Bush's Legacy: Conservative Failure (1)
December 16, 2008 - 3:53pm ET
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"History will treat me well," Winston Churchill, at the nadir of his public reputation, is said to have once confidently proclaimed. "How do you know?" his interlocutor came back. "Because," Churchill concluded, "I intend to write it."
Now, our president surely could not write his way out of a sopping wet paper bag, but that's not to say he doesn't grasp the Churchillian impulse. Rewriting history has been the substance of his presidency in recent weeks—and, with a major American Enterprise Institute address planned for Thursday on "Building a Foundation for the Future, with a specific focus on domestic policy initiatives," we can expect to hear more. What's he saying? In a commencement speech at Texas A&M ("Thank you all. Howdy! I'm thrilled to be back in Aggieland," his discourse began), he described...running with a wounded vet. Martha Raddatz interviewed him on ABC. She asked him about his legacy. He listed No Child Left Behind; programs to fight AIDS and malaria; a goofily comic mantra about "52 months of uninterrupted job growth"; and "faith based." "I mean there a lot that people will be able to just this administration on." He also bumbled insultingly ("So what?") about the consequences of turning Iraq into an al Qaeda recruiting ground.
The President, to say the least, has not proven an effective spokesman for his own place in history. So the job has been outsourced. As reported in the Los Angeles Times, 'A two-page memo that has been sent to Cabinet members and other hig-ranking officials offers a guide for discussing Bush's eight-year tenure during their public speeches": "kept the American people safe" after September 11; boomed the economy via tax cuts (and "reponded with bold measures to prevent an economic meltdown" after the booming stopped); fought AIDS in Africa; invented No Child Left Behind; and maintained "the honor and dignity of his office." "The document," the Times concludes, "presents the Bush record as an unalloyed success."
The obfuscation makes perfect sense. Because the meaning of these past eight years has been very, very clear—so clear it can't afford to be uttered. I think historians will have a very easy time characterizing the Bush presidency. He was a conservative Republican ascending to office with a Congress controlled by conservative Republicans, alongside a judiciary more or less controlled by conservative Republicans, too. In retrospect it will appear very, very clearly: this was a historic first in modern American history.
The first time conservative governance was tried.
Which has been our job here at the Big Con lo these past twenty months: to describe what happens when conservatives, who define themselves by their contempt for government, attempt to govern. We've been totting up the Bush Legacy in real time. The story has been one of uninterrupted ruination.
We started, of course, with that infamous coinage: "E. coli conservatives"—as the Nobel Laureate best defined it, "ideologues who won’t accept even the most compelling case for government regulation." We totted up well upwards of a hundred incidences of the problem, most crucially on the subject of food safety. (And stretched the metaphor to include collapsing bridges as well, especially this one.) Though eventually I stopped counting. People learned to do it well enough on their own.
Now, let's talk about George Bush's legacy, and let us be generous: this is not George Bush's fault. It is conservatism's fault. Conservatism in its original conception, as uttered by Ronald Wilson Reagan upon his inauguration on January 20, 1981: Government is not the solution; government is the problem.
All else follows from that.
It used to be that when a new national problem became impossible to ignore, the federal government galvanized resources to fix it. But there isn't even a nationwide tally of how many sinkholes there are. The Environmental Protection Agency has projected that half the water pipes in the nation will be in either poor, very poor, or "life elapsed" status within 13 years. The EPA has sprung to the rescue this way—by telling municipalities to spend more money, like it's not a national problem at all. Like Howard Dean said in 2004: that means they'll have to raise taxes.
But conservatives keep telling us: Taxes are evil.
You know what's more evil? Last summer, in a suburb near Dallas, a 2-year-old boy, Elian Majano, disappeared. A bloodhound traced his scent to a sinkhole in a public park caused by a broken sewage pipeline.
I drove the point home with another of my incessant refrains: "D-minus." That was the grade the American Society of Civil Engineers gave status of the nation's underground pipes. I've mentioned that an average of about once a month.
Once more, let's be generous: this is not George Bush's fault. It is conservatism's fault. Conservatism in its original conception, as uttered by Ronald Wilson Reagan upon his inauguration on January 20, 1981: Government is not the solution; government is the problem.
All else follows from that.
And since it seems to be legacy week in Bushland, we're going to be following his lead here at the Big Con. We need to figure out what has happened over the last eight years, and how it links up to what has been happening over the last twenty-eight years, since Ronald Reagan was elected president. I'll be taking you through more of our greatest hits here at the Big Con, all the way up the biggest question we ask here: "What has conservative rule done to our nation's soul?" Stay tuned. If you make it to Bush's speech Thursday, it will give you some things to ask him about.
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