The Tea Party movement is challenging politicians and political establishments in many parts of this country. Many Tea Party supporters define themselves by their opposition to big government. However, according to an April CBS-New York Times poll, 57 percent of Tea Party supporters approve of George W. Bush.
It is not surprising that Obama’s abuses would cause some people to wish for his predecessor. However, prudent Americans will not forget George W. Bush’s damage to the Constitution, freedom, the economy, and the political system.
Political cosmetics pervaded many Bush policies. The No Child Left Behind Act was perhaps his biggest domestic fraud. The act was falsely sold as giving a wide ambit of authority to local school officials. In reality, it empowers the feds to effectively judge and punish local schools for not fulfilling arbitrary guidelines. Many states are “dumbing down” academic standards, using bureaucratic racketeering to avoid harsh federal sanctions. Though the No Child Left Behind Act promised to permit children to escape “persistently dangerous” schools, most states defined that term to claim that all their schools were safe. As long as people believed that Bush cared about children, it didn’t matter that his education policy was a charade.
Bush browbeat Congress into enacting the biggest expansion of the welfare state since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. The White House blatantly deceived Congress about the cost of a new Medicare prescription drug entitlement, withholding key information that would have guaranteed the defeat of his giveaway. The administration launched a federally financed ad campaign showing a crowd cheering Bush as he signed the new law; federal auditors ruled that the ads were illegal propaganda.
Vote-buying was the prime motive of many Bush policies. Bush signed the most exorbitant farm bill in history in 2002, bilking taxpayers out of $180 billion to rain benefits on millionaire landowners and other deserving mendicants. Bush repeatedly bragged that his farm bill was “generous” — as if Washington politicians have carte blanche to redistribute Americans’ paychecks to any group they choose. Bush imposed high tariffs on steel imports, wantonly destroying thousands of American manufacturing jobs simply because he wanted to try to snare the endorsement of the United Steel Workers and to boost his reelection chances.
Some of Bush’s cherished reforms consisted of little more than finding new names for old boondoggles. He sharply boosted foreign aid and created a new program, the Millennium Challenge Account. He denounced traditional foreign aid for bank-rolling corruption. But his “bribes for honesty” program was a bust. The U.S. government continued giving handouts to some of the Third World’s most notorious politician-looters.
Bush’s compassionate conservatism schemes — such as the bloating AmeriCorps — were little more than velvet wrapping for the iron fist. Compassionate conservatism pretends the state does not raise its money by means of coercion and harsh threats against taxpayers. It presumes that since the government just happens to have so much cash in its coffers, why not do some good deeds with it? Handouts become symbols of generosity rather than acts of redistribution at gunpoint. Compassionate conservatism portrays government as a font of moral greatness, rather than a primary source of corruption, manipulation, and degradation.
Bush’s compassionate conservatism was little different than Bill Clinton’s perennial portrayals of government as an engine for uplift.Clinton and Bush both profited greatly from prattling about moral issues and making moral appeals, regardless of whether their own policies were responsible or honest. Unfortunately, bosh about virtue and compassion is often sufficient to persuade many voters that a politician is a good man.
Despite the pervasive “compassionate” pretensions, Bush’s drug policy relied on wrath and harsh punishment (except for special cases, such as his niece Noelle Bush and talk-show host Rush Limbaugh). John Walters, Bush’s drug czar, demonized drug users in federally funded TV ads, portraying people who buy drugs as terrorist financiers threatening America with complete destruction. Federal drug warriors arrested cancer patients who smoked marijuana to control their chemo-induced nausea, busted doctors who gave suffering patients more pain killers than the DEA approved, and carried out high-profile crackdowns on targets ranging from hemp food makers to comedian Tommy Chong (busted for bong trafficking).
Bush governed like an elective monarch, entitled to reverence and deference on all issues. Secret Service agents ensured that he rarely viewed opponents of his reign, carefully quarantining protesters in “free speech zones” far from public view.
Bush dropped an iron curtain around the federal government. His administration hollowed out the Freedom of Information Act, making it more difficult for citizens to find out about government actions and abuses. He invoked executive privilege to block a congressional investigation into the FBI’s role in mass murder in Boston and in framing innocent men for those murders. (Congressman Dan Burton was the point man in challenging Bush’s coverup of FBI abuses in the Whitey Bulger mafia case dating from 1965.) Federal courts acceded to Bush administration legal claims that authorized the feds to carry out mass secret arrests and suppress all information about the roundup (including the names of those detained, charges, and details on prison beatings).
