David Frum April 4th, 2004 at 12:00 am
Three months before 9/11, George W. Bush faced one of the toughest decisions of his presidency: Should he honor his campaign promise to block federal funding for stem-cell research? On one side of the controversy were the united forces of business, medicine, the Democratic party, and even much of the Republican party. On the other side was only President Bush’s word–and his conscience. I remember the struggle. I was there. I remember how the White House staff worked to devise formulas that would allow the president to escape his commitment without disavowing it. I even devised one myself.
But in the end, the president rejected all of these escape routes. Yes, he found a compromise–but it was a compromise that upheld his core principles. He would allow federal funding on those stem-cell lines that already existed–that is, he would allow American scientists to continue making use of those human embryos whose humanity had already been extinguished. Beyond that, however, he would not go. On his watch, no more federal money would go to pay for experiments premised on the destruction of potential human beings. President Bush took a huge political risk. He took it with his eyes wide open to the likely cost. He took it because he believed it was the right thing to do.
President Bush’s many and ferocious political opponents understand very well why they hate and fear this president. George W. Bush almost singlehandedly wrecked their dreams of a huge and permanent expansion of the American welfare state.
At the Democratic convention in 2000, Bill Clinton explained what was at stake in that year’s presidential election: “I have waited over . . . 30 years to see my country once again in the position to build the future of our dreams for our children.” Translation: If we Democrats win this election, we’re going to have some real money to spend! And when George W. Bush won the election instead–and passed a tax cut that returned the budget surplus to the people who earned it–he shut the door on the spending opportunity for which Clinton and the rest had been waiting for three hungry decades.
Then, after sending the surplus home, Bush did something even more maddening: He mobilized the fighting spirit of the United States after 9/11. Up until the terror attacks, liberals and Democrats hoped that the Bush presidency would be just a blip. Democrats regained control of the Senate in mid 2001. They expected to retake the House in 2002 and recapture the White House in 2004. So long as the voters ranked education and health care as their top concerns, Democrats could hope to dominate national politics.
By responding to 9/11 as an act of war, Bush restored national security to its proper place at the very top of national concerns. Republicans won a huge victory in the 2002 congressional elections–and Democrats suddenly looked desperately vulnerable for 2004. They had dismissed Bush as a boob and a bumpkin. But then, to borrow from John Edwards, he beat them and beat them and beat them again. No wonder the Democrats have gone half out of their heads.
And yet it is not only this president’s political opponents who grumble against him. So do many of those who ought to be his supporters. What answer should be given them?
Start with the most basic: The United States is a country at war. Its leader must be a war leader. And from the first moments of this war, George W. Bush apprehended what had to be done, and how, and why. It was George W. Bush, first, who recognized that this war was indeed a war. Many American political leaders still are not sure about that seemingly obvious fact–including such leaders of the Democratic party as Sen. John F. Kerry. But Bush got it, and got it right away, and has never lost sight of this overwhelming truth.
War demands risk-taking–and this president has been willing to take the risks necessary to win. He discarded the military’s first draft plan for the Afghan war because it was too ponderous and slow. He authorized a series of operations around the world, from the southern Philippines to this very hemisphere: These operations have captured or killed two-thirds of the al-Qaeda leadership and inflicted heavy damage on its cells everywhere.
President Bush laid down principles for the war that put governments everywhere on notice that state support for terrorism would no longer be quietly tolerated by the United States. Not all states have gotten the message, but some have, including Pakistan, which has quietly curtailed the terror groups in Kashmir. India and Pakistan are now negotiating on trade and other economic matters–leading to hopes that the world’s most dangerous conflict may soon be calmed.
Above all, this president made the decision to liberate Iraq. His critics complain that the Iraq operation has led to surprises and disappointments. Well, unlike Holiday Inns, wars don’t come with a no-surprise guarantee. There were surprises all the way to Richmond, surprises in the Argonne, surprises at Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima–and, yes, in Iraq too. And sometimes these surprises are pretty nasty. That’s why war leadership requires perseverance and fortitude: qualities this president has proven he possesses in full measure. Most important, he has proven it at times when his opponents (and even some officials inside his own administration) were panicking and breaking.
If anybody other than George W. Bush had been president, the War on Terror would probably have sputtered inconclusively out in the hills of Afghanistan. We would now be engaged in an inconclusive police operation, probably under the auspices of the United Nations. The terror masters in Libya, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan would continue going about their business. And America would have disgraced itself before the world by responding to the death of 3,000 of its citizens in the same weak-willed way that it responded after the terror attacks of the 1990s.
It’s one of the unfairnesses of life that political leaders never get credit for the catastrophes they prevent. But just for the record, let’s remember that in early 2001 many–maybe most–economists feared that the United States was about to collapse into a Japanese-style depression.
