“The Country Paid Heavily For The Risks He Took”: It’s Not Too Soon To Judge George W. Bush’s Presidency On Key Issues
In the six years since he left the White House, President George W. Bush has often claimed that it is too early for historical judgments about his presidency. “It’s too soon to say how many of my decisions will turn out,” he wrote in Decision Points, his presidential memoir.
In this, Bush was indulging in what we will call the Truman Consolation. President Harry S. Truman was deeply unpopular during most of his time in the White House and in the years immediately afterward. Only decades later did historians begin to rate his presidency highly for the actions he took in the early years of the Cold War. At one time or another, when their poll ratings are slumping and their media coverage is biting, most modern American presidents like to believe they will eventually be vindicated, just as Truman was.
But Bush is largely wrong: In some of the most important areas of his presidency, it’s not too soon to draw conclusions. Just by judging against Bush’s own forecasts, some of the most far-reaching and important initiatives of his presidency didn’t work — or turned out poorly.
At the top of the list is the war in Iraq. Bush and his advisors badly misjudged what it would entail. They overestimated the international support the United States would be able to obtain for military action. They asserted before the war that American troops would need to stay in Iraq for no more than a couple of years. The administration’s public estimate before the war was that it would cost less than $100 billion; instead, it cost $2 trillion.
Intended originally as a short-term demonstration of American power and influence, the Iraq war over the longer term brought about the opposite. In its unhappy aftermath, Americans became increasingly cautious, more reluctant to become involved overseas. Overall, the war will go down as a strategic blunder of epic proportions, among the most serious in American history.
A similar fate will befall the second-most far-reaching aspect of Bush’s legacy, his historic tax cuts. Bush argued that they would stimulate the economy and spur economic growth. The short-term benefits proved dubious at best, but the harmful long-term consequences were incalculable, both for the federal government and, more importantly, for American society.
When Bush took office, America was in a brief period of budgetary surplus. There was actually a debate, forgotten and almost unimaginable today, about how to use the surplus: Pay down the debt? Launch new federal initiatives? Bush chose to cut taxes, and then did so in ways (tax cuts on dividends and capital gains) that proved immensely beneficial to the wealthiest Americans.
It’s true that President Barack Obama eventually allowed the Bush cuts on upper-income Americans to expire. But the damage had been done. Over the course of nearly a decade, the federal government became increasingly short of funds, while wealthy Americans built up greater and greater assets. Whenever you use a road, bridge or airport that needs repairs (or read a news story about the Pentagon complaining about budget constraints), you might pause to think about the Bush tax cuts and the role they played in shaping the America we see today.
Bush’s second round of tax cuts, in 2003, were historic in another sense. By then, he had already dispatched American troops to Iraq. In every previous military conflict since the Civil War, American presidents had raised taxes to help defray the costs. Bush bucked this historical trend: He lowered them.
It’s true that in a few other policy areas judgments of Bush’s presidency may improve over the years as events unfold and as more information comes to light.
The primary example could be counter-terrorism. The Senate’s recent report on enhanced interrogation techniques makes current judgments on that dark era even harsher than they would have been otherwise. Torture is torture, and no passage of time will change the moral judgments on that.
On the other hand, in the immediate aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, some Europeans began to ask why the attackers had not been kept under greater surveillance. If such terrorist attacks were to continue over many years, then judgments on the Bush-era surveillance programs might eventually come to be less harsh than they are today. Or they may come to be seen as the true beginning of a new surveillance state. More time needs to pass before historical judgments on this issue can take shape.
Overall, Bush’s presidency is likely to be remembered for his lack of caution and restraint. Once, in the midst of a discussion with his military advisors, Bush made a telling observation: “Someone has got to be risk-averse in this process, and it better be you, because I’m not.”
George W. Bush was certainly not risk-averse. He took gambles both in foreign policy and with the economy. Sometimes they paid off. Yet overall, the country paid heavily for the risks he took. History isn’t likely to revise that judgment.