After 9/11, Bush decided that privacy was a luxury Americans could no longer afford. His administration gave itself powers to sweep up people’s email with the FBI’s Carnivore system, unleash FBI agents to conduct surveillance almost anywhere, allow G-men to secretly search people’s homes, bankroll Pentagon research to create hundreds of millions of dossiers on Americans, expand the military’s role in domestic surveillance, and vacuum up personal data to create a federal “color code” for every air traveler. The Bush administration defined freedom down, pretending that protection from federal prying was no longer relevant to liberty.
Bush proudly declared in 2003, “No president has ever done more for human rights than I have.” In reality, he did more to formally subvert rights than any American president of the modern era. He claimed the right to label people as enemy combatants and thereby nullify all of their legal rights. Once detainees had no rights, there were no limits on how they could be abused — at least in the eyes of some Justice Department and Pentagon officials.
At times, Bush appeared determined to force Americans to pay almost any price so that he could be a world savior. He declared in December 2003, “I believe we have a responsibility to promote freedom [abroad] that is as solemn as the responsibility is to protecting [sic] the American people, because the two go hand in hand.” But the Constitution does not grant the president the prerogative to dispose of the lives of American soldiers any place in the world he longs to do a good deed.
Especially in foreign policy, Bush acted as if he had a mandate from God. He declared that at the time he launched the invasion of Iraq, “I was praying for strength to do the Lord’s will…. In my case, I pray that I be as good a messenger of His will as possible.” Bush’s attitude brings to mind the old quip that “a fanatic is someone who does what God would do if God knew the facts of the matter.” Bush’s personal religious views may have fueled his intolerance and rejection of any evidence that did not support aggression.
The more arrogant and righteous Bush became about spreading democracy, the more the American republic became a parody of the vision of the Founding Fathers, who did not intend to permit presidents to “hock” American rights for foreign conquests.
The desirability of dictatorship
President Bush commented shortly before 9/11, “A dictatorship would be a heck of a lot easier; there’s no question about it.” He used the same phrase to tout dictatorships as paragons of efficiency a month before taking office. He always seemed oblivious to why dictatorships drag nations to ruin.
Bush declared in 2002, “I’m the commander — see, I don’t need to explain…. That’s the interesting thing about being president…. I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation.” And his prerogative extended — at least in his own mind — to giving marching orders to hundreds of millions of Americans. In an October 29, 2003, speech, he declared, “A president must set great goals worthy of a great nation. We’re a great nation. Therefore, a president must set big goals.” But most Americans were not seeking someone to impose goals upon them.
More Americans recited the Pledge of Allegiance after Bush was elected — but fewer Americans seemed concerned about government’s trampling their rights. More Americans had U.S. flag decals on their autos — but fewer Americans supported the right of people to publicly oppose government policies. At least after 9/11, more Americans revered the president — but fewer Americans seemed to recall the Founding Fathers’ warnings about the corrupting nature of political power.
Perhaps Bush’s most important legacy is his embrace of torture. In a June 2010 speech in Grand Rapids, Michigan, he declared, “Yeah, we water-boarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. I’d do it again to save lives.” There is no independent evidence that Bush-era torture saved any American lives.
The fact that a former president can stand up in public and admit that he ordered torture is a sea change for the American republic. (While he was president, Bush consistently denied that the U.S. government engaged in torture.) Torture is not a “bleeding heart” issue; instead, it is merely a question of whether a president will have absolute power. In reality, the Bush administration’s torture policies were simply the most vivid example of its belief that the president was entitled to do as he pleases. Assistant Attorney General Steven Bradbury declared in 2006, “Under the law of war, the president is always right.”
Bush and many of his supporters forgot that the Constitution was created by a generation of men who had fought a war against the most powerful government in the world. The Constitution was not made for sunny days and smooth sailing. Instead, it was crafted for hard times, with many provisions for dealing with deadly threats to the nation’s survival. For a president such as Bush to act as if he could no longer be bound by the Constitution is an insult to the Founding Fathers, who survived far harsher tests in their time than America did on and after 9/11.
If Tea Party activists are truly devoted to freedom, they must recognize the crimes and abuses of both Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. A little history could do wonders to enlighten the partisanship.
This article originally appeared in the September 2010 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of Freedom Daily.