Harry Reid's misplaced nostalgia for George W. Bush
Here we go again. It seems another outbreak of wistfulness for the presidency of George W. Bush is upon us. The source of that outbreak is somewhat improbable, though: Retired Nevada Sen. Harry Reid — the Democrat who once stood as one of Bush's most vocal foes — is suddenly feeling nostalgic.
"He and I had our differences, but no one ever questioned his patriotism," Reid said of Bush in a CNN interview. "Our battles were strictly political battles." President Trump, on the other hand, makes Reid miss having Bush in the Oval Office "every day."
Trump, of course, reacted to the comparison with an angry tweet. But Trump's response, and Reid's criticism, missed the point. In truth, the differences between the two presidents are distinctions of degree, not of kind, and they have been magnified by cheap nostalgia. George W. Bush was a very bad president. Donald Trump is worse. But in many ways, Trump's presidency merely amplifies the worst tendencies of the Bush administration.
If you need an illustration, just look to Capitol Hill, where the House of Representatives is expected to vote to overturn Trump's recent declaration of a national emergency designed to bypass Congress in order to build an anti-immigrant wall on America's southern border. Trump's attempt to end-run Congress is plainly unconstitutional, but it is also rooted in the excesses of the Bush administration during the first years after 9/11, when the president and his lawyers routinely asserted the right to disregard Congress on everything from decisions to build new military bases, make personnel appointments, and even torture terror suspects.
First, Bush practiced the politics of divide and conquer. Rather than try to broaden his appeal, his campaign in 2004 decided instead to focus on getting the GOP base to the polls — and did so by promoting a series of anti-gay measures on state ballots throughout the country: Eleven states, including Ohio, passed bans on gay marriage, which gave Bush a narrow victory in that year's election. His victory came at the expense of an oppressed and scapegoated minority. That effort is clearly echoed in Trump's push to build the wall, an anti-immigrant measure that is widely unpopular except within the narrow confines of the president's base.
Second, the Bush administration made clear early on it favored tax cuts over fiscal responsibility. Bush, you'll remember inherited a budget surplus from President Clinton when he entered office in 2001. When he left office in 2009, the national debt had doubled. Under Trump, the national debt has topped $22 trillion. Republicans talk a lot about the sins of deficit spending, but they're the worst practitioners when they hold the White House. Democrats are usually left to clean up the mess rather than pursue their own priorities.
Finally, Bush's disasters — in Iraq, during Hurricane Katrina, and in leaving behind the Great Recession — so tainted his family's name that when 2016 rolled around, his big brother Jeb was easily dispatched by Trump during the GOP primaries, despite Jeb's massive financial backing from the party establishment. A party that has traditionally nominated establishment favorites for the presidency instead gave the reins to a reality TV star.
The similarities between the two men are both political — consider the disregard each has shown for longtime American allies — and personal. Both men seemed to fail upwards into the presidency, able to sustain their careers thanks mainly to the money and connections of their more-accomplished fathers.
There are differences, but they mostly come down to style: Bush appears more amiable than Trump. But the presidency isn't a congeniality contest. In all the ways that matter, the two men are far too similar.
There's no reason for Reid or anybody else to feel nostalgia for Bush's presidency. The nation's 43rd president left the country in worse shape than he found it; Trump seems destined to do the same. All of us should be hoping it's not too long before Trump joins Bush in retirement.