By: James Mann, Los Angeles Times (TNS), a fellow in residence at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies; The National Memo, February 10, 2015
“Republican Ideas Haven’t Changed Since The 1970s”: John Boehner Should Try Listening To His Own Economic Advice For Obama
After President Obama released his 2016 budget on Monday, House Speaker John Boehner published a list of ten things that are “newer than Obama’s ideas.” Instagram, Angry Birds, Frozen, and the selfie stick all made the cut. Boehner’s office even created a clunky hashtag for the list—#NewerThanObamasIdeas. The irony is rich: Republican ideas have hardly changed since the 1970s.
It’s true that many proposals in Obama’s budget, like increased infrastructure spending, comprehensive immigration reform, and universal pre-kindergarten, were in his previous budget too. But there were many new ideas, as well. He proposed a new, 19 percent minimum tax on foreign corporate profits—a big move towards the GOP’s preferred territorial tax system. He also wants to expand a tax credit for child care while increasing the capital gains tax rate from 23.8 percent to 28 percent. He put forward a major overhaul of the unemployment insurance system.
None of these represent radical departures from Obama’s previous agendas. But Obama is a Democrat, not a Republican. He wasn’t suddenly going to abolish the Internal Revenue Service and repeal the Affordable Care Act, just as Republicans won’t suddenly wake up and support a single-payer system and higher taxes on the rich.
And Republican ideas on the economy have aged even worse than the Democrats’ stale agenda. Take monetary policy. Throughout Obama’s presidency, GOP lawmakers have frequently criticized the Federal Reserve for low interest rates and its recently-ended bond-buying program. Those policies, they have argued, would send inflation shooting upwards. That, of course, has not happened. Inflation has remained below the Fed’s 2 percent target for years. The greater risk is actually deflation—falling prices.
Of course, in the 1970s, inflation was a very real concern. Then-Fed chair Paul Volcker raised interest rates, causing a recession, but stamping out inflation. Republicans, fearing pre-Volcker inflation, are trying to apply those lessons during a very different time, when the far greater risk to the economy has been a weak labor market. If the Fed had implemented them, it would have led to a disastrous economic contraction.
Or consider taxes. Most of the Republican Party has a laser-like focus at lowering the top marginal tax rates. But some reform-minded conservatives also want to finance a huge expansion of the Child Tax Credit (CTC)—a tax credit available to parents. They believe that the Reagan tax cuts in the 1980s that lowered the top marginal tax rate from 70 percent to 50 percent was a smart move. But they see far fewer benefits in lowering marginal tax rates now. “Let’s say we cut the 15 percent federal income-tax rate faced by much of the middle class to 10 percent,” Robert Stein writes in the reformicon’s new conservative agenda, titled “Room to Grow.” “Instead of keeping 85 cents for a dollar of extra effort, a worker would get 90 cents—an improvement of only 5.9 percent.… For these workers, cutting the 15 percent rate to 10 percent would make absolutely no difference in work incentives.” A CTC expansion would put money directly into the pockets of parents who need it. While a few prominent members in the Republican Party have adopted Stein’s tax proposal, most notably Senator Marco Rubio, the vast majority of the party would rather lower marginal rates further instead of expanding the CTC. In other words, Republican tax ideas are still stuck in the 1970s as well.
At the end of Boehner’s listicle, his office writes, “The simple truth is this: The federal budget shouldn’t be cobwebbed by the policies of the past. It should be focused on the future—a future where our kids and grandkids can grow up free from the fear of never-ending debt and a bloated Washington bureaucracy.” His party should listen to that advice.
By: Danny Vinik, The New Republic, February 6, 2015
“It’s Not Him, Republicans, It’s You”: Mitt Romney Isn’t Running, But His Specter Still Haunts The GOP
I’ll have to admit that I’m a bit surprised Mitt Romney decided not to run for president, given the man’s almost superhuman optimism and persistence. But according to various reports, the torrent of criticism Romney received when he made it clear he was considering a run had a real impact on his final decision, even though in his statement he talked about his faith in “one of our next generation of Republican leaders” (take that, Jeb!) to win back the White House.
The Republican consensus was obviously that Romney represented failure, and they need something different if they are to win in 2016. But maybe Mitt Romney isn’t the problem. It’s not him, Republicans. It’s you.
