By Eugene Robinson
Thank you, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, for emerging from your secure, undisclosed locations to remind us how we got into this mess: It didn’t happen by accident.
The important thing isn’t what Bush says in his interview with National Geographic or what scores Cheney tries to settle in his memoir. What matters is that as they return to the public eye, they highlight their record of wrongheaded policy choices that helped bring the nation to a sour, penurious state.
Questions about whether President Obama has been combative enough in dealing with the Republican opposition—or sufficiently ambitious in framing his progressive agenda—seem trivial when viewed in this larger context. Obama is tackling enormous problems that took many years to create. His presidential style is important insofar as it boosts or lessens his effectiveness, but pales beside the generally righteous substance of what he’s trying to accomplish.
It was the Bush administration, you will recall, that sent the national debt into the stratosphere and choked off federal revenues to the point of asphyxiation. Bush and Cheney decided to fight two wars without even accounting for them, let alone paying. Rather than raise taxes to cover the cost of military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, Bush opted to maintain unreasonable and unnecessary tax cuts.
So far, the wars and the tax cuts have cost the Treasury between $4 trillion and $5 trillion. If Bush had just left income tax rates alone, nobody except Ron Paul would be talking about the debt.
My aim isn’t to attack Bush but to attack his philosophy. When he was campaigning for the White House in 2000, the government was anticipating a projected surplus of roughly $6 trillion over the following decade. Bush said repeatedly that he thought this was too much and wanted to bring the surplus down—hence, in 2001, the first of his two big tax cuts.
Bush was hewing to what had already become Republican dogma and by now has become something akin to scripture: Taxes must always be cut because government must always be starved.
The party ascribes this golden rule to Ronald Reagan—conveniently forgetting that Reagan, in his eight years as president, raised taxes 11 times. Reagan may have believed in small government but he did believe in government itself. Today’s Republicans have perverted Reagan’s philosophy into a kind of anti-government nihilism—an irresponsible, almost childish insistence that the basic laws of arithmetic can be suspended at their will.
The Bush administration also pushed forward Reagan’s policy of deregulation—ignoring, for example, critics who said the ballooning market in mortgage-backed securities needed more oversight. When the 2008 financial crisis hit, Bush did regain his faith in government long enough to throw together the $800 billion TARP bailout for the banks. But he failed to use the leverage of an aid package to exact reforms that would ensure that the financial system served the economy, rather than the other way around.
Faced with similar circumstances, would today’s Republican leadership react at all? Or is it the party’s view that the proper role of government would be to stand aside and watch the world’s financial system crash and burn?
This is a serious question. Just a few weeks ago, the Republican majority in the House threatened to force the United States government to default on its debt obligations—a previously unthinkable act of brinkmanship. Everything is thinkable now.
The Bush administration took Reagan’s tax-cutting, government-starving philosophy much too far. Today’s Republican Party takes it well beyond, into a rigid absolutism that would be comical if it were not so consequential.
We face devastating unemployment. Many conservative economists have joined the chorus calling for more short-term spending by the federal government as a way to boost growth. But the radical Republicans don’t pay attention to conservative economists anymore. The Republicans’ idea of a cure for cancer would be to cut spending and cut taxes.
Perhaps they’re just cynically trying to keep the economy in the doldrums through next year to hurt Obama’s chances of re-election. I worry that their fanaticism is sincere—that one of our major parties has gone completely off the rails. If so, things will get worse before they get better.
Having Bush and Cheney reappear is a reminder to step back and look at what Obama is up against. You might want to cut him a little slack.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group
Bush White House / Paul Morse