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.
Last month, Mitt Romney challenged both President Obama and the education establishment with a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that called for a broad policy overhaul. If adopted, Romney’s idea could overturn a quarter-century of efforts to concentrate more power and responsibility for education in the federal government. It also made clear the Republican presidential candidate favors school choice schemes in which federal dollars would follow students no matter what school they choose to attend even if it were not the local public school.
Not surprisingly, the education establishment isn’t happy about the prospect of such reforms and are started to push back as a New York Times article on the subject made clear today. But while the Times and other critics of his speech may have thought Romney would be embarrassed for being called out as opposing the educational approach embraced by President George W. Bush, they are wrong. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” may have been a noble attempt to improve the quality of schools, but it is deeply unpopular and had the unfortunate effect of being a vehicle for more federal power at the expense of local control. Moreover, the usual chorus of criticism for Romney’s embrace of voucher-like school choice ideas underestimates the hunger for genuine educational reform that exists in the country. In education, Romney has found an issue that will help him breach the divide between the GOP and many constituencies that are desperately in need of the sort of national course correction he is prescribing.
Rick Santorum’s defense of his vote in favor of President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” education bill was one of the low points of a dismal debate performance last night. His explanation that being a “team player” meant that sometimes you have to “take one for the team” was not exactly the sort of ringing defense of principle that wins applause from partisan crowds. In fact, it earned him some boos and allowed Mitt Romney and Ron Paul to brand him as a political “insider” who is part of the problem in Washington rather than its solution.
To the extent that the bill was symbolic of the willingness of the Bush administration and the Republican majority in Congress in 2002 to spend the public’s money like drunken sailors or at least like Democrats, it is fair game for criticism of Santorum. However, the impulse to trash any rationale put forward for team play in Congress is more than a bit overblown. More to the point, the idea that any member of the House or Senate should be condemned for attempting to govern rather than merely spouting off purist declarations of principle in the manner of Ron Paul is not only unfair, it is a prescription for chaos. It should also be noted that Santorum’s regret about “No Child Behind” is no ex-post facto rationale. I happen to know his support for the bill was in fact quite reluctant.