April 25, 2013

The Decider

Today, President Obama along with all the other living presidents will be in Dallas to participate in the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library. The occasion lends itself to yet one more opportunity for critics and defenders of Mr. Bush's record in office to have another go at it.

In thinking about Mr. Bush's time in office, the first word that popped into my head was "squander," a wonderful word of uncertain origin but whose roots go back to the 16th Century. The word has three primary meanings: to spend extravagantly or foolishly; to scatter; and to lose (as an advantage or opportunity) through negligence or inaction. Most often we hear it used during sporting events when a team loses a big lead: "They squandered the lead."

In that sense, I think it could be fairly said of Mr. Bush that in terms of the two big items on his agenda, he squandered the lead. First the economy. He inherited a robust economy when he stepped into office. By the time he left, we were poised on the Great Recession of 2008. Maybe some of that wasn't his fault. The deregulation of the financial industry was a bipartisan effort. The decision to cut taxes belongs to Mr. Bush. The name says it: The Bush Tax Cuts. As a result of that decision, the government surplus he inherited disappeared, and the lack of a surplus tied one hand behind the government's back when it came to reacting to the economic slide.

The single biggest event in recent history occurred on Mr. Bush's watch: the attacks on 9/11. The entire country-- hell, the entire world -- was united in its reaction to the horror of the events and in the determination to punish those responsible. When President Bush told us that "the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon" we were 100 percent in agreement. The invasion of Afghanistan to oust the Taliban was supported by all of the American people.

Then came one of the most baffling decisions in modern memory, the decision to invade Iraq and oust Saddam Hussein. In a single stroke, President Bush squandered all the good will he had earned in his response to 9/11. The reasoning behind the decision to invade Iraq is still somewhat of a riddle. The aftermath is clear. Spending on the war, coupled with the tax cuts, accelerated the growth of the federal debt. More significantly, instead of a nation united, we became again a nation divided.

President Bush called himself "The Decider." That's not a bad job description for the president: the decider-in-chief. As such, President Bush made two key decisions that will define his legacy: the decision to cut taxes and the decision to invade Iraq. Forget everything else. Those are the two things that define the Bush administration.

The net result of those two policy choices was to squander a huge surplus that he inherited and to squander the enormous good will he had rightly earned throughout the world in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Sure, a lot of the messes we face today are the result of a bipartisan effort to escape and evade responsibility for dealing with long-festering problems. But the Bush presidency added to those woes in a major way by squandering the gains of previous presidencies, including his father's. As far as I'm concerned, that is George W. Bush's legacy: squanderer-in-chief.

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