With less three weeks remaining until Election Day, one of the greatest obstacles to replacing President Obama is the enduring shadow of the Bush record. Conservatives like me had a love-hate relationship with President Bush during his eight-year tenure. I loved his resolve to defeat the enemies of the United State and his seriousness on social issues. However, he also worked with Ted Kennedy to increase the reach of the federal government in education policy, created a whole new Medicare entitlement and a whole new cabinet-level department, engaged in serial deficit spending, tried to pass an amnesty for illegal immigrants, and tried to put Harriet Myers on the Supreme Court.
Yet even in 2008 or 2012, if given a choice between Al Gore or John Kerry and George Bush, I can’t imagine any conservative choosing Gore or Kerry.
Bush’s deficits were, I thought, unnecessary. Every year, his administration would submit a budget with a built-in deficit, on the assumption that as long as the deficit was smaller than some percentage of GDP, it wouldn’t lead to a ballooning federal debt. Unlike Obama, Bush got his budgets passed through Congress. However, his budgets were never complete. They always left out the costs of military operations and rebuilding in Iraq and Afghanistan, which were then funded with supplemental spending bills. That always struck me as disingenuous at best.
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the citizens of the United States were prepared to rally to the flag. We wanted to do something, to contribute to the defense of liberty, but our leaders in Washington told us to go shopping. We wanted to sacrifice something; instead, we were instructed to continue patronizing our wine bars and cupcake shops. To borrow a phrase from the current campaign, the wars didn’t have to be paid for with a Chinese credit card.
Aside from the deficits, Bush’s economic record is not all that bad. Recall that he came into office facing an economy shocked by the bursting of the dot com bubble and accounting scandals at Enron and WorldCom. The Bush administration actually prosecuted the executives responsible and sent them to jail. Unemployment throughout Bush’s two terms remained under 5%. When the global financial crisis erupted in 2008, the root cause had as much to do with the sub-prime lending practices insisted upon by Democrats as it did with any policies pursued by the Republican administration. It can be argued that the proper course of action early on would have been to let financial institutions like AIG fail, rather than bailing them out with imaginary dollars.
Obama voters fear a return of the Bush years. That fear is driven by two things: the institution of a homeland security infrastructure that Obama has mostly kept intact, and a financial crisis for which Bush was not responsible and which has been exasperated by the policies of the current administration.