I know some conservatives disagree with me about this, but I believe that George W. Bush’s worst moment was in 2003, when he signed the Medicare expansion that included the prescription-drug benefit. I admit the legislation had some merits, most importantly a broad authorization for health savings accounts. HSAs have proven to be a valuable and popular reform. But the legislation also took an entitlement program with a staggeringly high unfunded liability — and increased that unfunded liability. This severely weakened Bush’s credibility as a fiscal conservative (his credibility on the issue was then junked entirely at the end of the second term). The president should have fought for health savings accounts as a separate bill, or at least made a better deal for HSAs and Medicare Advantage with a lower overall price tag offset by budget cuts.
President Bush’s best moment was clearly the decision to implement the surge strategy in Iraq despite heavy criticism from Congress and the chattering classes. I think it turned out to be the correct strategy, but I suspect others will make that case more effectively than I could. So I’ll identify another praiseworthy moment: Halloween 2005. Earlier that month, the president made the disastrous choice to nominate Harriet Miers, his pleasant but unexceptional White House counsel, to succeed Sandra Day O’Connor on the U.S. Supreme Court. The decision was widely and properly criticized. To his credit, Bush didn’t let personal friendship or pride deter him from admitting error, withdrawing the Miers pick, and nominating Samuel Alito for the post on October 31. Alito has proven to be a fine, conservative justice.
— John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, N.C.
History will be kinder to George W. Bush than the last few years have been. There is no perfect solution to the challenge of Islamist terror. The British were smart enough to avoid direct rule in Afghanistan. (Then again, 19th-century Islamists couldn’t blow up London.) So we face an imperfect choice: intervene and deal with incessant low-level rebellion, or stay out and allow terrorists a foothold. Bush underestimated cultural barriers to democratization, and (initially) overestimated what a small number of troops could do. Yet there’s too little appreciation of the continuing deterrent power of our actions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
There’s more to the long gap between 9/11 and later terrorist attacks than good police work. Our foes understand that an America stung by terror can and will strike back. Our difficult interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have supposedly eroded that lesson. Yet foes understand that America’s war-weariness has depended upon the dearth of successful terror attacks since 9/11. Potential terrorists have long memories — for their fears as well as their hatreds. Thanks to Bush, they still need to worry about the wrath of an America under successful attack.
So despite its flaws — many visible only in hindsight — George W. Bush’s response to 9/11 made this country more secure.
The financial crisis of 2008 happened on Bush’s watch, but the roots of that crisis in the disastrous housing policies of the Clinton years — aided and abetted by a raft of leftist community organizations — have been systematically obscured by the media. The financial meltdown had many sources, but Bush has unfairly taken most of the blame for a problem set in motion by his predecessor.
On the downside, I wish that I and other conservatives had done more to point out the dangers of nationalizing education policy through No Child Left Behind. NCLB helped open the door to a federalized curriculum under Obama’s Common Core. This was a mistake, and conservatives should have complained about it more at the time.
Any Republican president faces determined opposition from a hostile press and elite culture. George W. Bush managed to reach through the media screen and convey his fundamental goodness to the broader public. Now we’re remembering. History will too.