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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Assessing Bush: Domestic Policy

In the third of four posts assessing the presidency of George Bush, we turn now to domestic policy. Compared to the economy and foreign policy, Bush's domestic policies can get lost in the shuffle. Yet here, too, he was an activist president who left a mixed legacy.

Bush came into office with big plans to forge a new kind of politics based on "compassionate conservatism." This was always a slightly confused governing philosophy because it fused the methods of activist liberalism--using government to craft social change--with the morals and goals of Christian conservatism. Bush wanted to reform areas hitherto considered the domain of liberals--education, social security, immigration, and poverty--but rather than putting them under the purview of government, he wished instead to farm them out to favored private sectors. When he arrived, his to-do list consisted of reforming education, creating a network of quasi-government "faith based" programs, reforming immigration, and privatizing Social Security. As I mentioned in earlier posts, these were again fairly radical new ways of thinking about problems. Bush was, above all, willing to put untested theories to work in real-world experiments.

Successes
Bush, the former governor with no appetite for "nation building," was far more successful within the sphere of domestic policy. The first months of his presidency were dominated by the passage of "No Child Left Behind," a flawed but serious attempt (co-sponsored by Ted Kennedy) to reform education and improve US performance. A devout man, his belief in faith-based programs was also wholly evident, and he was proud to get these off the ground. Finally, although he failed to get immigration reform passed (failed, in fact, to see how damaging it would be to his own party), he was genuinely invested in creating a workable fix. If he had been in office during Clinton's term, we would be focused on these efforts as the highlights, rather than forgotten sidebars, in what would be regarded as a more successful presidency.

Corporatism, Again
One of the inclinations that marred Bush's domestic programs were his unfailing effort to reward corporate interests to the detriment of the government, small business, and private citizens. Worse, this blinded him to opportunities that might have actually helped revitalize certain sectors (medical, financial, automotive, communications, airline, eco); instead, toadying up to corporate bosses resulted in bloated, consolidated industries that list along or are collapsing. A few examples. When he crafted a new energy plan, he tailored it to the oil and gas executives who alone were invited to participate in the discussions. Farm bills were designed to streamline an industrial model of agriculture that have America in the midst of an obesity crisis (see Michael Pollan for a lot more about that). In considering communication policy, Bush always deferred to behemoths more interested in gobbling up competitors than delivering quality content.

Homeland Security, Medicare Reform
Bush, the conservative, flummoxed and perhaps hamstrung his own party by passing two of the largest expansions of government in the country's history. The first was the sprawling Department of Homeland Security, the kind of agency that gives arch conservatives night terrors. It collected 22 agencies under one umbrella, the idea being that one huge agency could coordinate and communicate better than two dozen. (A hypothesis that would have gotten a great deal more attention had it not been for 9/11, the precipitating event.) The second was a Frankenstein's monster designed to expand prescription coverage under Medicare. It was a deeply flawed and unpopular bill that managed to pass the House only after Speaker Denny Hastert strong-armed his members (and perhaps bribed them). Its popularity has not much grown.

Christian Right
No president in US history enjoyed more support from conservative Christians than Bush, and they expected him to deliver. In one regard he did--he managed to get two very conservative, very young judges onto the Supreme Court, and appointed a raft of conservatives to lower courts. But the structure of government prevented the GOP from doing more during the Bush years. Early in office, he managed to limit government funding of stem-cell research, though this didn't fully satisfy his base nor stop research. Abortion laws tightened at the state level, but Roe was not overturned. Gay marriage was a reliable re-election issue, but during his eight years in office, legal gay marriage and civil unions became the law in several states (including Oregon--yay!). And as a particular low-light to the Christian era, Bush and the GOP attempted to thwart a legal process in the case of Terri Schiavo--an early and embarrassing defeat of Bush's second term.

In the end, Bush managed to do a fair amount with his time in office, but the legacy may be short lived. No Child Left Behind has recorded--at best--mixed success. Faith-based programs are likely to be downplayed and probably face a slow phase-out under Obama. The immigration legislation Bush started might have continued except for other car wrecks he left behind (the economy, Iraq, Afghanistan) that demand immediate attention. And the currency of the Christian right appears to be dramatically declining--a shocking turnaround from just four years ago, when they thought their hour had arrived. But Homeland Security and the Medicare prescription reform--those will, for better or worse, outlast Bush. It ain't much, but given everything else, maybe Bush will be happy to take it.

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