Commentary Magazine


Responding to Laura Ingraham

My former Reagan administration colleague Laura Ingraham is unhappy with me. In a post on her website, Ingraham is livid that I criticized longtime conservative activist Phillis Schlafly for her remarks related to immigration. What I wrote was not just wrong; it was “appalling and disgusting.” 

That’s a rather silly charge to make, since my criticisms of Ms. Schlafly were not personal; they had to do with differences over a substantive policy matter. Ingraham believes it’s terribly unfair that I said Schlafly has lost the “ambition to convince” when it comes to the GOP appealing to Hispanics. But how else can one interpret these comments by Schlafly: “The Hispanics who come in like this are going to vote Democrat. And there is not the slightest bit of evidence that they are going to vote Republican. The people the Republicans should reach out to are the white votes – the white voters who didn’t vote in the last election.” What makes Ingraham’s comments even more curious is that she largely aligns herself with my argument, having written, “I think there’s more hope in attracting Latino voters than [Schlafly] does.”

So do I.

But where Ingraham’s arguments become most confused is in her angry attacks against George W. Bush, anyone who worked for President Bush, and the entire Bush family. (It should be pointed out that Ms. Ingraham showed an almost supernatural ability to contain her disdain for President Bush when she was invited to meet with him in the White House. Who knew that underneath her good manners and supportive words lay a seething volcano?) 

Ms. Ingraham repeatedly invokes the mantra “How dare ex-Bushies” criticize Schlafly. After all, Ingraham is saying, George W. Bush and all those associated with him are not true conservatives, having undermined conservatism at every turn. So what is Ingraham’s specific indictment against Bush?

There’s a lot to sort through, and much of it is jumbled. But let’s deal with it as best we can. For starters, Ingraham says the Bush administration “drove so many people away from conservatism.” But that assertion is wrong, as this Gallup poll demonstrates. When George W. Bush won the presidency, 38 percent of the country identified itself as conservative (half of that figure identified itself as liberal). The number of self-identified conservatives fluctuated between a low of 37 percent and a high of 40 percent during the Bush presidency. The country’s political ideology during the Bush years was quite stable. And Republicans during the Bush years became substantially more conservative, less moderate, and less liberal.

As for Ingraham’s claim that most Americans consider the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to be “pointless”: For the entire Bush presidency the number of Americans who said it was a mistake to send troops to Afghanistan never rose above 34 percent, according to the Gallup organization. Public support for the Iraq war did drop–but it increased after Bush embraced a new counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq (the so-called surge), one of the most impressive demonstrations of presidential leadership in our lifetime. It’s also worth pointing out that Ingraham aggressively supported both conflicts, including in Iraq (see here, here, here and here). For most of the last decade she got the point of both wars–and was highly quite critical of those who did not. 

Ms. Ingraham complains that Bush “refused to enforce immigration law as the people demanded.” Back to reality: Under Bush we saw substantially increased border security, he ended “catch and release,” and illegal immigration declined virtually every year Bush was in office. Ms. Ingraham also excoriates Bush for fighting for “amnesty for illegal aliens.” Actually, Bush didn’t support amnesty for illegal aliens. Amnesty means to exempt from penalty, and Bush’s policies required penalties for those who break the law but wanted to apply for citizenship. What Ingraham doesn’t mention is that the one president who did sign legislation granting full-scale amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants was her political hero (and mine) Ronald Reagan. In a 1984 presidential debate, in fact, Reagan went so far as to say, “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and have lived here, even though sometime back they may have entered illegally.” The mind reels at the critical things Ingraham would say about Bush if he had actually had Reagan’s record on amnesty. 

For the purposes of this discussion it might be helpful to stay with the Bush-Reagan comparison, since Reagan is the gold standard for conservatives and ranks among the greatest presidents in our history. It’s therefore illustrative to take the issues Ingraham has selected and measure Bush’s actual policies and achievements against Reagan, if only to put them in a real (as opposed to a make-believe) context.

Ingraham charges that Bush “ran up huge budget deficits.” False. The budget deficit during Bush’s tenure averaged 2 percent of GDP, which is well below the 50-year average of 3 percent and considerably below what it was under Reagan (when it went as high as 6 percent of GDP and averaged 4.2 percent).

On spending: over the last 40 years and eight presidencies, only two presidents have kept spending below 20 percent of GDP in even a single year: George W. Bush did it in six of his eight fiscal years; Bill Clinton in four. During fiscal years 1981-88, the Reagan years, federal spending averaged over 22 percent of GDP. As Keith Hennessey has pointed out, “even at its highest point during the Bush tenure, spending as a share of GDP was still lower than the lowest year of the Reagan Administration.”

Ms. Ingraham has long had something of an obsession with Harriet Miers, who was never seated on the Supreme Court. But both Anthony Kennedy and Sandra Day O’Connor were. Unlike Antonin Scalia, Reagan’s greatest Supreme Court appointment, Kennedy and O’Connor turned out to be fairly problematic from an originalist perspective and both refused to overturn Roe v. Wade. (Schlafly called Roe v. Wade “the worst decision in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court” and said that it “is responsible for the killing of millions of unborn babies.”)

As for the “ex-Bushies” who “practically destroyed the GOP”: George W. Bush won both presidential campaigns he ran in. During his tenure the GOP reached its high-water mark of influence, when it controlled the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives. And in 2002, Republicans regained their majority in the Senate and added seats in the House–only the second election in American history in which a president’s party gained seats in both the House and Senate in the first midterm election. The GOP didn’t maintain that position, losing 29 House seats in 2006 (one more than the historic average). There’s no question that in Bush’s second term he encountered political difficulties that he didn’t face in his first term. But a fair-minded reading of the record makes it clear that Ingraham’s claims are ludicrously exaggerated.

What Ingraham has done is to string together a series of incorrect and misleading assertions, even as she consistently overlooks Bush’s conservative achievements on taxes (he cut them several times and unlike Reagan, never raised them) and growth (during the Bush years America experienced six years of uninterrupted economic growth and a record 52 straight months of job creation), culture of life and marriage issues, the Second Amendment, support for Israel, missile defense, withdrawing from the ABM Treaty, and his anti-terrorism policies, to name just a few. Keith Hennessey also points out that Bush “proposed structural and incremental reforms to Social Security and Medicare that set up the current entitlement reform debate.” 

What appears to have occurred is that Ingraham’s anti-Bush animus, whatever its origins, has crippled her ability to think clearly about him or his record.

I’ll close by making a broader point. Much of the left has come to symbolize an ad hominem impulse in American politics–the habit of replacing reasoned arguments with personal attacks. It’s a shame that Ingraham–whom I’ve known for years and have always had a cordial personal relationship with–has taken to employing this tactic. Rather than offer a calm and informed dissent to what I wrote, she has instead opted to post a piece that is sloppy and unserious. It’s a shame, since intemperate minds are an obstacle to conservative success.

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