Fake History in the Making: Karen Hughes' Bad Advice for the GOP

She thinks Mitt Romney could've convinced voters that Democrats were primarily responsible for the housing crisis.

karen hughes full reuters.jpg


To the chagrin of Republicans, American voters still assign a large part of the blame for the bad economy to George W. Bush, who was still president at the beginning of the financial crisis. That's part of why Mitt Romney lost, says Karen Hughes, the former Bush Administration official. And in her telling, the GOP could've easily persuaded voters that is just isn't so. 

Hughes is latest high-profile Republican to advise the GOP on the lessons it should take from its electoral drubbing. The most memorable line from her op-ed in Politico Friday: "If another Republican man says anything about rape other than it is a horrific, violent crime, I want to personally cut out his tongue." Is she mocking the movement conservatives who accused her of being friendly to sharia law? Pandering to Ellen Jamesians? Whatever her reason for using language so graphic, it shouldn't distract from what she said about the economy. It's as disconnected from reality as ever.

"The economy was the biggest issue and the economy is creeping along with unemployment stubbornly high, higher than it was when the president took office. The problem is that exit polls showed more than half of Americans blame that economy not on Obama, but on his predecessor, President George W. Bush," she wrote. "That's because Republicans never made the case that the financial crash was not the result of Bush -- and by implication, Republican policies. It happened during the final months of Bush's presidency, but had its roots in the crisis in the housing market. Both parties bear some of the blame, but it was Democrats who aggressively backed policies giving home loans to people who had little chance of repaying them." (emphasis added)

What a demonstrably false claim.

To me, it's discrediting for a supposed expert in political communication to come out with advice as bad as that. Yes, per Hughes, both Democrats and Republicans bear blame for the housing crisis. What rankles is that even now, years ofter Bush left office, Republicans won't level with themselves or one another about the actual policies he pursued, and continue to pretend as if the financial crisis could've been avoided but for politically correct Democrats. In this telling, Democrats insisted that poor minorities be given mortgages that they couldn't afford, somehow effected the necessary policies over Republican objections, and predictably caused a rash of defaults. (Hughes writes as if this line of argument has never been used before, even though it failed to persuade anyone outside the conservative movement back in 2008, when it was tried by Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and a number of conservative columnists.)

Why is that narrative problematic? 

For one thing, it ignores various causes of the financial crisis that implicate Wall Street, ratings agencies, and the Fed; but it also obscures the bipartisan nature of efforts to expand home-ownership.

Democrats did advocate on behalf of imprudent loan policies.

And Republicans?

Well, it's hard to believe Hughes has forgotten "The Ownership Society," a centerpiece of Bush's communications strategy. Here's an excerpt from a 2004 "fact sheet" his White House released:

The President believes that homeownership is the cornerstone of America's vibrant communities and benefits individual families by building stability and long-term financial security. In June 2002, President Bush issued America's Homeownership Challenge to the real estate and mortgage finance industries to encourage them to join the effort to close the gap that exists between the homeownership rates of minorities and non-minorities. The President also announced the goal of increasing the number of minority homeowners by at least 5.5 million families before the end of the decade. Under his leadership, the overall U.S. homeownership rate in the second quarter of 2004 was at an all time high of 69.2 percent.

Minority homeownership set a new record of 51 percent in the second quarter...

The "fact sheet" goes on to detail specific things the Bush Administration was doing to expand homeownership among poor and minority families:

- American Dream Downpayment Initiative, which provides down payment assistance to approximately 40,000 low-income families;
- Affordable Housing. The President has proposed the Single-Family Affordable Housing Tax Credit, which would increase the supply of affordable homes;
- Helping Families Help Themselves. The President has proposed increasing support for the Self-Help Homeownership Opportunities Program; and
- Simplifying Homebuying and Increasing Education. The President and HUD want to empower homebuyers by simplifying the home buying process so consumers can better understand and benefit from cost savings. The President also wants to expand financial education efforts so that families can understand what they need to do to become homeowners.

There isn't any way around it. Homeownership was at an all-time high. The housing bubble was already inflated in various locales. And Bush favored public and private sector efforts to approve millions of additional mortgages to low-income households (among other bubble-making policies).

Presented by

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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