Today, the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum opens it doors. Some Republicans, like former Bush aide Ed Gillespie and The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin, are celebrating this moment with defenses of the Bush legacy, assuring us that his economic record was actually good, that his visionary foreign policy set the stage for President Obama's counterterrorism successes, and even that BushCare surpasses ObamaCare.
But attempting to apply fresh gloss on a starkly sorry presidential record is the last thing Republicans should be doing — at least if they wish to rescue their public approval from all-time lows. Instead, Republicans should use the opening of the Bush library as a golden opportunity to do what they've been resisting for five years: Embark on an honest reckoning of why Bush's policies failed.
There's no glossing over the fact that Bush's record on job creation is terrible. The Wall Street Journal called it "The Worst Track Record On Record." There's also no disputing that the Iraq War, sold as a "cakewalk" to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction, quickly degraded into a quagmire involving no weapons of mass destruction. Or that the Bush presidency ended with a colossal meltdown of Wall Street that sparked the worst global recession in 70 years.
Bush's conservative economic policies ended in catastrophe. And his conservative foreign policy ended in catastrophe. The twin disasters were a searing experience for most of America. But Republicans have yet to acknowledge their culpability, let alone show an understanding of why their preferred policies went awry, and develop new policies that account for lessons learned.
Until Republicans offer evidence that they have learned from Bush's grievous mistakes, many Americans will continue to question whether the Republican Party is serious about actual governing. Granted, it's a lot of failure to own up to. It's always hard to admit when you were wrong.
That said, Democrats have shown how you can distance yourself from past failures without sacrificing core beliefs. On the contrary, it can be a necessary step for exiting the political wilderness and getting a second chance with voters. Democrats seemed beyond help after the consecutive losses of Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis. Carter and Mondale discredited Democrats on the economy and taxes. The Dukakis campaign discredited Democrats on crime and social issues.
Then came Bill Clinton. He put to rest concerns that Democrats are wanton "tax-and-spenders" by flogging a "middle-class tax cut." He reflected frustrations with the results of Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" by pledging to "end welfare as we know it." He brazenly shed the Democratic attachment to rejecting the death penalty by executing a mentally retarded convict during the 1992 campaign. Clinton's maneuvers were clear rebukes to a liberal orthodoxy, designed to win the party a fresh hearing from moderate voters. Yet in the end, they did not spell doom for liberalism, as evidenced by President Barack Obama's Recovery Act, Affordable Care Act, and repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
Today's Republicans need a similar ideological recalibration, but they are in a much deeper intellectual hole than the 1992 Democrats. The Republican budget is a libertarian fantasy based on an essentially impossible goal of strict budget balance in 10 years. Four months into a new congressional session, they haven't bothered to write actual legislation for their own stated top legislative priorities. They need a big rethink before they can be taken seriously by voters again.
The Bush library is exactly what Republicans need. Not to defiantly defend one of the worst presidential tenures in history. But to pore through the historical record and come to terms with the flawed assumptions that drove the Bush administration's thinking, or lack thereof. Republicans ready to take on this challenge will have to wait a bit. The library won't open its presidential records to the public until January.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- The big, gaping hole in the liberal policy arsenal
- 10 things you need to know today: July 28, 2014
- Here's the schedule very successful people follow every day
- The militarization of America’s police
- 7 grammar rules you really should pay attention to
- Blame Obama and U.S. evangelicals for the persecution of Iraqi Christians
- 7 things the world's happiest people do every day
- Why you shouldn't eat dog. Not even once.
- Why you should really take a nap this afternoon, according to science
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
Subscribe to the Week