The dot-com bubble had burst. Consumers had piled up record debt. Energy prices surged; in California the lights went dark. The everybody-does-it attitude toward lying that Clinton defenders promoted on every cable show through the impeachment crisis was shown to have infected corporate America too. Formerly admired giant corporations went bankrupt, wiping out tens of billions of dollars of investor wealth and employee savings; executives were marched to prison in handcuffs. The bill for the complacency and irresponsibility of the 1990s had at last arrived.
Over eight years of fabulous prosperity, the man in the Oval Office had lacked the imagination and courage to take even one practical measure to shore up the nation’s unsound retirement system–one step, that is, beyond repeating the preposterous fib that higher taxes in the 1990s would somehow solve the problem of too few workers for too many retirees in the 2030s.
This was the economy that was then hit by the blow of 9/11. Back in the 1990s, Americans had been told that after the Cold War they could look forward to a world of openness and peace. The Clinton administration had balanced the budget largely by slashing military spending to the smallest proportion of GDP since 1940. In one day, all of those cheery assumptions were exposed as illusions and lies. The cost of those lies has been staggering: billions to rescue the aviation industry; tens of billions to rebuild New York; hundreds of billions to restore the nation’s defenses and internal security–and incalculably vast sums in lost confidence.
Measured by jobs created, the Bush economic record is not one to brag about. But measured by dangers overcome and by challenges accepted rather than dodged, the record is impressive. Taxes were cut–not a bait-and-switch cut, but a long-term cut, which the president is committed to making permanent. Important market reforms were introduced into Medicare. The president has committed himself to Social Security private accounts.
The economy is now growing at the fastest pace since the mid 1980s. The unemployment rate has been reduced to 5.6 percent–exactly the same rate as in early 1996, when the media were breathlessly repeating Bill Clinton’s claim of the best economy in a generation. The stock market has regained the ground lost since 1999. Americans are better off today than they were when George W. Bush came into office–and much, much better off than they would have been under less bold economic leadership.
Conservatives complain that George W. Bush has deviated from the path of truth on issues from education to immigration. That is of course true. And liberals echo the charges of former White House staffer John DiIulio that the Bush administration puts more emphasis on politics than policy. There is considerable truth in this point too.
It is important however to understand why these charges are true. Conservatives won public-policy victories in the 1980s because they had created a new political majority in the 1970s. The GOP congressional landslide of 1994 was the last hurrah of this Nixon-Reagan-Gingrich majority.
The Republican party draws its strength from three key population groups: white Christians, especially southern Protestants; married families; and the upper-middle income group, stretching from about $75,000 to $150,000 a year. The Republican party is noticeably weak among the unchurched and the unwhite; among the unmarried; and among the poor and the rich. (In 2000, Gore beat Bush by 2 to 1 in the 4 percent of the electorate that calls itself “upper class.” The top 4 percent begins at about $200,000 in household income.)
And guess what? The groups among which Republicans are weak are growing faster than the groups among which Republicans are strong–which may be why it has been 16 years since a Republican presidential candidate won more than 50 percent of the vote. The good news is that the shrinkage of the old Nixon-Reagan majority has not translated into a new Democratic majority. (It’s been 28 years since a Democratic presidential candidate won more than 50 percent of the vote.)
But history suggests that sooner or later, one of the parties will assemble a coalition capable of winning majorities–and up until 9/11, the Democrats looked the likelier to succeed. The most urgent domestic task and responsibility facing the Bush administration has therefore been political: to regather a crumbling Republican majority by broadening the Republican coalition–just as Karl Rove’s hero, William McKinley, saved the increasingly rickety Civil War coalition in 1896.
George W. Bush has been loyal to his party’s core ideas. He cut taxes and battled regulation. He has kept faith with the pro-life and pro-family movement. But he has also shown himself willing to rethink old Republican doctrines in pursuit of his new majority. Some of his innovations are already succeeding: His education reforms are forcing positive change on resistant states. Other bold strikes have backfired, such as his restrictions on imports of steel (restrictions that he rescinded). But if this administration were not thinking all the time about how conservatism can adapt to survive in a new environment–then conservatism would not survive as a political force at all.
When history judges a president, it judges him not by the standards of a single party or even any one set of political principles. It judges him according to how he served the nation as a whole. It asks: Was he equal to the challenges of his time? Did he make wise decisions, brave decisions? Did he work for the good of the country over the long term–or did he take the easy way out in the nearest term? Did he live up to the country’s best ideals–or indulge people’s worst instincts?
By all these measures, George W. Bush has been a resolute and even heroic president in a terrifying time. He was the right man through slaughter and grief and war. He was the right man through economic turmoil. He is the right man for four more years.