THE SHOCKINGLY LIBERAL LEGACY OF GEORGE W.BUSH
From No Child Left Behind to AIDS relief in Africa, Bush forged a 'consequential' presidency. No doubt.
LUIZA CH. SAVAGE
On an icy Jan. 20 in 2001, a youthful George W. Bush, his hair not yet all grey, flanked by daughters not yet grown, stood in front of the U.S. Capitol and delivered a high-minded inaugural address that invoked America’s “grand and enduring ideals,” appealing to civic duty and compassion, and referring repeatedly to the guidance of angels. He called for national unity, civility and “forgiveness” after the bitter 2000 election fight with Al Gore that was ended by the U.S. Supreme Court. “I will work to build a single nation of justice and opportunity,” he pledged. Bush warned Americans, who were coming off of the longest economic expansion since the Second World War, not to get too fat and happy. “What you do is as important as anything government does. I ask you to seek a common good beyond your comfort.” To read that speech today is to be struck by the distance, both historical and rhetorical, that his presidency—perhaps the most controversial since that of Richard Nixon—has spanned. Midway through, Bush felt the need to argue that even in “a time of peace” the stakes are “never small.” But the policy agenda
laid out that day by the former Texas governor was modest and inwardly focused, emphasizing first of all his desire to reform public education. “Together, we will reclaim America’s schools, before ignorance and apathy claim more young lives,” said Bush. He also mentioned his goal of overhauling entitlements for the elderly and reducing taxes. He didn’t dwell much on foreign policy, but vaguely noted he would “build our defences beyond challenge” and confront weapons of mass destruction.
Nearly eight years later, as he prepares to hand over power, Bush leaves behind a country and a world changed in ways no one could have imagined. As Democrats prepare for their convention on Aug. 25 in Denver, they will be running against a Bush legacy of multiple wars, an economic downturn, and a tarnished image abroad. They will be selling their candidate, Illinois Senator Barack Obama, with a murky but potent promise of “change.” When the Republicans gather in St. Paul, Minn., for their convention on Sept. 1 they will face a more complex task of honouring the unwavering commander-in-chief who rallied and led them through the worst attacks in their nation’s history, while at the same time uniting around a candidate, Arizona Senator John McCain, who is running against parts of the Bush legacy—his handling of the Iraq war, treatment of terrorism suspects, profligate government spending and mounting debt, and inaction on climate change.
The partisan portraits will not tell the whole story, of course, because the narrative is not tidy. Bush's legacy is more than the protracted war in Iraq. In some areas it is the result of hardline conservative ideology-but in others it is surprisingly liberal. Bush is the tax-cut ting conservative who nonetheless grew the federal government in size and power. He is the former governor who championed states' rights while centralizing more power in Wash ington. He is the proponent of race-neutral
policies who did more than any president before him to measure, track, and invest in the achievement of black and Latino children. He is the advocate of human dignity who authorized interrogation techniques that amount to torture. The passionate defender of liberty who circumvented laws to spy on his own citizens. The lover of freedom who toppled one dictator while propping up others. The progenitor of wars that killed thousands
on one continent, and the humanitarian who spent unprecedented sums to save millions from disease on another.
Untangling and judging the Bush presidency with its complexities and inner contradictions will engage historians and politicians for decades. But there is no doubt that Bush achieved what Vice-President Dick Cheney once said he wanted: a presidency that was “consequential.”
Sixty-eight per cent. That is how much total federal spending rose under Bush. That is more than double the growth in federal spending over the eight years of Bill Clinton’s presidency. The Iraq war, which the Pentagon had initially estimated would cost US$50 billion, is now projected to cost some US$700 billion in direct spending, with some economists saying the total cost may be more than a trillion dollars with all associated costs.