Nobody would ever claim Romney was anything like a perfect candidate. His background as a private equity titan was particularly fertile ground for Democratic attacks painting him as the representative of the economic elite, and he had a colorful way of reinforcing that impression again and again, particularly with the “47 percent” remark.
But I actually think that if he had decided to run, he would have had a better chance than anyone of getting the Republican nomination. Every GOP primary campaign for the last half-century has begun with an obvious front-runner, and every one of those early front-runners got the nomination. Romney would have been that front-runner, as reluctant as many in the party were about his candidacy. In recent GOP races, the winner hasn’t been the one who defeated his opponents, just the one who outlasted them, as one chucklehead after another became the flavor of the month and then self-immolated (remember when Herman Cain led the primary polls in 2012?). Romney could certainly have stuck around until the end.
But now the 2016 race is truly a free-for-all, with no obvious leader. And if the only lesson Republicans take from 2012 is not to nominate a CEO (sorry, Carly Fiorina), they’ll make the same mistakes all over again.
Consider that “47 percent” remark. It made for a vivid illustration of arguments Democrats were already making, but Mitt Romney was hardly the first Republican to say it. The basic idea underlying it had been repeated endlessly on conservative talk radio and by other Republican politicians for years. If it hadn’t been caught on tape, the attacks from Democrats would have been the same, and the outcome would have been the same. Another example: when Republicans exploded with joy after Barack Obama’s “you didn’t build that” remark, Romney didn’t have to convince them to make it a huge issue; they all thought it would be a silver bullet that would take the president down, and they were all flummoxed when it didn’t. They couldn’t imagine that voters wouldn’t punish Obama for an (alleged) criticism of business owners, because they forgot that most Americans work for somebody else.
The prevailing attitude in GOP circles is that Romney failed because he was the wrong messenger. Yet almost every contender is preparing to offer voters the same policy agenda that Romney did. They may be saying now that they’ll talk about wage stagnation and inequality, but when you ask them what they’re going to do about it, their answer is the same as it has always been: cut taxes and cut regulation. It’s going to be awfully hard to convince voters that they’ve had a real change of heart. And anyone who deviates from Republican orthodoxy is already finding themselves on the defensive (as Jeb Bush is for his less-than-total enthusiasm for deportations).
It isn’t surprising that the party’s diagnosis of what went wrong in the last couple of elections won’t extend to the policies they’re offering the public; those positions are rooted in sincere ideological beliefs, and changing them would be hard. But even without Mitt Romney in the race, it looks like Republicans are going to offer a program of Romneyism. They could find themselves facing voters at a time when the economy is doing well overall, and they’re particularly ill-suited to address the structural problems that keep people anxious — two strikes against them. A fresh face is unlikely to solve that problem.
By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; The Plum Line, The Washington Post, January 30, 2015
“Je Suis Barack”: Barack Obama’s Accomplishments Must Always Remain In The Forefront Of The American Mind
You’re probably familiar with the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project, an effort launched by veteran right-wing activist Grover Norquist nearly twenty years ago to promote, in perpetuity, the idea that Reagan was the modern-day equivalent of the Founding Fathers. (I first heard about this project in early-2007, when then-Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick rejected Norquist’s call to issue a proclamation naming February 6 “Ronald Reagan Day” in the Bay State).
Those who endlessly promote Reagan’s “accomplishments” argue that they have to do so because progressives have a vested interest in tearing Reagan’s legacy down. (Of course, what they don’t acknowledge is that there’s so much to tear down!) The right’s argument is pure projection. In reality, it is progressives who must go the extra mile in defending the legacy of Barack Obama.
This November marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of Reagan’s victory over President Jimmy Carter. For the past thirty-five years, Carter’s legacy has been relentlessly vilified by the right, with insufficient defense from the left. Sometimes, it seems as though progressives are ashamed of Carter—a man whose foresight on energy was remarkable, a man whose commitment to peace was unshakable.
Progressives cannot allow Barack Obama’s legacy to be relentlessly trashed the way Carter’s legacy was. Quite frankly, we need a Barack Obama Legacy Project, one that will recognize, today, tomorrow and forever, his true significance to America and the world.
