Friday, January 23, 2009

farewell notes

[See This Modern World and the Salon cartoon archive.]

We’re still organizing our photos from the inauguration – I look forward to writing about that. And every day brings more good news from the Obama administration that I’m eager to share. I’m so focused on the positive now that it seems churlish and almost irrelevant to look back. But there are a couple of items backlogged that I want to dispense with before trying to forget about Bush, Cheney and that gang forever. (Of course, as long as their “legacy” project is ongoing, a certain amount of rebuttal will be necessary from time to time. We wouldn’t want any Reagan-like myths to take hold.)

Pop quiz: For most of the Clinton years the capital gains tax rate was 28%. For most of the Bush years it was 15%. Under which president did investors do better?

Here is the final accounting for the equity markets under Bush and Clinton:

The Dow Jones Industrial Average went up from 3253 to 10,587 under Clinton (+325%). On Bush’s final day in office it closed at 7949 (-24.9 %).


The S&P 500 went up from 447 to 1342 under Clinton (+300%). Under Bush it went down to 805 (-40%).

The NASDAQ went up from 700 to 2770 under Clinton (+395%). It has gone down to 1465 under Bush (-47%)

That was a trick question, of course. The capital gains tax rate doesn’t determine how investors do in the equity markets. But that is the point. Had the markets done well under Bush it would have all been attributed to his tax cuts. Republicans try to attribute magical qualities to cuts in taxes on capital, especially the capital gains tax. Their current prescription for the country’s economic woes is further reduction – or elimination – of the capital gains tax. Next time you hear that pitch, ask, “How did those tax cuts work out under Bush?”

The job market didn’t do any better. The narrow measure of unemployment went from a 4.2% rate when Bush took office to 7.2% at the end of December (and certainly higher still when he left office on Tuesday). And, then, there was the more than $5 TRILLION that he added to the nation debt (roughly doubling it during his two terms). He had the six highest deficits in history, including a $485 billion deficit in just the first three months of fiscal 2009.

The Economist is generally considered a conservative publication (in the old not-completely-radical-right-crazy sense of that term). They endorsed George W. Bush and they supported the Iraq war from the start. But the latest issue has a pretty devastating summary of the Bush presidency (“
George Bush’s Legacy: The Frat Boy Ships Out”). I highly recommend reading the whole thing – don’t rely on my edited version:

Few people will mourn the departure of the 43rd president

HE LEAVES the White House as one of the least popular and most divisive
presidents in American history. At home, his approval rating has been stuck in the 20s for months; abroad, George Bush has presided over the most catastrophic collapse in America’s reputation since the second world war. The American economy is in deep recession, brought on by a crisis that forced Mr Bush to preside over huge and unpopular bail-outs.

America is embroiled in two wars, one of which Mr Bush launched against the tide of world opinion. The Bush family name, once among the most illustrious in American political life, is now so tainted that Jeb, George’s younger brother, recently decided not to run for the Senate from Florida. A Bush relative describes family gatherings as “funeral wakes”. …

Mr Bush’s role model throughout his presidency was not his father but the patron saint of the modern conservative movement, Ronald Reagan. He regarded Reagan as a man who had unleashed free-enterprise and defeated the Soviet Empire, and he tried to do the same with his huge tax cuts and his global war on terror. He mimicked Reagan’s Western style, even relaxing on a Texas ranch where Reagan had taken his holidays on a Californian one; and he echoed Reagan’s enthusiastic use of the word “evil”.

Other facets of Mr Bush’s personality mixed with his vaulting ambition to undermine his presidency. Mr Bush is what the British call an inverted snob. A scion of one of America’s most powerful families, he is a devotee of sunbelt populism; a product of Yale and Harvard Business School, he is a scourge of eggheads. Mr Bush is a convert to an evangelical Christianity that emphasises emotion—particularly the intensely
emotional experience of being born again—over ratiocination. He also styled himself, much like Reagan, as a decider rather than a details man; many people who met him were astonished by what they described as his “lack of inquisitiveness” and his general “passivity”.

This led Mr Bush to distrust the Washington establishment, and even to believe that establishment wisdom was probably wrong simply by virtue of what it was. Fred Barnes, a conservative journalist, entitled his book on Mr Bush “Rebel in Chief”. He
quotes one Bush confidante as saying: “One tux a term. That’s our idea of outreach to the Washington community.”

