Time for Bush to de­fend his record

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - VIC­TOR DAVIS HAN­SON

We are in one of the long­est pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns in mod­ern me­mory — and haven’t even started fo­cus­ing on the gen­eral elec­tion.

It has been enough to drive most of us mad, but if there’s one per­son in par­tic­u­lar suf­fer­ing the most, it may be Pres­i­dent Bush.

It has been noted here be­fore that we have not had an elec­tion since 1952 in which an in­cum­bent pres­i­dent or vice pres­i­dent was not run­ning in at least par­tial de­fense of an ex­ist­ing ad­min­is­tra­tion’s record.

That means Mr. Bush is not just a lame duck but an easy tar­get for all three cur­rent can­di­dates — none of whom have any in­vest­ment in the pres­i­dent’s legacy. Con­sider that the last pres­i­dent in a sim­i­lar po­si­tion was Harry Tru­man. He left of­fice with an ap­proval rat­ing in the 20s, and it took years be­fore his­to­ri­ans re­vised the stan­dard neg­a­tive and mostly un­fair view of him.

When there is no in­cum­bent in a long race, al­most ev­ery­thing of the last four years be­comes fair and un­con­tested game. In 2004, Mr. Bush de­fended his record for months on the stump; now it has be­come al­most sec­ond na­ture for all three can­di­dates to de­nounce it daily.

John McCain has dis­tanced him­self from Mr. Bush as much as he can, even as his Demo­cratic op­po­nents dub him John McBush — when they are not out­do­ing each other in their de­nun­ci­a­tion of the pres­i­dent.

Two weeks ago, I asked a fierce Bush critic what he thought were the cur­rent un­em­ploy­ment rate, the mort­gage de­fault rate, the latest eco­nomic growth fig­ures, in­ter­est rates and the sta­tus of the stock mar­ket.

He blurted out the com­mon cam­paign pes­simism: “Re­ces­sion! Worst since the De­pres­sion!”

Then he scoffed when I sug­gested that the an­swer was re­ally a 5 per­cent job­less­ness rate in April that was lower than the March fig­ure; 95 to 96 per­cent of mort­gages not en­ter­ing fore­clo­sure in this year’s first quar­ter; 0.6 per­cent (six­tenths of 1 per­cent) growth dur­ing the quar­ter (weak, but not re­ces­sion level); his­tor­i­cally low in­ter­est rates; and sky-high stock mar­ket prices.

There are se­ri­ous prob­lems: high fuel costs, ris­ing food prices, stag­ger­ing for­eign debt, un­funded en­ti­tle­ments and an­nual deficits. Yet a pres­i­dent or vice pres­i­dent run­ning for of­fice (and cov­ered in­ces­santly by the me­dia) would at least make the ar­gu­ment there is a lot of good news, and that the bad that off­sets it could be shared by a lot of cul­pa­ble par­ties, from the Congress to the way we, the pub­lic, have been do­ing busi­ness for the last 20 years.

Mr. Bush, like Tru­man, will have to leave his fi­nal as­sess­ment for pos­ter­ity. But for a variety of his­toric rea­sons as well as his own self-in­ter­est, Mr. Bush should at least take his now-un­pop­u­lar case to the peo­ple, with more press con­fer­ences, pub­lic ad­dresses, stump speeches and oneon-one in­ter­views. Con­sider:

(1) Mr. Bush’s own legacy will be af­fected by who suc­ceeds him. Ron­ald Rea­gan re­ceived great press af­ter leav­ing of­fice in part be­cause a Repub­li­can fol­lowed him for four years — quite the op­po­site from the se­nior Ge­orge Bush who was thrown out of of­fice in 1992 and blamed for as­sorted sins the next eight years. Like­wise, com­pare the im­age of Lyn­don John­son, Ger­ald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clin­ton when fol­lowed into of­fice by a pres­i­dent from the other party.

(2) Pub­lic per­cep­tions, such as on­go­ing con­sumer con­fi­dence or sup­port for the war, can dra­mat­i­cally af­fect pol­icy suc­cess or fail­ure. De­fend­ing past de­ci­sions can some­times im­prove their out­comes.

(3) It would el­e­vate the ar­gu­ments of all three can­di­dates if some­one could re­mind them that en­ergy and food prob­lems, for­eign pol­icy crises and eco­nomic woes usu­ally in­volve bad and worse choices.

The Amer­i­can peo­ple are more in­ter­ested in ex­actly how the can­di­dates are go­ing to im­prove things, rather than hear­ing each hour how our col­lec­tive prob­lems are sim­ply the fault of one man. Sear­ing “Bush did it” into the pub­lic con­scious won’t re­solve our en­ergy, eco­nomic or for­eign pol­icy chal­lenges.

Amer­ica in truth is pro­vid­ing un­prece­dented amounts of money to ad­dress the AIDS epi­demic in Africa. Tax cuts brought in greater, not less to­tal rev­enue. In­ter­na­tional trade agree­ments cre­ated more, not fewer, jobs. Se­cu­rity mea­sures at home, and losses suf­fered by ter­ror­ists abroad, in part ex­plain the ab­sence of a sec­ond ter­ror­ist at­tack like that of Sept. 11, 2001.

And drilling in the Alaskan Na­tional Wildlife Re­serve and off the coasts and build­ing more nu­clear power plants, re­finer­ies, and clean coal plants — if the Congress would only ap­prove — could pro­vide short-term mit­i­ga­tion of en­ergy prices un­til we reach a new gen­er­a­tion of clean-burn­ing and re­new­able fu­els.

Ge­orge Bush could learn from “Give ‘em Hell, Harry.” A dis­liked Tru­man never went silent into the night, but de­fended his record un­til the very end — and was ul­ti­mately re­warded for it.

Vic­tor Davis Han­son is a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist, a se­nior fel­low at Stan­ford Univer­sity’s Hoover In­sti­tu­tion and a re­cip­i­ent of the 2007 Na­tional Hu­man­i­ties Medal.

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