Why is it my conservative friends won't admit the truth: that George W. Bush "broke" the United States of America?
Hello again. Judging by your response to my first three columns, this feature is proving quite popular. I appreciate all the letters that you have taken the time to send. I am sorry I am not able to answer each one of them personally.
This week I've been asked to explain why conservatives won't admit that George W. Bush "broke" the United States of America. It's an interesting question, so open-ended it's difficult to choose the way to answer it.
The short answer is they won't admit it because it's not true. George W. Bush did not break the country. Many conservatives believe history's judgment will be much kinder to him and his accomplishments than the current crop of historians and commentators allow and that he will eventually be seen in a much better light than he is today.
That is not to say he was near perfect. There are things that occurred on his watch that, whether Bush was directly responsible for them or not, are cause for legitimate conservative criticism. But this is far different from what I am sure many of you would point to as his failings as president, for example the idea -- really a canard -- that he "lied" us into war in Iraq.
It may be true that the decision to invade Iraq was partly based on faulty intelligence, that information the United States and other nations believed to be accurate regarding Saddam Hussein's intentions to develop chemical, biological and, particularly, nuclear weapons was not, in fact, accurate.
Bush may have been incorrect, but that is different by many degrees from engaging in a deliberate falsehood, as more than a few historians now believe occurred with President Lyndon Johnson following the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which led to a major increase in the U.S. commitment to the defense of South Vietnam.
Critics on the left blame Bush for a decline in America's global prestige and connect it to his foreign policy. I would like to point out that his clear-minded prosecution of the war on terror resulted in Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi's giving up his nation's nuclear weapons program, among other things. Barack Obama's make-nice approach got us a book accusing the United States of being a neo-colonial bully from Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez. I know which outcome I prefer.
On the right, the criticisms of Bush started during his 2000 race for the White House over his emphasis on "compassionate conservatism," which many feared was really just another way to talk about "big government" conservatism.
Events proved these concerns were, at least in part, justified. Fred Barnes, writing in the Weekly Standard in 2005, just about a year after Bush was reelected, cited six reasons they were, starting with the fact that Bush was not, in fact, a conventional conservative.
"He deviates on the role of the federal government, on domestic spending, on education, on the Medicare prescription-drug benefit, and on immigration," Barnes wrote. And by "deviates" Barnes meant favoring an expanded role for the federal government, counter to the limited-government philosophy of the Reaganite Republican Party.
But Bush gets credit for his pursuit of tax cuts that, rather than create the economic mess we are currently in, helped fuel economic growth. Under Bush, the economy and the stock market strengthened from 2003 to 2007 following the reduction in the capital gains tax from 20 to 15 percent and the tax on dividends was reduced from 35 percent to 15 percent.
Following the 2006 elections, when the Democrats regained control of Congress, it became clear that the House and Senate would not continue the lower rates. The response by investors to the promise of higher dividend and capital gains taxes started the decline in the stock market.
To those who understand the relationship between government and the economy it is no wonder that private investors, faced with these two near-certainties, changed their behavior. It's similar to the relationship between the realization that there were enough votes in Congress to pass the Smoot-Hawley tariff increase and the onset of the Great Depression. The stock market is a leading, not a lagging indicator.
If there are places where Bush's stewardship of the economy is to be faulted they are the way in which government, and government spending, expanded on his watch and the way in which the federal government violated basic free-market principles through its handling of the initial round of TARP bailouts.
Many conservatives opposed, as one wrote recently, "the idea that we would be able to bail out various financial institutions with taxpayer money, thereby stabilizing markets and mitigating losses while instilling confidence among investors and the general public."
As we now all know, it didn't work -- under Bush, who conceived it, or under Obama, who expanded it. And it opened the door for an unprecedented -- in my lifetime anyway -- level of intervention by the White House in American business.
Those who blame Bush for the bursting mortgage bubble overlook his efforts to bring greater regulation to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the way congressional leaders like Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., and Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., interposed themselves between the White House and efforts at reform. Could Bush have done more? Maybe, but he's also not solely to blame.
The "blame Bush" approach also ignores the way the Clinton-era revisions to the Community Reinvestment Act and pressure from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, again during the Clinton presidency especially, led to an increase in the number of people being given home mortgages who really never should have gotten them.
Before I close, there is one last point I want to make. It is fallacious to argue that George W. Bush or any other American president can or could "break" the United States. We are a strong country, full of amazing people who sometimes do incredible things. We are innovative, resilient, forward thinking, committed to liberty, and we remain, even for all our faults, a shining example to the rest of the world. The idea that any one man or woman, any president, could break the country runs counter to the true spirit of America.
I hope that helps.