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Walter Russell Mead’s Shallow and Misleading Attack on the Bush Legacy

Walter Russell Mead has written a post arguing that the Bush administration was a “first class political disaster” for the Republican Party. The Bush presidency was “not a success,” according to Mead, and Republicans need to deal with the failures, “real and perceived,” and do so “openly and honestly.” 

“Fluency in discussing the disasters of the Bush years is going to be a job requirement for Republican candidates and mandarins for some time to come,” Mead informs us. But having declared the vital role fluency should play in public debate, Mr. Mead proceeds to demonstrate his own ignorance on a range of matters.

The University of Texas’s Will Inboden does a fine job responding to Mead on foreign policy, so I’ll focus on what Mead calls the “multiple policy failures of the Bush years,” which include “two long unfinished wars, a botched hurricane, no significant domestic reform, frozen immobility on immigration, deficits out of control, the middle class in deepening trouble, the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression.”

There’s much to unravel in this litany, starting with Mead’s claim that the Bush deficits were “out of control.” Wrong. The budget deficit during President Bush’s tenure averaged 2 percent, which is well below the 50-year average of 3 percent.

But Bush inherited a surplus, critics will respond. To which the answer is: Yes, but by January 2001, when Bush was inaugurated, the budget surpluses were evaporating as the economy skidded toward recession (it officially began in March 2001). Combined with the devastating economic effects of 9/11, when we lost around 1 million jobs in a little over 90 days, the surplus went into deficit.

And here’s what else Mead fails to mention: In the aftermath of the March 2001 recession, America experienced six years of uninterrupted economic growth and a record 52 straight months of job creation that produced more than 8 million new jobs. During the Bush presidency, the unemployment rate averaged 5.3 percent. We saw labor-productivity gains that exceeded the averages of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Real after-tax income per capita increased by more than 11 percent. And from 2000 to 2007, real GDP grew by more than 17 percent, a gain of nearly $2.1 trillion.

Keith Hennessey, in a data-heavy analysis that contrasts well with Mead’s, concludes:

George W. Bush, a wartime President, had a smaller federal government and lower taxes relative to the economy than each of his three predecessors, historically small deficits, no tax increases, and 5.3% average unemployment. He vetoed a farm bill and two health bills for spending too much. He proposed structural and incremental reforms to Social Security and Medicare that set up the current entitlement reform debate.

Mr. Mead mentions none of this, perhaps because they pose inconvenient facts to his thesis. In any event, it’s hardly a record of failure.

Ah, you might say, but what about the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression, which happened during Bush’s watch?

The reasons for the 2008 financial crisis were quite complicated, but surely much of the blame–and probably a majority of the blame–rests with those (Democrats) who blocked reforms that would have mitigated the effects of the housing crisis, which led to the broader financial crisis. As Stuart Taylor, hardly a loyal Bush supporter, put it in 2008:

The pretense of many Democrats that this crisis is altogether a Republican creation is simplistic and dangerous. It is simplistic because Democrats have been a big part of the problem, in part by supporting governmental distortions of the marketplace through mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, whose reckless lending practices necessitated a $200 billion government rescue [in September 2008]. … Fannie and Freddie appear to have played a major role in causing the current crisis, in part because their quasi-governmental status violated basic principles of a healthy free enterprise system by allowing them to privatize profit while socializing risk.

For the record, the Bush administration warned as early as April 2001 that Fannie and Freddie were too large and overleveraged and that their failure “could cause strong repercussions in financial markets, affecting federally insured entities and economic activity” well beyond housing. Bush’s plan would have subjected Fannie and Freddie to the kinds of federal regulation that banks, credit unions, and savings and loans have to comply with. In addition, Republican Richard Shelby, then chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, pushed for comprehensive GSE (government-sponsored enterprises) reform in 2005. These efforts at reforming Fannie and Freddie were blocked by Democrats such as Christopher Dodd and Representative Barney Frank, along with the then-junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, who backed Dodd’s threat of a filibuster. It’s also important to point out that the steps Bush took to stabilize the financial system–which were made under enormous pressure and increasing turmoil–basically worked, sparing us from even worse consequences.

Now let’s turn to Mead’s claim that Bush achieved no significant domestic reform. Nonsense. The No Child Left Behind Act was among the most important reforms to education in decades. Six years after NCLB became law, 4th-grade students achieved their highest reading and math scores on record, and 8th-grade students achieved their highest math scores on record. African-American and Hispanic students posted all-time highs in reading and math, and the achievement gap has narrowed.

Then there’s the Medicare prescription drug plan, which allows private drug plans to compete against each other to provide coverage for beneficiaries. Because competition was injected into the system, the average premiums in 2008 were 40 percent lower than the original estimates. Overall, the projected spend­ing for the program between 2004 and 2013 is 37 percent lower than orig­inally expected–a reduction of about $240 billion. During the Bush years free-market principles were also extended to the Medicare Advantage program and Health Savings Accounts. This approach to health care issues, it’s worth noting, is the animating feature behind the bold Medicare reform plan put forward by Representative Paul Ryan.

On “a botched hurricane:” Mead makes no mention of the staggering incompetence of then-New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Governor Kathleen Blanco, neither of whom ordered a mandatory evacuation in time while the latter (Blanco) actually blocked federal efforts to aid New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina. Despite this, others have pointed out that we witnessed one of the largest rescue operations in history in which roughly a quarter of a million residents were moved out of a flooded city within a week, which is actually a fairly impressive achievement. But none of this is supposed to matter.

I’m not sure what “frozen immobility” on immigration reform is supposed to mean. President Bush was a strong, vocal champion of immigration reform, which encountered congressional opposition and never became law. But the reform was wise and necessary, and the power of it endures. For example, the core of Bush’s immigration reform (with some amendments) is being resurrected by, among others, Senator Marco Rubio. I suspect that what we’ll find is that Bush was ahead of his time on the matter of immigration.

I’ll now take up the issue of Iraq, which is supposedly an indelible mark against America’s 43rd president. It’s quite true that serious mistakes were made leading up to the war and in the aftermath of major combat operations, and I’ve written about them. So, in fact, has President Bush. But a more sophisticated summary than Mead’s, about the effects of the surge and the state of things in Iraq after the Bush presidency, can be found in this column by Charles Krauthammer:

when [Obama] became president in January 2009, he was handed a war that was won. The surge had succeeded. Al-Qaeda in Iraq had been routed, driven to humiliating defeat by an Anbar Awakening of Sunnis fighting side-by-side with the infidel Americans. Even more remarkably, the Shiite militias had been taken down, with U.S. backing, by the forces of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. They crushed the Sadr militias from Basra to Sadr City.

Al-Qaeda decimated. A Shiite prime minister taking a decisively nationalist line. Iraqi Sunnis ready to integrate into a new national government. U.S. casualties at their lowest ebb in the entire war. Elections approaching. Obama was left with but a single task: Negotiate a new status-of-forces agreement (SOFA) to reinforce these gains and create a strategic partnership with the Arab world’s only democracy.

He blew it.

I wonder if Walter Russell Mead understands the irony of his analysis. He’s encouraging Republicans to seriously grapple with the Bush era, which is entirely reasonable. But he does so in a way that is itself deeply unserious. Recapitulating Chris Matthews’s talking point about the Bush presidency doesn’t add to our understanding of anything; it merely gives wings to silly caricatures.



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