Lack of curiosity also led Mr Bush to suspect intellectuals in general and academic experts in particular. David Frum, who wrote speeches for Mr Bush during his first term, noted that “conspicuous intelligence seemed actively unwelcome in the Bush White House”. The Bush cabinet was “solid and reliable”, but contained no “really high-powered brains”. Karen Hughes, one of his closest advisers, “rarely read books and distrusted people who did”. Ron Suskind, a journalist, has argued that Mr Bush
created a “faith-based presidency” in which decisions, precisely because they were based on faith, could not be revised subsequently.

Mr Bush relied heavily on a small inner core of advisers. The most important of these was Dick Cheney, who quickly became the most powerful vice-president in American history. Mr Cheney used his mastery of bureaucracy to fill the administration with his protégés and to control the flow of information to the president. He pushed Mr Bush forcefully to the right on everything from global warming to the invasion of Iraq; he also fought ruthlessly to expand the power of the executive branch, which he thought had been dangerously restricted since Watergate.

The two other decisive figures were Karl Rove, Mr Bush’s longtime political guru,
and Donald Rumsfeld, his defence secretary. Mr Rove was obsessed by pursuing his
dream of a rolling Republican realignment, subordinating everything to party politics. Mr Rumsfeld regarded the Iraq war not, like his boss, as an exercise
in democracy-building, but as an opportunity to test the model of an “agile
military” that he was pioneering at the Pentagon.

The fruit of all this can be seen in the three most notable characteristics of the Bush presidency: partisanship, politicisation and incompetence. Mr Bush was the most partisan president in living memory. He was content to be president of half the country—a leader who fused his roles of head of state and leader of his party. He devoted his presidency to feeding the Republican coalition that elected him. …

Relentless partisanship led to the politicisation of almost everything Mr Bush did. He used his first televised address to justify putting strict limits on federal funding for stem-cell research, and used the first veto of his presidency to prevent the expansion of that funding. He appointed two “strict constructionist” judges to the Supreme Court, John Roberts and Samuel Alito, turned his back on the Kyoto protocol, dismissed several international treaties, particularly the anti-ballistic-missile treaty, loosened regulations on firearms and campaigned against gay marriage. His energy policy was written by Mr Cheney with the help of a handful of cronies from the energy industry. His lacklustre attorney-general Alberto Gonzales, who was forced to resign in disgrace, was only the most visible of an army of over-promoted, ideologically vetted homunculi.

The Iraq war was a case study of what happens when politicisation is mixed with incompetence. A long-standing convention holds that politics stops at the ocean’s edge. But Mr Bush and his inner circle labelled the Democrats “Defeaticrats” whenever they were reluctant to support extending the war from Afghanistan to Iraq. They manipulated intelligence to demonstrate that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and had close relations with al-Qaeda. This not only divided a country that had been brought together by September 11th; it also undermined popular support for what Mr Bush regarded as the central theme of his presidency, the war on terror.

Sean Wilentz, a historian at Princeton, remarks how unusual it is for a president to
have politicised such a national catastrophe: “No other president—Lincoln in the
civil war, FDR in world war two, John F. Kennedy at critical moments of the cold
war—faced with such a monumental set of military and political circumstances,
failed to embrace the opposing political party to help wage a truly national struggle. But Bush shut out and even demonised the Democrats.”

The invasion of Iraq was like much else in the Bush years—an initial triumph that
contained the seeds of disaster. Thomas Ricks, the author of “Fiasco”, argues
that “the US-led invasion was launched recklessly, with a flawed plan for war
and a worse approach to occupation.” Mr Rumsfeld’s decision to invade with too
few troops led inexorably to the breakdown of law and order, which turned the
Iraqi population against the Americans, and to the Abu Ghraib scandal, which
solidified world opinion against America. But Mr Bush responded to the unfolding
disaster with a mixture of denial and stubbornness, refusing to force Mr
Rumsfeld to adjust his plans. He engaged in an absurd photo-op to declare
“Mission accomplished”, and he also gave medals to three of the architects of
the debacle, George Tenet, Tommy Franks and Paul Bremer.