Defence and security spending rose faster than any part of the budget—increasing its share of government spending from 22 per cent in 2001 to 29 per cent in 2008. But spending has increased across the budget. Bush was aided and abetted by a Congress dominated by Republicans until 2006. Juicy spending bills were passed on everything from farm subsidies to health (up 44 per cent) and education (up 47 per cent). After all, Bush had run as a “compassionate conservative”; he introduced the largest new entitlement since the Great Society programs of the 1960s: a prescription drug benefit for seniors that will add a US$1.2-trillion liability over 10 years.
As a proportion of the economy, total government spending has increased over Bush’s tenure, from 18.4 per cent of GDP in 2000 to 20.3 per cent of GDP in 2006, according to the Tax Policy Institute run by the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution. “Bush was the first Republican presidential candidate since Eisenhower who ran without calling for the abolishing of a single government program,” says Michael Tanner, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, and author of Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution.
The next president will have to deal with calls from fiscal conservatives to dramatically rein in spending. “Bush has pushed for more new spending than Clinton did, and was more successful in getting it,” says Chris Edwards, director of tax policy for the Cato Institute. “Fiscal responsibility has been at the bottom of his priorities.” Edwards points out that “a president who came in wanting to cut the budget could make a lot of progress and fight with Congress over spending bills.” Yet Bush did not veto a single bill until 2006—a measure that would have made federal grants available for stem cell research.
But he also aggressively slashed taxes. According to the Tax Policy Center, the cuts contributed to a historic decline in federal tax revenue. In 2000 total federal tax revenue was as high in proportion to the U.S. economy as it had ever been. By 2004 federal tax revenue in proportion to the economy had fallen to its lowest level in almost 50 years.
According to the congressional joint committee on taxation, the cuts will cost the Treasury US$2 trillion from 2001 to 2017even more if you count the cost of interest on the debt to pay for them. The tax cuts and spending replaced a string of four consecutive surpluses under Clinton with huge deficits beginning in 2002. For the fiscal year ending September 2009, the deficit is projected at nearly US$500 billion, the biggest ever. (However, it represents about three per cent of GDP, not as high as the deficits of 1983, which hit six per cent of GDP.)
Bush’s economic policies had lacklustre results for most Americans. His tenure coincided with the slowest job growth in 60 years. While real median household incomes grew by US$6,000 per person under Bill Clinton, they fell by US$1,000 per person under Bush. And it is still unclear which part of his fiscal legacy will have the longest-lasting effect: the tax cuts, which expire in 2011, or the spending. “His two big domestic policies—tax cuts and big spending activities— are in conflict,” says Edwards, “and are going to crash into each other for the next president.” Adds Tanner: “He has poisoned the well, because conservative politics are now associated with all the bad things that George Bush did. He has poisoned the well philosophically of limited government for awhile.”
Bush didn’t just grow the government, he centralized it—and in particular he centralized decision-making in the White House. He sidelined cabinet secretaries to some degree, even dictating which underlings they should appoint to work for them. He tightened political control over civil servants in agencies that write government regulations—such as the Environmental Protection Agency. He leaves behind a deeply politicized bureaucracy in various parts of the government. A recent inspector general investigation, for example, concluded that for several years Bush political appointees within the U.S. Justice Department had been illegally vetting job applicants for Republican credentials when filling politically neutral civil service positions—in some cases giving the jobs to far less qualified candidates. One official, Monica Goodling, asked applicants to detail whether they were a “Social Conservative, Fiscal Conservative, Law & Order Republican,” and asked, “What is it about President Bush that makes you want to serve him?” She used an Internet search string that included key words aimed at digging up political views and affiliations of applicants, such as Republican and Democrat, “abortion,” “Florida recount,” “Iraq,” and even “spotted owl.”
The next president must decide what to
do with the appointees. To fire the individuals and replace them with less conservative employees would appear to only further entrench politicization. Besides, once hired, the employees are protected by the same civil service laws that were violated to give them their jobs. The dilemma led Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse to grumble that some of “the so-called Bushies” holding high-level jobs inside the Justice Department
may get “away with it scot-free.”
