Measuring the Bush presidency
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.