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Public Perceptions About Bush Matter

My colleague Peter Wehner picked up the rhetorical gauntlet flung in the face of George W. Bush by Walter Russell Mead and did much to vindicate the tarnished honor of the administration in which he served so honorably. Like Pete, I think the 43rd president has gotten a raw deal in most respects from the court of public opinion and will ultimately be vindicated by history, if not the mainstream media.

Pete went to some length to answer the charge that Bush’s eight years in office was “a political disaster for the president’s party” and that it generated a “headwind of well-merited public distrust” for Republicans. There is a strong case to make against Mead’s assertion that the public distrust he speaks of was “well merited.” But the idea that there is much point arguing about whether it was a “political disaster” in terms of the GOP’s current dilemma strikes me as a waste of time, if not utterly futile. The accumulated weight of a profligate GOP Congress, the bad optics of Katrina, the casualties in Iraq and the financial crisis that struck the country in the fall of 2008 created an image of the Bush administration that might be unfair but is nonetheless indelible. It may be never too early to correct the historical record on all of these issues, as Pete and the other writers he referenced have done, but the relevance of this exercise to the politics of 2013 or even 2016 is limited. It may be the duty of the historian to try and chip away at the narrative that Bush failed, but to argue that the perception of this record is not a heavy burden for Republicans to carry or that it can be undone by refighting the political battles of 2001 to 2008 is a mistake. Mead’s critics may be right about the history, but they can only be said to be correct about the politics if their argument is that deeply engrained public perceptions shouldn’t count. Unfortunately, they do.

Even if we concede that Pete is right about every single point he makes and I agree with just about all of them (the creation of the Medicare prescription drug plan is one point on which I think then-representative and now-Senator Pat Toomey’s principled conservative dissent from the administration’s idea was correct), the negative perceptions of Bush’s presidency is a fact. If far more Americans blamed Bush for the weak economy of 2012 than the man who had been running the country for four years then that is not the sort of thing that can be corrected with scholarly debate. Like the fallacious notions that Herbert Hoover and his Republican predecessors created the Great Depression and that Franklin Roosevelt’s policies solved the problem, it may take decades for the smears of Bush to fade from public consciousness. Yet even now I fear more Americans probably believe the depiction of the Depression and the New Deal found in the musical play “Annie” than the brilliant debunking of these myths in the books of Amity Shlaes.

Bush’s problem and those of his Republican successors remains that a liberal mainstream media and a popular culture dominated by the left tend to have more to say about the prevailing narrative about political issues than conservative thinkers. Complaining about this can be a satisfying occupation, but if Republicans want to win the 2014 midterms and take back the White House in 2016 they’d be well advised to avoid that trap.

My disagreement with Mead (who, to be fair, concedes that Bush has not been treated fairly and deserves more credit than he has received) is not so much with his evaluation of Bush as with his belief that Republicans need to spend much time critiquing the last GOP administration or defending it. They’d be well advised to avoid either of these endeavors except to point out that they represent a new generation of Republican leaders that shouldn’t be confused with the GOP-run Congress that was voted out in 2006 and facing different challenges than George W. Bush.

To argue in this fashion isn’t to claim the perception of Bush is correct, but to say that it is a fool’s errand for Republicans to go to the polls identifying themselves with him or nominating someone who cannot escape the association, such as his younger brother Jeb. The verdict of public opinion on Bush may not be accurate, but at this point it is not capable of being altered by further debate. If what Mead is really saying is that Republicans must move on from Bush and not repeat his political mistakes then even those who of us wish the 43rd president were given his due cannot really disagree.

The debate about the Bush administration belongs to the historians now and we can only hope that they will eventually get it right. But if Republicans are going to win elections anytime soon they need to move on and concentrate on defending their principles and pointing out Obama’s failures, rather than seek to vindicate their former leader.

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