The GOP Isn't Alone in Conveniently Ignoring the Bush Era

Many Democrats say that our last Republican president was an extremist. What does it mean that his most radical policies now have bipartisan support?


Our last Republican president, George W. Bush, hasn't been mentioned much in his party's primary. But his policies did come up repeatedly in the Arizona debate that CNN broadcast last week.

Over at MSNBC, Steve Benen noticed.

And it kind of freaked him out.

Quoting an account of the debate, he observed that the candidates discussed these Bush policies: No Child Left Behind, the "Bridge to Nowhere," TARP, the 2001 airline bailout and the steel industry bailout. "The nature of this exploration wasn't exactly encouraging," Benen wrote. "We've reached the point in Republican politics at which GOP candidates are considered too liberal if they sided with the Bush/Cheney administration... The message to the American electorate is therefore rather striking: Vote Republican in 2012: We won't be moderate like that Bush guy was."

This is a common sentiment among Democrats: George W. Bush was a far-right ideologue, and now his party is moving even farther right? Terrifying! But that's actually a misleading way to frame the way our politics has evolved.

There are certain ways that our 43rd president was an extremist. He asserted a radical vision of executive power; was willing to take preemptive military action anywhere on earth; claimed the right to detain anyone indefinitely without charges or trial; and showed alarming disregard for civil liberties, as embodied by the PATRIOT Act and NSA's secret, illegal program of wiretapping. On these issues, the GOP hasn't really budged.

But on the issues that Benen is talking about, there isn't actually very much to worry a Democrat about the direction of the contemporary Republican Party. Unlike Bush, today's GOP is averse to TARP. Would Benen prefer a Republican Party eager to give financial firms another bailout? Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum actually agreed that, given the attacks 9/11, the airline bailout was justified, so their position was the same as Bush's. On No Child Left Behind, a lot of Democrats now understand that imposing a federalized regime of standardized tests imposes undue burdens and bad incentives on local school systems. And if Democrats have to choose between a Republican Party eager to bail out steel, or one ideologically opposed to corporate bailouts, isn't the latter predisposition preferable from a populist perspective?

Democrats' ongoing critique of the radicalism of the Bush years is undermined, as well, by the fact that President Obama has embraced so many of the same radical policies and attitudes without losing his party. Nor is there any question that the country would be better off now if Bush had been more conservative -- the deficit would be smaller, the education system would be more nimble and less obsessed with standardized tests, and the nation-building adventure in Iraq wouldn't have happened.

It's true that Romney and Santorum are more radically right-wing than George W. Bush in some ways. For example, they support assassinating American citizens without due process on the president's say so. Unfortunately, few Democrats are going to attack them on those grounds this election season, because doing so would implicate their own standard bearer. Such criticism is therefore left to right-wing ideologue Ron Paul and his immoderate supporters.

It makes for an interesting spectacle: Democrats earnestly retain the idea that Bush was an ideological extremist and are alarmed at the notion of a GOP that is less moderate than it was during his term, but forget many of the particulars that made Bush a radical are now supported across partisan lines. 

Image credit: Reuters
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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