There is something satisfying about snow days. Your choices are limited by forces beyond your control, so sitting around the house doing nothing is perfectly justifiable. For some of us, of course, the guilt inculcated by years of Catholic education threatens to bubble to the surface, but after years of dealing with it, I've learned to keep a damper on it. So, in keeping with our governor's insistence that we not leave our houses physically, I'm not leaving the house metaphorically either, and this post, rather than being at all original, will merely revisit some thoughts I emitted years ago.
A friend on Facebook linked to this article, entitled: George W. Bush: Still the worst: A new study ranks Bush near the very bottom in history, due to delusional wars, reckless spending and inflexibility. It has been my oft expressed view on this blog that George W. Bush was, indeed, the worst president of all times, so of course I followed the link with every expectation that I would enjoy the article, for, as any Fox viewer can tell you, nothing is more satisfying than having one's views reinforced.
But, alas, I was disappointed. The article was penned by Robert Merry, who was Washington correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, a fact that should immediately start the warning bells clanging.
In fact, Merry ends up being agnostic about Bush's claim to being the cellar dweller in the Presidential standings. But that's not the problem with the piece. In many ways, Merry finds fault where there is very little and minimizes or misunderstands the truly horrible.
His analysis of the Iraq war, for instance, is hopelessly compromised by his own Beltway delusions. Consider this:
Hence, the rationale of necessity collapsed after the invasion, and Bush was diminished in much of public opinion for having crafted a rationale for war that was either disingenuous or carelessly flimsy (I believe the latter).
Even characterizing the mendacity that led us to war as “disingenuous” is far too charitable to Bush (and Merry won't even go that far), and Merry never even mentions the fact that Iraq is now controlled (to the extent it is controlled at all), by a government that is allied more with Iran than it is with us, something that war opponents predicted would happen at the outset, just as many were proclaiming that no weapons of mass destruction would be found.
Merry's criticisms of Bush on the economy are more wildly off the mark, as are the relatively high marks he gives him for managing the economy in his first term. Here's the criticism (I've got no time to discuss the faint praise of the first term):
It was during the second term that things fell apart. The folly of the Iraq war became increasingly clear, and Bush’s credibility plummeted. The war sapped federal resources and threw the nation’s budget into deficit. The president made no effort to inject any fiscal austerity into governmental operations, eschewing his primary weapon of budgetary discipline, the veto pen. His first budget director, Mitch Daniels (later Indiana governor), strongly urged a transfer of federal resources from domestic programs to the so-called War on Terror, much as Franklin Roosevelt directed such a transfer when he led the country into World War II. Bush rejected that counsel and allowed federal spending to flip out of control. The national debt, which was being steadily paid down under Clinton, shot back to ominous proportions. Meanwhile, economic growth rates began a steady decline, culminating in a negative growth rate in the 2008 campaign year.
Almost none of this is really true. Whether budget deficits were good things or bad things in the Bush years, it was not the Iraq war that led to them. It was the Bush tax cuts. More fundamentally, it is hard to make the case that “fiscal austerity” was called for during the Bush years, or that it would have done anything to prevent the bursting of the housing bubble, which was the actual cause of the depression that started in 2008. No, Bush was bad for a lot of reasons, but not because he didn't hold the line on spending. In any event, Merry's historical comparison to FDR and World War II doesn't withstand scrutiny. Sure, FDR shoved money into military spending during the war, but it is more fair to say that he did it by increasing, rather than shifting, spending. That increased spending drove up the deficit (remember war bonds?) thereby increasing demand, which dragged the nation out of the Depression. Had there been no war, and had FDR borrowed the same amount to fund highway construction or some other worthy endeavor, the effect on the economy would have been the same. It is a mystery why shifting spending to the “War on Terrorism” would have equaled “fiscal austerity”; it would simply mean we had shifted money from generally more useful programs to those that were generally more useless.
In my own opinion, Bush's claim to being the worst president rests on two basic arguments. First, he was a truly bad president who led us into an unnecessary and counter productive war; cursed us with a security state beyond anything dreamed of by his predecessors (his successor, I admit, has done nothing to dismantle it); bequeathed us a Supreme Court that has destroyed any hope that we can recover our democracy (see, e.g., Citizens United); exacerbated and encouraged divisiveness; ignored the environmental crisis we face; implemented policies designed to transfer wealth to the rich.. and the list goes on with my having only scratched the surface. The second factor is the simple fact that previous terrible presidents (see, e.g., the shame of my alma mater, Franklin Pierce, who I'll use as an example), were simply not in a position to do as much harm as Bush. Bush wreaked havoc on a global scale; Pierce was simply a weak President who stood by and did nothing while the nation marched toward a civil war that might well have been inevitable in any event. At that stage in our history, a peace time president's ability to affect events, even in this country, was limited. His ability to visit destruction on the rest of the world was non existent.
One irony of Bush's presidency was that he had an ability to get just about anything he wanted out of Congress. Not for him Obama's desperate search to get reasonable minds to compromise. He made demands and they were usually met. His problem was that he almost always demanded truly awful things.
In my own opinion, our current president is on his way to earning a C+; not great, certainly, because given the times, we really needed a guy (or gal) who could get an A or better, but it still compares favorably with Bush's rock solid F, which I would rate F minus, if that made any conceptual sense.
All of this leads me to one final thought. We really do need someone to do a history of Bush's presidency now, while the memory of that parade of horrors is still somewhat fresh. I sort of cheated on my list of his atrocities, because already, I realize I've forgotten so many of them. That book must be written; but not by Robert Merry.