The Bush Legacy Takes Shape

In the late 1990s, Grover Norquist and some other conservative activists realized that all across the country, Americans were landing in airports, driving on roads, and attending junior high schools named after such non-conservatives as Thomas Jefferson, John Kennedy, and Franklin Roosevelt. To remedy this state of affairs, they started the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project, whose primary goal was to get something named after the 40th president in every last county in America, not to mention getting Reagan on the $10 bill. (And yes, they have a Web site. My favorite part of the site is the page titled "This Day in Reagan History,", which reads, in its entirety, "This is where content goes." So true.)

Silly as it might sound, this is actually serious business, as it concerns our national memory and the way future generations understand our history. Those who appreciate this include the supporters of the man who will be president for just one more week. Whenever George W. Bush himself gets asked about his rather remarkable record of ineptitude, he usually responds that "the historians will decide" if his administration really was the train wreck it appears today or if over time the true wisdom of his decisions will have revealed itself. But behind the scenes, as The Weekly Standard's Stephen Hayes revealed last month on CNN, "there's an ongoing Bush legacy project that's been meeting in the White House, really, with senior advisers, Karl Rove, Karen Hughes has been involved, current senior Bush administration advisers, and they are looking at how to sort of roll out the president's legacy." To illustrate the magnitude of their challenge, witness this recent headline from The Washington Times, which has practically been the Republican National Committee house organ for its entire quarter-century of existence: "Rove: Bush Hardly Worst President."

We'll never settle whether Rove is right -- after all, how do you compare Bush to Franklin Pierce or Millard Fillmore? But now that Bush's tenure is coming to a close, we can begin making some conclusions about the eight years we just lived through. For the moment, let's look at one of the areas people used to believe Republicans were really good at managing: the economy.

Start with jobs. Just before Bush took office, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the total seasonally adjusted nonfarm employment in the United States of America was 135.8 million. In the report the bureau released last week, that same figure was 143.3 million, meaning that there are 7.5 million more jobs in America at the end of Bush's term than there were at its beginning. That may not sound too terrible, until you consider that over that time the country's population has increased by 22 million (two-thirds of the population is in the labor force competing for those jobs). It also means that there were about three jobs created during the Clinton years for every one job created during the Bush years.

How about Bush's management of the government's fiscal condition? Like other Republican presidents, Bush came to office decrying the size of government and promising to don his green eyeshade and make sure the books were balanced. And like other Republican presidents, he managed to increase government spending and balloon the deficit.

Perusing the historical tables of the 2009 budget, we see that during the last year for which Bill Clinton was responsible (2001), the surplus was $128 billion, or 1.3 percent of gross domestic product. That's surplus. In Bush's budget for 2009, which was submitted last February, the deficit was projected to be $407 billion, or 2.7 percent of GDP. That, of course, was before the $700 billion we gave to the banks (don't ask what they're doing with it, by the way, because the Treasury Department won't tell you).

Of course, Barack Obama plans to add about $1 trillion to Bush's deficit with his stimulus plan, the success of which will go a long way toward determining whether Obama does better on the deficit question than Bush did. While Obama is unlikely to reduce what the government spends, he can reduce the deficit if he can duplicate what happened under Clinton: powerful growth that fueled an explosion in tax revenues.

Nonetheless, we shouldn't forget that Clinton's expansion of government was extraordinarily modest compared to that of his successor. If you compare George H. W. Bush's last budget (for 1993) to Clinton's last budget (for 2001), you see an increase in spending of 12.7 percent in constant dollars. Compare Clinton's last budget to George W. Bush's last budget, and you see an increase of 34.7 percent, or nearly three times as much. Calculated as a function of GDP, the difference between the two is even more stark: federal government spending as a proportion of GDP declined by almost 3 percentage points under Clinton, then increased by more than 2 percentage points under Bush. So much for those profligate Democrats and thrifty Republicans.

And what about the typical American's paycheck? Although incomes went up at all levels during the Clinton administration, you will be unsurprised to learn (if you didn't know already) that most of the gains Americans got from the Bush years were concentrated at the top. As the Economic Policy Institute's new State of Working America report says, "For the first time since the Census Bureau began tracking such data back in the mid-1940s, the real incomes of middle-class families are lower at the end of this business cycle [from 2000 to 2007] than they were when it started."

By almost any measure, this administration failed on the economy. Unless, of course, you measure corporate profits (they did quite well) or the taxes with which the wealthy are burdened (these have been compassionately reduced). It was the latter that seemed to animate the administration's sense of urgency for its time in office. Remember what Dick Cheney told then-Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill when O'Neill objected to eliminating the tax on stock dividends because of the effect it would have on the deficit: "We won the [2002] midterms. This is our due." It may not make any economic sense, in other words, but it's our reward for a political victory, the thing we want so bad our lips are quivering with desire for it.

There are other means we could use to assess Bush's failure -- the Dow Jones, for instance, was 2,000 points lower at the end of 2008 than it was at the end of 2000. Gross domestic product, which rose by an average of 3.6 percent per year during the Clinton years, rose by only 1.4 percent per year during the Bush years. But all the figures can numb us to the fact that what we're talking about is real human lives. Every lost job is a family in crisis, a couple fearing for their future, a blanket of misery covering a home. The decline in the stock market represents people in their 70s who after a lifetime of labor now have no choice but to end their retirements and go back to work. There may well be a generation whose entire outlook on the world is shaped by the suffering coursing through the country right now, just as the generation who grew up during the Depression was shaped by the ravages of that period.

Karl Rove and the other Bush loyalists will try to burnish George W. Bush's legacy in the days to come -- after all, his failures are theirs as well. It's up to the rest of us to never let anyone forget what this presidency was really about.

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