Bush also asserted, and acted on, sweeping new claims of presidential power on issues to do with national security and foreign affairs. Rejecting the traditional division of power with Congress and the judiciary, Bush claimed that these areas were exclusively the province of the commander-in-chief. If Congress passed a statute to restrict or regulate his authority, he claimed the law would be unconstitutional and therefore not binding. For example, Congress passed a law stating that American interrogators could not torture detainees— but the President nonetheless asserted a constitutional right to conduct interrogation policy as he saw fit. He acted on his claim that the president can ignore statutes forbidding wiretapping of citizens in the U.S. without a prior judicial warrant, thereby setting a precedent that future presidents will be able to invoke if they, too, want to bypass a law. He also dramatically expanded the zone of secrecy that protects the executive branch from scrutiny by the public or Congress, including by creating new and creative categories of classification for government documents to keep them out of public hands.
The federal government Bush leaves behind is also more powerful than ever. The former governor who came to office promising smaller government leaves behind a muscled-up state. The Patriot Act was passed in the wake of 9/11, creating new and strengthened police powers for the federal government-such as greater latitude to search people’s home, seize customer records from businesses, and place individuals under surveillance—in
some cases without a judicial warrant. Some portions have been shaved down by courts, while critics say others are ripe for abuse.
But nowhere is this trend of bigger, more expensive and powerful government as visible as in the area of education. Back in 2000, Bush ran as the education president. It is no accident that when the planes attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Bush was surrounded by second graders in a Florida classroom reading The Pet Goat.
As Texas governor, he had brought in bipartisan reforms that called for standardized testing and increased accountability—as well as funding—for schools. He wanted to bring in the same approach nationwide. The result was No Child Left Behind, a bipartisan bill that vastly expanded Washington’s control and spending over education. “You’ve got one of the most conservative presidents in U.S. history teaming up with Ted Kennedy to create one of the most micromanaged and centralized education policies we’ve ever seen,” says Bruce Fuller, professor of education and public policy at the University of California at Berkeley.
Part of the deal Bush struck with Democratic
BUSH LEGITIMIZED TRACKING ALL CHILDREN’S PROGRESS, BLACK, WHITE AND LATINO
allies in Congress was that they would ignore the objections of teachers’ unions and go along with his aggressive accountability package if the President would raise education spending dramatically. The No Child policy set a target date of 2014 by which all students are expected to be “proficient” in reading and math on standardized tests designed by each state. Every school was given benchmarks for yearly improvement. Schools that do not make “adequate yearly progress” are placed on probation and can eventually have their staffs replaced or be turned into charter schools.
Despite shaping a Supreme Court with justices who want to erase race-conscious government policies such as affirmative action, Bush also agreed to track the educational performance of black and Latino students in an unprecedented manner. If any of those subgroups failed to reach targets, the entire school would be penalized.
Although Democrats complain Bush didn’t spend enough, he more than doubled federal funding for poor schools. The result has been improvements on national tests overall, and a slight closing of the achievement gap between racial groups. The policy has faced blowback from teachers’ unions, who are unhappy with schools being judged to be failing, and concerned about pervasive “teaching to the test” and an emphasis on math and reading to the exclusion of other subjects. But Bush succeeded in keeping education at the top of the national agenda, and legitimized the notion of tracking all children’s progress in a way that will be difficult to abandon after his presidency. “Very few people want to return to the Neanderthal period that existed before strong accountability policy, to hyper-decentralization where local school boards in, say, Georgia could ignore the performance of black kids,” say Fuller.
Bush’s emphasis on education, a preoccupation often viewed as the purview of liberals, may seem surprising to some. But elsewhere on the domestic front, his conservative credentials have been apparent. Perhaps no legacy will be more lasting than his appointment of two judges to the U.S. Supreme Court. John Roberts’s and Samuel Alito’s presence has not created a majority on the bench—but they tilted the court toward a conservative ideology. The impact of Bush’s choices was on display this June when the court issued a landmark decision declaring for the first time that the right to bear arms is protected by the U.S. constitution as an individual right, not a collective right of militias, pulling the rug out from under various gun control laws. That decision struck down a handgun ban in Washington, and has sparked lawsuits and the rewriting of gun control laws around the country.
