‘If you agree with the approach I just described, if you want to give the policies of the last decade another try, then you should vote for Mr. Romney,” declared President Obama in his June 14 economic address in Cleveland. “We can’t afford to jeopardize our future by repeating the mistakes of the past,” he added. “Not now, not when there’s so much at stake.”
Obama hammered in his point: Mitt Romney is George W. Bush, and a vote for Romney is a vote for a return to Bush. And Bush was bad, very, very bad.
This wasn’t exactly a daring new line of reasoning from President Obama. If you’ve missed it, I hope your coma or solitary confinement was otherwise pleasant. From the start of his presidency, Obama has had a tendency to blame his predecessor for most of his and, more important, our problems. Blaming Bush is Obama’s sweet spot, his comfort zone, and his obsession all at once. It is where he goes whenever he is confronted about his own shortcomings. When his audiences consent to let him be clear, Obama is clear about this: Bush is the problem. And it’s not just Obama himself. The president’s entire entourage of advisers reflexively blame Bush for all of their woes. Obama did everything right – all credible economists agree! Team Obama’s only mistake was underestimating how much damage Bush did.
Intriguingly, the White House tends to make this argument most forcefully precisely where it is most stupid: on the issue of spending. White House press secretary Jay Carney recently did it at his daily press briefing. Bill Clinton had mischievously bragged about how he was the last president to preside over a budget surplus. Asked about this, Carney offered a familiar liberal history lesson: Clinton bequeathed Bush surpluses, and Bush squandered them.
“Eight years later, when President Obama took office, handed the Oval Office by his predecessor, a Republican president, we had the largest deficits in history up to that time,” Carney continued. “Now, something happened in those eight years, and it was not fiscal responsibility. And that is unfortunate. We had a situation in eight years where record surpluses were turned into record deficits.”
Even leaving out all the objections about circumstances beyond Bush’s control (September 11, for instance, and the Democrats’ capturing Congress in 2006), this makes no sense. The implication is that because Bush left Obama with record deficits, Obama is free to smash the records and blame it on Bush.
But just because what Obama and his surrogates do with the facts is ludicrous doesn’t mean the facts are wrong. And the simple truth is that Bush – or, to be more generous, the GOP under Bush – did spend an enormous amount of money in the 2000s. Under Bush, the federal government spent more than 3 percent of GDP on anti-poverty programs for the first time. Education spending rose 58 percent faster than inflation. Medicare Part D – the largest expansion of entitlements since the Great Society (until Obamacare) – was a top Bush priority. Bush signed Sarbanes-Oxley, created a whole new cabinet agency (the Department of Homeland Security), and was the originator of the bailouts, TARP, and the first stimulus program.
And there’s simply no reason Mitt Romney shouldn’t say so. He is running as the “grown-up” intent on restoring order and fiscal sanity to Washington and growth to the economy. He should make his indictment of Washington’s profligacy bipartisan. After all, if he becomes president, his job won’t be just to stop Obama’s overspending, but to stop Washington’s. Making the case that Bush and the GOP were part of the problem gives that effort – and Romney – credibility.
He doesn’t have to be rude about it. There are defenses – some good, some not so good – of what Bush did. But it’s important to appreciate the nature of the moment we’re in on the right. The Tea Party began in no small part as a delayed Bush backlash. Many conservatives were deeply frustrated with Bush’s presidency but felt compelled to defend him given the asininity of his most vocal critics, particularly during a war. And then, to compound the problem, they were asked to vote for John McCain.
Those frustrations were exacerbated in the twilight of Bush’s presidency as he responded to the financial crisis with even more seeming apostasies (some of which may in fact have been necessary). Newt Gingrich noticed this very early in the Obama presidency. Here he is at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2009: “The great irony of where we are today is that we have a Bush-Obama big-spending program that was bipartisan in its nature. Last year, the Bush-Obama plan had a $180 billion stimulus package in the spring – which failed. It came back with a $345 billion housing package in the summer – which failed. It then had a $700 billion Wall Street spending package in October – which failed. It had a $4 trillion Federal Reserve guarantee – which failed. The Bush-Obama plan was continued. We didn’t get real change.”
Gingrich was wrong in one important respect. We did get real change – for the worse. President Obama likes to say that Romney is Bush “on steroids.” But from a conservative fiscal perspective, it’s Obama who is Bush on steroids. Obama got a huge surge in one-time spending in 2009 to deal with the financial crisis and then turned it into the “new normal” in budgetary terms. Between the end of World War II and Obama, federal spending had never exceeded 23.5 percent of GDP. The average for the Bush years was 19.6 percent. In 2009, thanks to measures begun by Bush and expanded by Obama, spending broke 25 percent, and it has stayed above 23.5 percent for Obama’s entire presidency. In the last four years we’ve added $6.3 trillion in federal debt, with $5 trillion of it fully on Obama’s watch. In 2008, debt held by the public was 40.5 percent of GDP. It’s now 74.2 percent and growing.
Remember, Bush appointed Ben Bernanke, and Obama reappointed him. Hank Paulson and Timothy Geithner were Bush-administration officials whose policies were carried forward and expanded by Obama.
Of course, there are important differences between Bush and Obama, and between their records and philosophies. But Mitt Romney is under no obligation to bring them up if they do not bolster his effort to defeat President Obama.
Aside from the fact that it’s true, the beauty of this argument is that it rips away Obama’s main political identity. Obama still poses as an outsider in Washington, stymied by entrenched interests and the Bush legacy. It’s a bizarre posture for a president who got pretty much his entire agenda enacted before the end of his second year in office. By arguing that Obama is Bush on steroids, Romney would peg Obama as part of the problem with Washington. Independents, who still dislike Bush but are increasingly weary of Obama, would be heartened to have their cognitive dissonance resolved.
The key is to make Bush’s spending, not his tax cuts, the salient issue. Thanks to a complaisant media, Obama and the Democrats have been successful in casting the Bush tax cuts as the sum total of Bush’s domestic and economic policy (and they don’t even give him credit for the cuts that go to the middle class, which Obama wants to keep – more continuity!). Right now, Obama has Romney the rich guy defending tax cuts for rich guys. Wouldn’t it be better to have Obama the big spender defending big spending? A bipartisan indictment of Washington would bring about just that.
There’s little reason to expect a Republican backlash to this tactic. By stressing continuity while pointing out how much worse Obama has made things, Romney would avoid needlessly antagonizing Republicans who still have warm feelings for Bush. And he need not spare the congressional GOP, which was in many respects the greater scoundrel.
This critique is perfectly consonant with what you hear on conservative talk radio every day, and with the themes of the Tea Party. Indeed, Romney is behind the curve. The current Republican congressional leadership got this message years ago. “I believe we did not just lose our majority, we lost our way,” Representative Mike Pence famously said. Boehner, Cantor, Ryan, and the rest of the leadership have made similar statements. Why shouldn’t Romney?