The Burning Bush

After the earthquake of August 2011, word got out that it occurred on a rare and obscure fault-line known as “Bush’s Fault.”

This was, of course, a parody of Barack Obama and his leftist cohorts blaming any and everything that was wrong with America on the previous president.

But this view was shared by a remarkable high percentage of voters on election day 2012.  In an election in which the economy was by far the most important issue, almost half of voters blamed Bush more than Obama for the state of the economy.  Almost half.  When I heard that at about 7 pm on election night, I knew that if this was accurate, the election was over.

This view that Bush is mostly responsible for our troubled economy – even four years after leaving office – represents a stunning repudiation of not just the 43rd president, but the Republican Party.  This conclusion is undergirded by the fact that seven million less of the GOP base, caucasians, voted in 2012 than in 2008, and that Mitt Romney received three million less votes than John McCain – despite widespread acknowledgment that Romney was clearly a better candidate than McCain.  This was the difference in an election that saw the incumbent win despite receiving eight million less votes than he did four years ago.

Now that Obama has been re-elected, there is no need for the left to continue blaming Bush.  But now it may be, or perhaps should be, the Republicans’ turn.  And not just Bush 43, but Bush 41.

The stewardship of Ronald Reagan, who believed in smaller government with every fiber of his being, led to an unprecedented 116 consecutive months of economic growth.  That’s just four months short of ten years.  Reagan never backed down from his supply-side economic policies, even in the face of stubborn unemployment and inflation in the first half of his first term that carried over from the disastrous stewardship of Jimmy Carter (unlike Obama, he refused to blame Carter once he was in the White House), and even though they had famously been called voodoo economics by the man he ultimately and reluctantly selected as his running mate, Bush 41.

But when Bush was himself elected president in 1988, primarily because of the overwhelming popularity of Reagan and his policies, he immediately called for a “kinder, gentler nation.”  Kinder and gentler than what, or whom?  The answer was obvious: Reagan.  And in a promise designed to be his signature wedge issue, Bush took aim at the Democrats: “read my lips – no new taxes.”

Of course, the country club president failed to keep that promise, and it contributed to his resounding defeat four years later.

The Republican presidential candidate four years later was Bob Dole, caricatured as the “tax collector for the welfare state” because of his evident lack of core economic beliefs.  He was also soundly defeated.

Enter Bush 43, and his “compassionate conservatism.”  The implication was, of course, that conservatives are not inherently compassionate because they don’t believe in a large federal government, but that he would be different.  And after the narrowest victory in presidential history, he proved it by unleashing a torrent of federal spending that would stand as the most profligate ever, until Obama came along.

One of the core beliefs of conservatives is that education should be controlled by local communities.  But Bush pressed his federal No Child Left Behind initiative, granting even more power to a federal government that had been consistently increasing federal spending on education without any results to show for it.  This program, almost as unpopular on the left as on the right, has cost taxpayers some $25 billion a year for the last decade, in addition to burdening states with unfunded mandates that cost tens of billions more.

Even with Medicare already hemorrhaging and facing tens of trillions of dollars in unfunded liabilities going forward, Bush also forced through an unfunded Medicare prescription drug program (Part D), adding trillions more in federal obligations (even though the program has, incredibly and perhaps for the first time ever, cost less than the federal government estimated).

In addition to the expansion of federal power and increased budget deficits implicit in these and other programs, party discipline forced George Allen, Paul Ryan and many other conservatives to go along and support their Republican president, leading to the absurd spectacle in the recent Virginia Senate campaign of leftist Tim Kaine attacking Allen from the right for fiscal recklessness.

As reported in the epilogue of the excellent book Rendezvous with Destiny by Craig Shirley on the 1980 presidential campaign, here is what the Manchester Union-Leader reported in 2003 about Ed Gillespie. longtime Virginia-based political strategist and Bush’s hand-picked chairman of the Republican National Committee:  “Gillespie said in no uncertain terms that the days of Reaganesque railings against the expansion of the federal government are over…Today the Republican Party stands for giving the American people whatever the latest polls say they want…The people want expanded entitlement programs and a federal government that attends to their every desire, no matter how frivolous?  Then that’s what the Republican Party wants, too.”

So here we stand four years after Bush left office with record low approval numbers, with almost two thirds of voters telling AP that the economy was the most important issue of the election…and re-electing the most leftist president in American history, who they blame less for the sad state of the economy than his Republican predecessor.

The conclusion is clear.  George W. Bush completed a process begun by his father, and ruined the Republican brand.   It will take a genuine conservative to restore it.  A conservative who doesn’t stipulate that conservatives are less kind or less gentle or less compassionate than leftists.  Someone who, like Ronald Reagan, will offer a choice, not an echo.