No, really: George W. Bush really was a horrible president.
This week brings us the dedication of Bush’s presidential library, along with the latest in a never-ending series of efforts to restore his reputation among the public at large. George W. Bush is smarter than you, we’re told. George W. Bush is a truly good man, we’re told. George W. Bush is a man of great character, we’re told.
The result of all this propaganda, apparently, is that Bush is getting almost popular—he has an approval rating of 47 percent. That’s nearly double what it was, oh, the last two or three years he was in office. Which means we’re forgetting something.
We’re forgetting that George W. Bush really was a horrible president.
Believe it or not, I can almost feel sorry for him about this. If he’d been president during the Clinton years—between the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the 9/11 era—it’s possible that he would’ve avoided enough history to be as fondly remembered as, well, Bill Clinton.
The problem is Bush made a series of discrete choices, any one of which should at least bring a frown from the historians he talks about so much. Here are five things Bush did wrong.
• George W. Bush exploded the deficit. Remember, when Bush arrived in office, there was a budget surplus. He could’ve used that money to shore up the solvency of Social Security—remember Al Gore’s “lockbox”—or maybe offered a modest boost to the economy in the form of a stimulus while still keeping some dough squirreled away for a rainy day. Instead, he merely slashed taxes, sent everybody a big check … and put the government in hock when the economy turned south.
These days, Republicans act as though debts and deficits will kill the country. Back then, though, they just didn’t care. “You know, Paul, Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter,” Vice President Dick Cheney said in 2002 to a colleague concerned about the new deficit. “We won the mid-term elections, this is our due.” There was a $128 billion surplus when Bush took office; there was more than $10 trillion in debt when he left.
• George W. Bush created an entitlement without paying for it. Remember the Medicare Drug Benefit? It’s not such a bad program, as such, but there are a couple of notable things about it. First, Bush pushed it in 2003 in order to line up the support of elderly voters in the 2004 election. Second, he didn’t pay for it; the money came from deficit spending. He stuck America with the bill for his re-election, in other words.
At the very least, that’s a cynical act. And that’s the best you can say about it, actually. Republicans supposedly don’t like entitlements or deficits; in one fell swoop, Bush gave us more of both so he could beat John Kerry at the polls.
• George W. Bush invaded Iraq. There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The war, which has and will cost us trillions of dollars and thousands of lives, was a horrific mistake, perhaps the worst foreign-policy blunder in American history.
• George W. Bush tortured. You can almost give him a pass on this because 9/11 was devastating. The thought of another attack—perhaps nuclear or chemical—must have been terrorizing. But in the end, Bush approved torture. That violated American values going back to George Washington, and it muddied America’s name throughout the rest of the world. And he did so as part of a broader approach to governing that says if the president does it, in wartime at least, it’s not illegal.
• George W. Bush trampled the civil rights of gays to get re-elected. You may remember that 11 states held referenda in 2004 to decide whether gays could get married. Gay marriage lost all 11 times. It was part of the Bush re-election plan, an effort to get conservatives out to the polls in a close, tense election year. It worked. And because of that, Bush may someday be remembered as the George Wallace of the gay rights movement. Trouble is, plenty of other politicians probably deserve that label as well.
I got to five before even talking about New Orleans. Or the fact that the economy cratered under his watch, and it’s been President Obama who had to try to dig out.
Let me try to be fair to Bush: He did more than any other president to end the AIDS epidemic in Africa. He seemed to be the rare Republican who actually did care about black people—Kanye notwithstanding—and included them easily in his cabinet in something much more than a token role. He’s not a monster, exactly. He just was not a good president.
When Andrew Breitbart died last year, a conservative friend advised me Breitbart—behind the scenes—was actually a swell guy, generous to friends and family. My response: Who cares?
So it is with Bush. He’s smart? He’s nice? Who cares? His public service was a disaster. That’s how it deserves to be remembered.