Bush’s second inaugural address, on Jan. 20, 2005, was a remarkable speech. With the Iraq war underway and weapons of mass destruction he claimed Saddam Hussein was hiding nowhere to be found, he articulated a sweeping new justification for the war—a “freedom agenda” dedicated to replacing tyrants with democracies, especially in the Middle East. “We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands,” he said. “The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.”
Bush tied his foreign policy to his faith: “From the day of our founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the maker of Heaven and earth. So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”
It was stirring rhetoric, but as policy it was unconvincing. Not only did the administration continue previous U.S. policy of supporting undemocratic regimes out of economic or geopolitical interests, but its own behaviour did not match the lofty ideals. After 9/11, “the gloves came off.” Bush became the first U.S. president to officially authorize tortureeven though he refused to call it that. When the abuses of detainees at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison came to light, and memos appeared detailing official rationales and authorizations of enhanced or aggressive interrogation techniques, the Republican-led Congress responded with legislation to ban torture. Vice-President Dick Cheney personally lobbied lawmakers to at least carve out an exception for the CIA. When they refused, the administration asserted the right to ignore the ban.
Bush officially announced that socalled enemy combatants in the war on terror would not be covered by the Geneva Conventions, even though the U.S. had fought for those treaties.
Bush created a detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, where prisoners were denied due process of law, and had the highest-value detainees held at undisclosed “black sites.” Under his command, the U.S. engaged in cases of “extraordinary rendition,” where suspects were sent to outside countries for interrogation and sometimes torture, as in the case of Canadian Maher Arar. The result-
ing damage to the U.S.’s reputation and to its moral authority and ability to lecture other countries on human rights has been great.
But Bush has always defended his most controversial national security measures as necessary to keep his country safe. On that score, some experts say, his record speaks for itself. Since 2001, there have been various attempts to attack America, but none of them have succeeded. “The time since the [200l] attacks now says a lot,” says James Carafano, a national security specialist at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. “There are at least 19 conspiracies U.S. law enforcement has arrested people for, and other covert ones they don’t talk about,” he said. Some of those plots may have been mostly wishful thinking, but it remains the case that in seven years, extremists have not been able to pull off U.S. attacks.
Bush oversaw the creation of the enormous and powerful Department of Homeland Security, an idea pushed on him by Democrats in Congress. Another reform brought together all intelligence services under a single director of national intelligence. There were improvements in information-sharing across agencies. The experience of flawed intelligence on Saddam’s weapons led to significant reforms within the intelligence services that have resulted in better vetting and
more accurate reports to the president. "Post 9/11, the things that have been most effective in fighting terrorism were the things we did before 9/11-just doing them better. Effective information sharing, identifying and penetrating organizations, and disrupt ing them," says Carafano. He argues the West in general has become a harder target for ter rorists. "Mostly what al-Qaeda does today is in the nature of propaganda and trying to mobilize the radicals. They are still effective
at reaching out to people who want to hear the message—but they are preaching to the converted. They are not creating a movement,” he argues.
Whether history will judge Bush as a liberator in Iraq remains to be seen. Lately, there has been an encouraging decline in violence there. Saddam Hussein was tried by an Iraqi court, and executed. But was his demise worth the more than four thousand American and coalitions troops who gave their lives and the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed? The war in Afghanistan has grown hotter, and Osama bin Laden remains at large. Bush’s critics say that no matter how much the violence declines, the whole enterprise has to be written off as a tragic legacy. “I don’t think anyone can say the Iraq war was worth it,”
THE TIME SINCE 9/11 SAYS A LOT. EXTREMISTS HAVE NOT PULLED OFF ONE ATTACK IN THE U.S.
says Matthew Duss, research associate at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington. “I think we have averted what could have been a major, major disaster—but that is not the same as saying we won. Even if Iraq became a Jeffersonian democracy, I don’t think we can look at the people killed, maimed, displaced, and the billions we have spent to do this, as an acceptable cost.”
