Michael Gerson has the thankless task of defending George W. Bush as a compassionate conservative who doesn’t get credit for all the good things he’s done.
Watching the speech, I recalled meeting Gov. Bush of Texas in the spring of 1999, before he was a declared candidate. He talked with rushed intensity about being a “different kind of Republican,” dedicated to racial healing and helping the poor and determined to provide moral leadership as a contrast and corrective to the Clinton years. Because I believed him, I left journalism and joined his campaign.
It is conventional wisdom that Bush’s idealism is either a fraud or has been pushed aside completely by the priorities of war.
My goal is a humbler assessment: Did President Bush, in the course of seven years, cast aside compassion and become the “same kind of Republican”?
The answer is no. Proposals such as No Child Left Behind, the AIDS and malaria initiatives, and the addition of a prescription drug benefit to Medicare would simply not have come from a traditional conservative politician. They became the agenda of a Republican administration precisely because of Bush’s persistent, passionate advocacy. To put it bluntly, these would not have been the priorities of a Cheney administration.
This leaves critics of the Bush administration with a “besides” problem. Bush is a heartless and callous conservative, “besides” the 1.4 million men, women and children who are alive because of treatment received through his AIDS initiative… “besides” the unquestioned gains of African American and Hispanic students in math and reading… “besides” 32 million seniors getting help to afford prescription drugs, including 10 million low-income seniors who get their medicine pretty much free. Iraq may have overshadowed these achievements; it does not eliminate them.
The Bush administration, in my view, should have devoted more resources and creativity to its faith-based initiatives. It should not have vetoed the State Children’s Health Insurance Program expansion. The president’s budget and economic teams have not been populated with enthusiastic compassionate conservatives, and sometimes this has shown. But by any fair historical measure, Bush’s achievements on social justice at least equal those of Bill Clinton, who increased the earned-income tax credit, pushed for children’s health coverage and reformed welfare to encourage work.
Bush has received little attention or thanks for his compassionate reforms.
That’s a little like saying Jeffrey Dahmer had nice table manners. Where was that compassion in New Orleans after Katrina? Where was that compassion when Karl Rove and Dick Cheney decided that Valerie Plame was fair game for political revenge? Where was that compassion when Alberto Gonzalez played politics with the U.S. attorneys in the Department of Justice? Where was that compassion when the Bush administration tried to force through an amendment to the Constitution to deny equal rights to gay and lesbian citizens? Where was his compassion for the ill when he veoted stem-cell research in favor of some faux morality that he concocted from snowflakes and fables from Genesis? How much compassion does he have for the thousands of Americans and untold number of Iraqi citizens who have suffered and died because of his delusions of neo-con grandeur?
Mr. Gerson, in comparing the Bush adminstration’s achievements to those of Bill Clinton, must also acknowledge — as he does — that Mr. Bush vetoed the renewal of children’s health coverage not once but twice, and his attempt to reform Social Security went nowhere because even the hard-core Republicans didn’t think it would work. And taking credit for the improvement in education is disingenuous at best; reading and math scores were going up before the over-regulated and under-funded No Child Left Behind law came about.
Having good intentions is one thing, but no matter how hard Mr. Bush’s defenders try to pretty it up, his dubious record of achievement in the area of compassion is monumentally overshadowed by the unprovoked war in Iraq, his disregard for the basic rights of privacy with the warrantless wiretapping and other forays into shredding the Bill of Rights, and his obsession with gaining political advantage with a take-no-prisoners approach.
Mr. Gerson ends his piece by saying, “[h]is achievements are larger than his critics understand.” On that I agree: it will be years before the damage to this nation’s laws, infrastructure and international reputation will be fully appreciated. If Mr. Gerson wants to call those “achievements,” then he’s like the kid who digs through the pile of horse manure convinced that there’s gotta be a pony in there somewhere.