The Skeptics

He's Baaack: George W. Bush as Freddy Krueger

[amazon 0806513683 full]Like the star of a third-rate horror film, George W. Bush is back, scaring the public. The former president has a memoir to sell, and he’s busy defending his militaristic and profligate presidency, highlighted by his attempt to turn America’s chief executive into an elective despot. It’s a record Americans should reject today as firmly as they did when he left office nearly two years ago.


Presidents often appear better when looking backward. Consider hapless and unelected Gerald Ford. When judged by the standard of his successor, Jimmy Carter, the natural reaction was: bring back Jerry. President George W. Bush is benefiting from a similar effect. As President Barack Obama nationalizes health care, increases spending, expands the Afghan war and threatens civil liberties, some people are asking: what’s not to like about the Bush presidency?

A lot, actually.

President Bush was not an evil man, in contrast to the image spun by his severest critics. However, he was temperamentally unsuited to the presidency. Not stupid, he was something worse: willfully ignorant. He did not view lack of knowledge as any reason not to bomb, invade, and occupy other nations. Indeed, he almost joyfully tried violent social engineering in lands about which he knew nothing.

George W. Bush treated appointments to government like filling fraternity offices. Knowledge naturally was irrelevant, along with competence and experience. Instead, President Bush preferred buddies, political supporters, sycophants, people to whom he took a superficial liking and above all loyalists.

Who else would have insisted that appointees to the occupation authority in Baghdad have backed his 2000 campaign and hold the “correct” view on abortion? Or would have nominated the egregiously ill-prepared Michael Brown and Harriet Miers to the Federal Emergency Management Administration and Supreme Court, respectively?

The president also judged people and information by whether they matched his ideological presuppositions. For instance, those who suggested that events in Iraq failed to match his rosy scenario earned dismissal as defeatists. George W. Bush appeared to be congenitally unable to reconsider bad decisions, even when new information contradicted what he believed was supposed to have happened.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that when “The Decider” decided the results were usually ugly.

President Bush’s philosophy was even worse than his mode of decision making. Contrary to his rhetoric, he abandoned most conservative—or at least limited government—principles once he took office. It was a presidency that only a committed statist could truly love.

First was spending. George W. Bush turned a large surplus into a huge deficit. The Congressional Budget Office reported a $13 trillion deterioration in federal finances over ten years. The single biggest factor after economic readjustments was increased outlays.

This Republican president and Congress actually increased domestic discretionary spending faster than did President Lyndon Johnson and his Democratic Congress. The GOP initiated the biggest expansion of the welfare state in four decades, the Medicare drug benefit, with an unfunded liability of $13 trillion—about the same cost as President Barack Obama’s health care reform bill. It was hard to find a program for which expenditures did not go up under President Bush.

Moreover, much of the spending blamed on President Obama began under Bush. On President Bush’s watch the federal government bailed out Bear Stearns, creating an expectation on Wall Street of further bailouts. The Bush administration terrorized a reluctant Congress into passing TARP, the most important effect of which was indirectly bailing out Goldman Sachs. Bush officials admitted that there was no “metric” to justify the $700 billion program: they just wanted a “big number.” And it was President Bush who took a plan to purchase “toxic” financial assets and turned it into bank and auto-industry bailouts.

While President Bush was not responsible for the roughly $800 billion Democratic “stimulus” legislation passed in early 2009, he pushed smaller and no less foolish initiatives during this presidency. Pork barrel spending peaked at $35 billion annually—under the Republicans. The Bush administration’s faith-based initiative turned into an expensive attempt to buy GOP political support from African-American churches.

Second, George W. Bush believed in limited government and federalism only when convenient. His “No Child Left Behind” legislation expanded national control over education. The nation’s founders would never have imagined federal funding for marriage counseling. Backed by President Bush, the U.S. Congress intervened in the tragic Terri Schiavo case, overturning multiple state-court decisions. The president believed in no limits to national political power.

Third, George W. Bush adopted promiscuous but incompetent war making as the basis of his foreign policy. After mistakenly downplaying the threat posed by al-Qaeda, the Bush administration treated terrorism as an existential threat akin to that of nuclear war. For good cause, the administration ousted the Taliban government after 9/11, but provided too few troops to capture al-Qaeda’s leaders, blithely accepted deadly Pakistani double-dealing in Afghanistan, and prematurely withdrew U.S. forces in order to attack Iraq.