With two years remaining in his term, a compelling case can be made that Barack Obama is one of the greatest presidents of all-time. Look at the track record: an economy resurrected, Osama bin Laden brought to ultimate justice, the Iraq War ended, millions of Americans finally accessing health care, dramatic advances in equal treatment for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans, two brilliant Supreme Court appointees, sweeping economic reform, and an energy policy that, while imperfect, nevertheless takes the climate crisis seriously.
He accomplished all of this despite raw hatred from “birthers” and Tea Partiers who went to bed every night dreaming of seeing Obama’s black body swinging from a tree—as well as that of his father, for being uppity enough to marry a white woman. He accomplished this despite hyper-partisan media entities that smeared him as a Marxist from Mombasa. He accomplished this despite being unfairly blamed for the dementia and depravity of a right-wing Congress.
Obama hasn’t been perfect. (We’re still waiting for that Keystone XL veto, sir.) Sometimes, he has frustrated those who seek more peace and more justice. Yet on the whole, he has been a blessing for humanity.
He has brought us through the worst financial heartache since the Depression. He has brought us through incidents of shocking gun violence. He has brought us through racial discord sparked by those who so obviously killed Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner because they saw these men, subconsciously, as proxies for the President.
Generations from now, children should read about the courage and conscience of Barack Obama, his passionate love for this country, his commitment to the hurting and the hungry and the hopeless. Generations from now, Obama’s name should grace public schools and federal buildings. Generations from now, his name should be honored in the same way we honor the names of Washington and Lincoln and Roosevelt and Kennedy.
Those of us who were honored to live in the Era of Obama have a moral obligation to inform those who will be born after this era of just how great this man was, just how proud this man was, just how wise this man was. Did your grandparents tell you about how FDR boldly led this country? You must tell your grandchildren the same story about Obama’s equally bold leadership.
We must never allow what Obama meant to this nation to be forgotten or distorted. A courageous man shattered the ultimate glass ceiling. A man who recognized the insanity of Iraq concluded that wayward war. A man who understood the risks of a warming world fought for solutions to the problem of carbon pollution. A man who recognized the importance of health care reform brought millions of Americans from the savagery of sickness to the hope of health. A man who knew the immorality of injustice sought equal treatment for the LGBT community as well as communities of color.
Obama’s legacy must be cherished and defended. It is the legacy of a black man who worked tirelessly to protect Americans of all colors. It is the legacy of an American who tried to expand the blessings of liberty to every citizen. It is the legacy of a man who overcame the vicious lash of hyper-partisanship. It is the legacy of a man who was crucified over and over, but rose from the grave every time.
The hope and the change were real indeed. Barack Obama’s accomplishments must always remain in the forefront of the American mind. Is this a project progressives can accomplish?
Yes we can.
By: D. R. Tucker, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, January 24, 2015
One of the reasons it’s difficult for liberals to easily and effectively win arguments about economics with conservatives is that conservatives have a very simple mantra: let the natural forces of the market do their work. Government is seen as an interloper and distorter of Darwinian forces that would otherwise ultimately let all goods and services achieve their perfect prices with maximum efficiency.
There are a number of gigantic problems with that worldview, of course. The free market refuses to pay for a wide variety of crucial infrastructure items and investments in public health and safety; consumers are at an information and power disadvantage against unscrupulous companies; and human life and dignity are unacceptably cheap on the open market.
But there’s another key lie in the conservative “natural economy” story, which is that modern corporate capitalism is anything but natural. It’s an artificial system encoded arbitrarily into law and interpreted in a specific way that tends to give maximum advantage to executive and shareholders at the expense of society. Kent Greenfield examined right here at Washington Monthly one way in which that is true: the Dodge v. Ford case that explicitly denied corporations the right to engage in more socialistic practices and demanded that they only serve the bottom line for their shareholders. The corporate veil itself another artificial legal construct, as is the notion of corporate personhood.
Our society is built on rules and regulations, all of them socially and legally built out of artifice. That is just as equally true of business as it is of government.
By: David Atkins, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, January 24, 2015