Bush plays defense

Spare a moment of sympathy, if you can, for George W. Bush.

The former president has spent much of his life assuming an air of frat-boy insouciance, as if he didn't much care what people said about him.

But it turns out that was largely a pose. Like almost every other modern president, Bush went straight from the White House to the writing desk to turn out a memoir that would — as they always say — "set the record straight."

The book he produced doesn't engage with the political debates of the moment. Rather, as the former president explained in a television interview this week, he's focused on "how history will judge the decisions I made."

He has been careful, in both his book and his public appearances, to avoid directly criticizing his successor, Barack Obama — even though Obama won in 2008 largely by denouncing Bush's record from top to bottom.

It's one thing, however, to have your record attacked by the opposite party; Bush seems to accept sniping from the left as fair game, as long as it's honest. He even expresses professional admiration in his book for the "smart, disciplined, high-tech campaign" Obama ran.

It's another thing to have your record and your fidelity to your own principles attacked by members of your own side, and that's what Bush has been suffering.

In 2006 and 2008, Democrats won elections with a stinging but effective pitch: We're not George W. Bush. In 2010, Republicans won with an equally stinging pitch: We're not Barack Obama, but we're not George W. Bush either.

Rejection of the Bush legacy was a central part of the GOP message during the fall campaign.

"Republicans learned their lesson," presumptive House Speaker John A. Boehner said earlier this year. "We were spending too much, government was growing too much.... Our team failed to live up to our own principles."

And he's one of the moderates. "Tea party" champions such as Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) go even further; the effect of Bush's presidency, DeMint has said, was to "ruin our party."

In the less than two years since Bush left office, most of the Republican leaders he left behind have denounced his administration (although not always by name) for running up the federal deficit, increasing the size of the federal government and launching the Treasury's bailout of major banks. They have condemned Bush's stillborn proposal for immigration reform, with its path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants, as amnesty. Many, like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, have repudiated Bush's attempts at outreach to the world's Muslims and called for a kind of global culture war instead. A few have even criticized Bush's decisions to go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, although most have merely sidled quietly away from the ambitious crusade to promote democracy that Bush hoped would be his greatest legacy.

About the only Bush programs they still revere are the tax cuts that are scheduled to expire at the end of this year, plus the Medicare prescription drug plan that Republicans simultaneously condemn as ruinously expensive and vow to defend because of its huge popularity, a neat trick that helped them win 58% of the 65-and-older vote in this year's congressional election.

Not surprisingly, Bush wants to push back — at the criticism from his own side as much as at the criticism from Democrats.

Spending and the deficit, he insists, didn't go out of control on his watch. He even interrupts the often-chatty narrative of his memoir to insert a table of statistics comparing his administration's deficits to those of his predecessors. "My administration's ratios of spending to GDP, deficit to GDP and debt to GDP are all lower than the averages of the last three decades," he reports.

"I knew I was leaving behind a serious long-term fiscal problem: the unsustainable growth in entitlement spending," he admits. But when he pushed for reform — not very hard, some critics would argue — "Democrats opposed my efforts, and support in my own party was lukewarm."

Likewise, on the Treasury bailout of big banks and insurance companies, Bush's defense is guilty with an explanation. Yes, he admits, it was "a breathtaking intervention in the free market.... But that was a hell of a lot better than a financial collapse." Besides, he adds, it worked. (Democrats may be forgiven for asking: Why couldn't Bush have spoken out on this issue a month ago, when they needed him?)

And on immigration, Bush writes, he still thinks he was right, and he blames Democrats for failing to support him on legislation that his own party brusquely abandoned at the time. (He's right in principle, although the Democrats' ardor was dampened by their knowledge that Bush's chief political strategist, Karl Rove, believed that passing the law would bring the GOP a bonanza of Latino voters.)

The former president doesn't have much nice to say about the tea party movement, which has defined itself partly by rejection of parts of the Bush record. Asked about the GOP insurgency by one of its champions, radio host Rush Limbaugh, the best Bush could bring himself to say was that it's an understandable expression of popular "frustration" — a word Obama has also used.

"I also watched a tea party-type movement in 1992, so this is nothing new for me," Bush said, noting that the third-party candidacy of H. Ross Perot doomed his father's bid for reelection that year.

"To me, that's healthy, when people participate in democracy," he added, sounding none too fervent.

And on the larger meaning of his own party's triumph in this month's congressional election, the former president offered a cautious, non-triumphalist view: In midterm elections, when things aren't going well, voters take it out on the president's party, no matter which one it is.

"In '06, people were disgruntled," he told Limbaugh. "People were kind of tired of me. The Iraq War wasn't going good.... They showed up and said, 'Wait a minute, we're unsatisfied.' And that's what happened again here."

Bush can take comfort in one thing: Democrats tried to run against him again this year, and it didn't work. Not being the party of George W. Bush was no longer enough to guarantee a majority.

But Republicans ran against him too, and they did it successfully. It was only by distancing themselves from the Bush presidency and its failures that the GOP won control of the House. That strategy, though, leaves a central problem: They have defined themselves mostly by what they are not. They have rejected both Obama's government activism and Bush's high-cost "compassionate conservatism," but they haven't detailed what their promise of tough fiscal conservatism means beyond repealing Obama's healthcare law.

On those points, Bush offers little; in the memoir and on the book tour, he's looking back, not forward. He counsels his successors to maintain the independence of the Federal Reserve (another message for the tea party) and, of course, to avoid raising taxes. But on how to close the federal deficit, he's silent. Then again, he was never much good at shrinking the deficit — and let's face it, neither party is asking his advice.

doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com

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