The recent appearance of George W. Bush staffers in the #NeverTrump camp wasn’t a surprise to anyone who followed current events. George W. Bush, who maintained the tradition among ex-presidents of not commenting on their successors when Obama was in office, has made negative remarks about Donald Trump. Word in the lead-up to the election in 2016 was that the Bushes would not be supporting the nominee of the party that they had lead just eight years earlier.
It’s all very disappointing but it got me to think about just the type of president we had for eight years in George W. Bush.
I voted for George W. Bush in the 2000 election. Four years later, I intended to do more than just vote. I followed House and Senate primaries around the country and made modest donations to campaigns all across the fruited plain, in addition to W, of course. But that wasn’t enough. I stopped by the local Republican party campaign headquarters and picked up flyers for my own canvass of my neighborhood. Most people weren’t home and received a flyer that likely ended up in their mail pile, but I felt that I was making a difference.
The toughest was making an approach to people who answered the door or were outside. My neighbors are generally nice people and most took the flyer, nodded politely, and said they would consider supporting the president for reelection. Near the end of my neighborhood canvass I came upon a middle aged woman on her porch.
“Hi, I’m supporting President Bush for reelection. Are you a voter? “
She hesitated. There was an akward silence. Did I do something wrong? Was she a Democrat?
“You know, George W. Bush has done a lot for this country. Please consider supporting our president. Have a great rest of the weekend.”
She took a flyer and wished me a nice day. I thanked her for her time and continued down the street to visit the rest of the neighborhood.
I still remember that interaction sixteen years later, because of the flash of fear I experienced. What if she had asked for examples? What had George W. Bush done for this country?
As a conservative it’s hard to give George W. Bush a glowing report card for his time as president.
His administration was primarily defined by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Bush administration had inherited a bureaucracy where different intelligence outfits in the government were unable to communicate with each other and were unable to connect the dots where there were threats to national security. Bush had also inherited the near decade of national security negligence of the Clinton administration which did little about the threat of Islamic terrorism in general and 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden in particular.
Bush, to his credit, assembled a team that took the fight to the terrorists. The United States did not suffer another large scale terrorist attack since. George W. Bush deserves the credit for keeping the country safe.
The balance of his administration did not do much to advance the conservative cause. In fact, most of his initiatives created openings for the leftist statists who would follow during the Obama administration.
The Miller Center at the University of Virginia hosts a timeline of key events in the Bush presidency. The foreign policy side of the ledger, the rightful purview of a president, lists the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, changes in treaties with Russia, the Arab-Israeli conflict, North Korea, and American relationships with Britain, France and Germany, among other topics. The domestic side focused on tax cuts to spur the economy, debates over same-sex marriage and abortion, immigration policy, and Federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.
The statist tilt of the Bush administration was most revealed by the Federal intrusion into education policy, expanding of entitlements for which future taxpayers would be on the hook, and energy efficiency standards.
The No Child Left Behind education reform bill, passed in January 2002 reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, was one of the president’s major domestic projects. The intent – to promote school standards and raise up under-performing schools – was noble enough. But NCLB represented a major intrusion of the Federal government into what has always been primarily a state and local matter. Cities, counties, and independent school districts around the country have school boards to set standards and policy. These bodies, because they are closest to the affected voters, are the ones most qualified to determine the needs of their communities. By dangling funding in exchange for compliance to dictates from Washington DC, the Bush administration dis-empowered local policy making bodies and opened the door to the Obama era Race to the Top campaign which was closely followed by Common Core.
A briefing sheet for the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act describes the extent of Federal government interference:
In 2001, No Child Left Behind imposed federal standards for what children had to know in reading and math. In 2009, the Obama administration’s competitive Race to the Top program required that states adopt Common Core State Standards and tests to be eligible to apply. In 2011, states began seeking waivers from the U.S. Department of Education from the unworkable provisions in No Child Left Behind, and the department required, in essence, the adoption of Common Core State Standards in order to receive waivers.
In December 2003, President Bush signed into law a bill which overhauled Medicare, and provided prescription drug benefits for senior citizens. The program was voluntary but wildly popular, with 73% of Medicare beneficiaries participating. While premiums for users have not risen much since the start of the program in 2006 the costs to taxpayers have spiraled. From The New York Times:
But the stability in the premiums belies much larger growth in the cost for taxpayers. In 2007, Part D cost taxpayers $46 billion. By 2016, the figure reached $79 billion, a 72 percent increase. It’s a surprising statistic for a program that is often praised for establishing a competitive insurance market that keeps costs low, and that is singled out as an example of the good that can come from strong competition in a private market.
The president, and the Congress that wrote the law, got the credit for helping retirees with their prescription costs – the taxpayers will pay the bill as it comes due. Notice also that the near doubling in cost came just as the large Baby Boomer generation has started to retire. Those costs will only continue to strain the Federal budget in the years to come as more people join the Medicare rolls.
The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 was most known for two provisions: raising automobile fuel efficiency standards and banning commonly used incandescent bulbs. Here again, the ‘we know better than you’ statist attitude comes to the forefront.
Greater fuel efficiency in cars and light trucks was already a trend. The Toyota Prius had launched world-wide in the year 2000 and other auto manufacturers worked hard to improve their MPG ratings to compete. Changing consumer preferences were driven as much by the rising cost of gasoline as by improvements to conventional internal combustion technology and greater reliability of hybrid and electric vehicles.
Phasing out the manufacture of light bulbs should also have happened as a result of market forces rather than law. People could have been persuaded that changing to bulbs with a higher up-front cost but lower power use meant lower costs over the life of the product. This was certainly not true initially; people who passed on compact fluorescent bulbs noted that the high purchase price meant they wouldn’t save money. Many also didn’t like the type of light the CFL bulbs put out. Over time the industry has resolved both issues. Sticker shock is not as common in the light bulb aisle at Home Depot and the bulbs themselves don’t emit that harsh light common in early CFL models. Market forces got us to the same destination.
In neither case were government edicts needed.
I come back to that moment during my 2004 get out the vote project. If pressed by that lady on her porch, what could I have said in favor of President Bush besides he cut taxes and is running the War on Terror?
Those are two big deals and Bush deserves credit for righting a wobbly economy after 9/11 and pursuing the people who meant to harm this country. The flip side is that he also must take responsibility for further enmeshing the Federal government in education through NCLB, creating a massive new entitlement in Medicare Part D, and dictating terms for energy efficiency that were best resolved in the free market.
George W. Bush is a decent man who behaved well while in office, especially when compared to the low bar set by his predecessor. But he was far too comfortable throwing around the weight of the Federal government to achieve his aims. Even where his intentions were honorable, by allowing the government to intervene in places it should not have gone, President Bush gave cover to future statists to continue to expand their power at the expense of our freedom.
This is probably one of the reasons why W and his people were silent during the massive expansion of the Federal government that took place during the Obama years but don’t have much good to say about the first president in decades that actively slashes regulations and returns power to the citizenry.