Mea­sur­ing the Bush pres­i­dency

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Don­ald Lam­bro

Ge­orge W. Bush ap­proaches the last two years of his pres­i­dency bogged down in an un­pop­u­lar war and draw­ing fire from his con­ser­va­tive base for en­larg­ing the size of gov­ern­ment.

What­ever course Mr. Bush de­cides to take in Iraq in an at­tempt to sta­bi­lize the coun­try and pre­serve its fledg­ling democ­racy, he be­lieves deep down inside that his de­ci­sions to re­place ter­ror­ist dic­ta­tor­ships in Bagh­dad and Afghanistan will stand the test of his­tory. And I think he will be proven right.

As bleak as things look right now, Mr. Bush’s ad­vis­ers be­lieve that plant­ing the seeds of democ­racy in the midst of th­ese ter­ror­ist breed­ing grounds is the only way to com­bat a fa­nat­i­cal Is­lamic move­ment that still threat­ens the safety and se­cu­rity of the West.

As chaotic as things seem, th­ese gov­ern­ments, still in their in­fancy, are go­ing to sur­vive. They have made mis­takes and no doubt will make oth­ers, as our young gov­ern­ment did be­fore them. But Mr. Bush be­lieves, as I be­lieve, that th­ese free and in­de­pen­dent gov­ern­ments will ex­ist long af­ter he has left of­fice and that they will ul­ti­mately tri­umph over the ter­ror­ists.

The crit­i­cal ques­tion in Iraq is how can we in­sure its sur­vival and com­bat the ter­ror­ists while re­duc­ing Amer­ica’s cen­tral role in the war? The way to do that is to change our strate­gic mis­sion there. It must shift from a front line of de­fense to one of train­ing a much larger Iraqi mil­i­tary, with lo­gis­ti­cal and air power backup when needed, and con­tin­ued eco­nomic aid.

We know from his­tory that a lengthy war can­not be sus­tained with­out the sup­port of the peo­ple. Amer­i­cans want the Iraqis and the Afghans to over­come the ter­ror­ists be­cause they know in­stinc­tively that will make us safer. And they are will­ing to spend what it takes to achieve that ob­jec­tive. But they want them to take over the brunt of the fight­ing so that U.S. ground com­bat troops can be­gin com­ing home.

But Mr. Bush also faces yet an­other chal­lenge at home to over­come a de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of sup­port among his party’s base. The chief crit­i­cism that led to weak­ness in Repub­li­can turnout in the Novem­ber elec­tions: Mr. Bush and the GOP has bro­ken faith with their party’s be­lief in lim­ited gov­ern­ment.

The pres­i­dent, his con­ser­va­tive crit­ics say, has in­creased non-de- fense spend­ing sig­nif­i­cantly — from the No Child Left Be­hind ed­u­ca­tion ini­tia­tive to the pre­scrip­tion drug ben­e­fit pro­gram. Repub­li­cans in Congress added tens of bil­lions of dol­lars to the spend­ing spi­ral in an orgy of pork bar­rel projects stuffed into wasterid­den ap­pro­pri­a­tions bills.

The Repub­li­cans in fact out­did the Democrats in the pork bar­rel game — push­ing so-called ear- marked spend­ing pro­vi­sions to record lev­els. Mr. Bush did not veto any of their big spend­ing bills.

But there is an­other part of his do­mes­tic record that needs to be added to the scales to get a true mea­sure of his pres­i­dency thus far — ini­tia­tives his crit­ics rarely men­tion when they charge he has be­trayed con­ser­va­tive prin­ci­ples.

The big­gest fis­cal achieve­ment of his pres­i­dency is the $1.7 tril- lion in tax cuts that helped the U.S. econ­omy over­come the blows that were in­flicted by the Septem­ber 11 at­tacks, the cor­po­rate ac­count­ing scan­dals and Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina.

Those tax cuts are con­ser­va­tive free mar­ket eco­nomics at its best and are the rea­son why our econ­omy re­mains — through wars and nu­mer­ous do­mes­tic dis­as­ters — the strong­est and most af­flu­ent in the world.

No con­ser­va­tive re­form is big­ger than the idea of pri­va­tiz­ing So­cial Se­cu­rity, a revo­lu­tion­ary idea that most Repub­li­can lead­ers were afraid to em­brace. Mr. Bush not only pro­posed it but he ran for pres­i­dent on its mer­its and trav­eled around the coun­try ar­gu­ing for its im­ple­men­ta­tion.

That he did not suc­ceed is be­side the point. He was will­ing to spend a lot of his po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal for a gi­gan­tic con­ser­va­tive idea: free­ing work­ers to in­vest some of their pay­roll taxes in stocks and bonds to cre­ate wealth.

It’s un­likely Mr. Bush can res­ur­rect his pro­posal in the next two years, but he has boldly opened a path for a fu­ture pres­i­dent to fol­low and de­serves great credit for the bold­ness of his at­tempt to bring down the last pil­lar of the New Deal wel­fare state.

Even his pre­scrip­tion drug pro­gram, which ex­panded en­ti­tle­ments at a time when they are go­ing through the roof, has turned out to be far less ex­pen­sive than its crit­ics fore­cast. Democrats and Repub­li­cans wanted some­thing big­ger and costlier and would have got­ten it, too, but Mr. Bush won a more lim­ited and price-com­pet­i­tive al­ter­na­tive.

Pres­i­dents never do ev­ery­thing we want them to and Mr. Bush is no ex­cep­tion. But on some of the big­gest ideas of con­ser­va­tive or­tho­doxy he has been will­ing to en­ter the arena, take some big risks and fight some big bat­tles, win­ning some and los­ing oth­ers.

Th­ese ini­tia­tives, win or lose, need to be added to the score card when we mea­sure his pres­i­dency against all the oth­ers.

Don­ald Lam­bro, chief po­lit­i­cal correspondent of The Wash­ing­ton Times, is a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist.

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