In his final days, the 43rd President is not talking Nixon-like to the pictures of his predecessors on the White House walls. But he seems to be wandering the corridors searching for a legacy while simultaneously burnishing his failures to give them at least a thin patina of success. Maybe that’s why the Obamas can’t move into Blair House—because 43 is crossing the street at night to look for lost legacies.
Bush’s audience is not the present. A super-majority of Americans disdain his performance and can’t wait for the curtain to descend. His fellow partisans largely blame or even scorn him. A generation of proud “Reagan Republicans” will not be succeeded by even a few years’ worth of self proclaimed “Bush Republicans.”
So Bush retreats to a risible comparison between himself and Harry Truman, who was redeemed by history after he left office with a rating barely above Bush’s low water mark. But where is Bush’s NATO, his Marshall Plan, his containment strategy—the Truman policy that sowed the seeds of victory in the Cold War while avoiding the trigger-happy roll back of communism favored by his political adversaries which could have set off World War III?
Instead, Bush misled the nation into Iraq, a misadventure he now dares to cite as an achievement because it got rid of Saddam Hussein. But at what price—and to what effect? Even the best of the likely outcomes, a Shiite-dominated regime in tacit league with Iran, represents a threat and a blunder purchased not only with massive loss of life but with at least a trillion American dollars. This war has brought more instability, not the promised wave of democracy to the Middle East, and inflicted catastrophic damage on America’s global credibility. It is a remarkable feat that Bush has wrought: America is both less respected and less feared.
The surge, along with side deals to bring in or buy off former insurgents, may have averted explicit defeat in Iraq, but not a wider strategic disaster. Instead of a quick, heavy strike to destroy Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, followed by a near term withdrawal, Bush shortchanged our forces there even as he magnified their mission. While he was obsessed with Iraq, a narco-terrorist sanctuary grew and flourished in Afghanistan and sprawled into Pakistan, where Bush was gulled into financing an “ally” whose intelligence agency has aided and abetted assaults against our forces as well as India. Today, the subcontinent teeters on the brink of conflict between two states with nuclear arsenals. There’s a legacy for you.
History will judge Bush harshly for all this and more abroad—as well as for a shameful record at home. He waged class warfare with a tax cut that redistributed wealth to the top while middle class incomes stagnated. His reflexive pursuit of deregulation, combined with his fiscal recklessness, has resulted in an economic crisis that could end in national and global depression.
Along the way, he trashed the Constitution, defaced America with Guantanamo and torture, responded to the health care crisis with another proposed tax cut for the wealthy, let the polluters write energy legislation, and publicly doubted the danger of climate change until the last gasp of his presidency. There is hardly a great issue where Bush hasn’t been wrong—not just in terms of ideology, but measured by the hard calculus of the public interest.
In fairness, there are two exceptions: immigration reform, where Bush lost and promptly gave up—and AIDS in Africa, where he vastly increased the Clinton commitment. But even there, he devalued his own achievement by spending two thirds of the money targeted for prevention on promoting abstinence.
This, of course, is part of the base strategy that salvaged Bush's reelection in 2004 by playing the politics of division and intolerance. Bush got reelected, barely, by stoking bigotry against gays and then he rewarded the religious right by packing the Supreme Court with Justices determined to overturn Roe v. Wade. How can he expect to be rehabilitated by history when he stands so resolutely on its wrong 0D side?
And the test Bush fails is not primarily a matter of political philosophy. In addition to his considerable achievements, Ronald Reagan met the other, perhaps more enduring, test of presidential greatness: like FDR and JFK, he enriched and deepened America’s conception of itself. Lincoln was the master here. But despite Frum’s best words, Bush will be remembered for a kind of cheap, frat boy rhetoric that has diminished the American idea. The yearning for a higher, better standard in part explains the powerful appeal of Barack Obama.
It’s hard to be a worse President than James Buchanan, who almost lost the Civil War before it started. But it’s perhaps harder still to make a case that history will rank George W. Bush anywhere except in the bottom tier. Bush would be better off, and so would we, if he was Benjamin Button, growing younger, undoing the damage of his tenure in the White House. Or better yet, perhaps we could just go back and correctly count the ballots in Florida—then we wouldn’t have had to live through this movie.