded Medicare to provide prescription drugs to seniors. While Medicare Part D was far from perfect — it was not paid for, and it included a gap in coverage that was later closed by the Affordable Care Act — it is nevertheless an important prong of America’s commitment to provide health coverage to seniors. Post-Bush Republicans, by contrast, voted to gradually phase out the entire Medicare program in 2011. Although Mitt Romney ran on a somewhat different version of this plan, he still campaigned on a promise to eliminate traditional Medicare and replace it with a voucher system. Several Republicans have even claimed that Medicare is unconstitutional.
- AIDS: Bush’s most significant contribution to the world may be the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which currently provides antiretroviral treatment to more than 4 million people abroad. As of the middle of last year, the United States had spent about $46 billion on this lifesaving program. The Republican budget, by contrast, includes sharp cuts to our foreign aid budget, and at least one tea party senator called for “eliminating wasteful things like foreign aid.” This tea party view closely resembled Romney’s proposals as well.
- Fuel Efficiency: Bush signed the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which will gradually raise fuel efficiency standards to 35 MPG by 2020. Meanwhile, House Oversight Chair Darrell Issa (R-CA) attacked Obama Administration efforts to increase fuel efficiency further, claiming they limited consumers’ ability to choose to buy more wasteful cars. If Republicans had won the White House in November, they likely would have halted increased fuel efficiency in its tracks.
- Minimum Wage: Bush signed legislation increasing the minimum wage from $5.85 an hour to $7.25 an hour, although he also pushed to couple the bill with tax breaks of the kind normally favored by Republicans. House Republicans unanimously opposed a minimum wage hike last month. Because the minimum wage is not indexed to inflation, low-wage workers’ pay effectively goes down every year that the minimum wage is not increased.
- Immigration: To their credit, several Republicans finally appear poised to lift the blockade on even modest immigration reform they imposed during President Obama’s first term. The immigration bill currently making its way through the Senate would not have been necessary, however, if a similar bill backed by Bush had become law in 2007.
None of these nods to moderation can outweigh the battered economy Bush left behind, or the misguided war he prosecuted, or the legacy of Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito. But there is no need to lionize President Bush in order to recognize that he was a different kind of conservative than the purist ideologues that have come to dominate the GOP since he left the White House.
During the Bush years, the term “neoconservative” became little more than a pejorative thrown around to describe the kind of misguided thinkers that brought America in to the Iraq War. On domestic policy, however, neoconservatives were often the most sensible wing of the Republican Party. As neoconservative icon Norman Podhoretz once explained, “the neo-conservatives dissociated themselves from the wholesale opposition to the welfare state which had marked American conservatism since the days of the New Deal,” and while they certainly wished to place limits on the scope of government, their limits did not rest on “issues of principle, such as the legitimate size and role of the central government in the American constitutional order.” In this sense, the neoconservative philosophy that dominated the Bush Administration was a sharp break from the conservatism of the early Twentieth Century that saw protecting workers and basic programs such as Social Security and Medicare as fundamentally anti-American and unconstitutional.
One unfortunate consequence of Bush’s failed presidency is that it appears to have also discredited the relatively sensible faction within the Republican Party that dominated the Bush Administration and created a power vacuum that even more virulent forms of conservatism could rush into. Both the Tea Party, with its calls to declare the progress of the Twentieth Century unconstitutional, and the rise of Paul Ryan, with his assault on the American safety net, are demonstrations of the much more radical forms of conservatism eager to fill the void left after Bush’s fall from grace.