Bush was criticized for allowing the war on terror to sideline various other international issues during his tenure. He leaves behind little coherent policy toward the emerging economic and military power of China. The relationship with Russia is in crisis. It is unclear whether Iran’s nuclear ambitions are being successfully contained. The de-nuclearization of North Korea is proceeding, though at a snail’s pace, but stockpiles of nuclear weapons continue to pose a threat to the world.
Yet Bush has a historic story to tell about Africa. It is here that his administration has forged a largely unexpected yet formidable legacy that is saving millions of lives. Foreign assistance to Africa tripled under Bush, and most has been on public health: fighting HIV/ AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, and avian flu. In
the year 2000, the U.S. was spending US$140 million on AIDS programs around the world. Today, it is spending US$6 billion, and most of it is going to Africa.
In 2003, Bush led a bipartisan coalition, with the support of Democratic Senator John Kerry and then-Republican senator Bill Frist, to create a program called the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). The results of such largesse are impressive. In 2000, there were 50,000 people on antiretroviral drugs in Africa. Today, there are an estimated three million, of which the U.S. is supporting 1.7 million. PEPFAR, which has already spent US$19 billion—65 per cent of it in Africa—just got another US$48 billion over five years.
“This is probably Bush’s biggest positive
achievement,” says Stephen Morrison, executive director of the HIV/AIDS Task Force and director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “He was able to mobilize a bipartisan coalition in support of this and sustain it. It was a big surprise. No one knew that it was going to be a big deal. It has profound long-term implications. It will be a dominant feature of U.S. foreign policy in Africa looking forward.”
Elsewhere in Africa, the Bush administration took a diplomatic lead in Sudan and secured a north-south peace agreement, although it has not been able to control the genocide in Darfur. Nonetheless, it is paying for the lion’s share of a massive humanitarian relief effort there that sustains the lives of 2.5 million displaced people, and another 270,000 in neighbouring Chad and the Cen-
tral African Republic. Bush also set up Africom—a centralized military command for Africa. The President says its purpose is to train soldiers for peace and security missions, although it has some people nervous about American intentions, especially given growing Chinese interests in Africa.
Of course, a big part of the legacy Bush leaves to the next president is what remains undone. Despite his pledges to do so in both inaugural speeches, he did not manage to put either Social Security or Medicare on solid financial footing for the future. His plan to introduce private savings accounts was beaten back by critics, and it will fall to his successor to find some way to reduce entitlements or raise funding, or both to shore up the social safety net that will be stressed by the retirements of baby boomers. He also leaves behind unfinished business on immigration. Bush had called for a comprehensive reform of the immigration system that would have allowed the estimated ll million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. a legal pathway to citizenship. The backlash within his own party killed that, but galvanized a movement to crack down on employers who hire the immigrants, and to build a fence on some portions of the border with Mexico. The issue of climate change is also a blank slate for his successor.
But even his unfinished business reveals a man with wide-ranging priorities. Although his private savings accounts plan was fatally denounced as a conservative scheme to phase out one of liberalism’s greatest achievements, the impetus behind it was to save the central elements of the American social safety net. His immigration proposal was supported by Democrats—while it lost him support within his own party. As for his finished business, the President who made the Supreme Court ideologically more conservative and flexed American military muscle abroad can also be credited with lessening suffering in Africa and, through a massive infusion of government cash, arguably improving the prospects for schoolchildren across the United States. As George W. Bush watches the next president sworn in next January, it will be with the knowledge that although his experiment in “compassionate conservatism” may end with him, his presidency will have marked the country—and the world—for generations. M