George W. Bush’s best moment is easy: the surge. With his party reeling after electoral setbacks, the public turning against a once-popular war, and the nation of Iraq staring into the abyss, Bush doubled down, committing the United States to becoming — in Bing West’s memorable phrase — Iraq’s “strongest tribe.” We went on to defeat a savage terrorist insurgency and leave behind a nation that — while still troubled — looks vibrant compared with many of its neighbors.
But even the surge may pale in historic comparison to his best decision: launching the world’s largest and most successful effort to combat the spread of AIDS. While there is much credit to go around, we must still be grateful for the man at the top, the one who made the call to commit the resources to save, ultimately, millions of lives.
As for his worst moments? George W. Bush governed in tumultuous times, bookended by two different man-made calamities: the 9/11 attacks and the near-collapse of our financial system. The fact that our nation absorbed both blows as well as it did is a testament to our resilience and, yes, to many of the administration’s reactive decisions. But the fact remains that we absorbed those blows on his watch, and the resulting moments were very bad indeed.
— David French is senior counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice. He is co-author, with his wife, Nancy, of Home and Away: A Story of Family in a Time of War.
I suspect my nominations for the best and worst moments of President George W. Bush will be widely shared.
The horror of 9/11 presented a terrorist attack like no other, and it required a response like no other. Looking back, it is kind of amazing how casual and tolerant the West was about state-sponsored or state-supported terrorism — particularly through the 1970s and 1980s, with the bombings of discos, airport terminals, airliner hijackings, and Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie. The symbiotic relationship between al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban was perhaps the natural evolution of this blurring of the line between perpetrator and sponsor. The Bush response to 9/11 announced an end to the era of plausible deniability: “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.”
Lest you think this was the natural approach of any president, we learned years later that the U.S. response to Iranian intelligence agents’ role in the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing was to expose the identities of all known Iranian agents — effectively blowing their cover, but merely forcing those operatives into early retirement. You kill our guys, we expose your guys.
Ultimately, too many America-haters around the world believed that the United States had grown soft. The Bush response to 9/11 — Iraq and all — made clear that whatever our flaws, we were, and are, not soft.
The worst moment of Bush’s presidency came at the end, when an exhausted president and administration — having lost Congress, lost the public debate over the Iraq War’s being in the national interest, and been left unable to persuade the public of the value of the 2007 surge — finally accepted a massive expansion of the government’s role in the financial sector to save the industry from its own bad decisions. The housing market’s bubble was hardly a state secret, but the Bush administration was uninterested in mitigating a force that was, for a while at least, creating the impression of serious prosperity. “I’ve abandoned free-market principles to save the free-market system” is a jarring statement to hear from any president, but it was thoroughly dispiriting to hear it from a Republican.
— Jim Geraghty writes The Campaign Spot blog on National Review Online.
On economic policy, one big tax-policy success stands out as we look back at the Bush administration. We should all be thankful that President Bush had the courage to push a dividend-tax reduction. There are many sound reasons for such a policy, but none of them are attractive to the typical politician. Just after the proposal was made public, Speaker Hastert invited me and several other economists to meet with him in his office in the Capitol, and there wasn’t a single Republican official in that room who thought it was a good idea. But Bush understood that a lower cost of capital would increase growth, and that the increasing dividend payments would help solve the principal–agent problem. His team worked tirelessly to bring Congress along. To its credit, Hastert’s team became big supporters, and the policy was so successful that even Democrats agreed to keep the rate low in the most recent tax deal. All that despite the fact that “rich” people receive dividends, so the policy was lampooned as yet another giveaway to the rich.
While there were many more important events in those eight years, the dividend tax may be the best thumbnail sketch of the Bush presidency. Bush decided what he thought the best policy was, and then put everything into making it a reality, despite the political costs. In the fullness of time, even his critics have to concede that his choice was a sound one.
— Kevin A. Hassett is John G. Searle Senior Fellow and Director of Economic Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.