Mr Bush’s weaknesses were on display again in the second great disaster of his
administration, Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans in August 2005. The
hurricane exposed Mr Bush’s congenital passivity: he did not visit New Orleans
until five days later, after first viewing the damage from the safety of Air Force One. It also exposed the consequences of filling your administration with third-rate hacks. The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael Brown, a former commissioner for the International Arabian Horse Association, made a hash of dealing with the disaster but nevertheless received an encomium from the president—“Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job”—that rang around the
country.

How will Mr Bush be judged in the light of history? “Many historians”, says Princeton’s Mr Wilentz, “are now wondering whether Bush, in fact, will be remembered as the very worst president in all of American history.” …

Meanwhile, his policy of cutting taxes while increasing spending—of simultaneously pursuing big government and small government—dramatically swelled the deficit. He inherited a projected ten-year surplus of $5.6 trillion and bequeaths a ten-year deficit of $6 trillion, assuming his tax cuts remain in place. Hardly the makings of a positive judgment from future historians.

In pursuit of his fiscal ambitions, Mr Bush helped roll over or sweep aside long-standing rules and conventions designed to keep the deficit in check. …

For years the president refused to include the cost of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars in his budget. He also acquiesced in the expiry of 12-year-old budget rules that made it difficult to cut taxes or increase spending if it raised the deficit. In coming years deficit reduction will be hard enough, with the recession-induced collapse in tax collections and the cost of the bail-outs. Jim Horney, a former Democratic congressional staffer now at the liberal Centre on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think-tank, says it has been made even harder by the disappearance of any culture of restraint in Congress.

A president who laboured to produce Republican hegemony ended up dramatically weakening the Republican Party. The Democratic Party is now in a more powerful position than it has been at any time since the second world war. In the Senate, the Democrats have a majority of 59 seats to 41 (including two independents who caucus with the Democrats); in the House, they hold 256 seats to the Republicans’ 178. Americans who came of age during the Bush years identify with the Democrats by the largest majority recorded for any age cohort since the second world war.

A president who believed that America’s global supremacy was guaranteed by America’s unrivalled military power ended up demonstrating the limits of both. Many of America’s closest allies in Europe refused to co-operate with the Iraq war. Many of America’s rivals used America’s travails in Iraq to extend their power: Iran is more powerful than it was in 2000, and closer to acquiring a nuclear bomb; Russia and China have extended their web of alliances and strengthened their regional influence. Mr Bush’s recalibration of his policies in his second term suggests that even he recognises that America’s loss of soft power has cost it dear.

The American military machine is under intense strain. The demands of tackling the
Iraq insurgency have forced America to short-change Afghanistan. Deployments
have grown longer and redeployments more frequent. Recruitment standards are
going down. The neoconservative dream of a muscle-bound America knocking down
the “axis of evil” and planting democracies from North Korea to Iran looks, more
than ever, like an overheated fantasy cooked up in a think-tank.

… The administration was also wedded to the fundamental tenets of Reaganomics: cut taxes and free the supply side and everything else will take care of itself. Mr
Cheney even argued explicitly that “Reagan taught us that deficits don’t matter.”

Mr Bush now leaves behind a tax system in some ways less efficient than the one he inherited, in need of annual patches, and unable to fund the government even in good times. He also leaves behind a broken budget process. … Reaganomics helped to produce a giant deficit. The financial crisis has made re-regulation rather than deregulation the mantra in Washington, while government has acquired a much bigger role in the economy through its backing of banks and car companies.

… Unfortunately, that economic legacy is littered with wasted opportunity, bad judgments and politicised policy. The budget surplus he inherited is now a deficit, the fiscal hole in America’s retiree programmes is bigger than ever, the tax system is an unstable, patched-up mess.

It is not all his fault. But for the most part, good policy repeatedly took a back seat to Mr Bush’s overweening political ambition. Both the country and, ultimately, the Republican Party are left the worse for it.


And if you had any doubt whether Republicans would embrace President Obama’s post-partisan appeal or revert to form as the party of opposition and obstruction, check out Jon Stewart’s take on the FOX News reaction to President Obama’s first day in office. [Hint: We’re all going to die.]


1 comment:

Gilmoure said...

Where was all this fine perception when the bull was running loose in the china shop? I mean, sure, looking at the messes, one can tell what happened but aren't these folks supposed to have insight and foresight?