The Magazine

The Politics of a Failed Presidency

How John McCain and the Republican party should deal with the Bush record.

Mar 17, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 26 • By JEFFREY BELL
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Bush checked the boxes of the social conservative agenda as it existed at the time: appointment of judicial conservatives, a ban on partial-birth abortion, renewal of Reagan-initiated Mexico City rules against U.S. funding of abortions overseas, opposition to federally funded embryo-killing biomedical research, opposition to same-sex marriage. Bush, as candidate and president, kept his commitments on these issues but often appeared uncomfortable talking about them, as had his father.

Where Bush was both distinctive and at ease, in the 2000 race and afterward, was in talking about religious faith. This had a personal dimension, as when he identified Jesus Christ as his favorite philosopher in a late-1999 Iowa debate and credited a conversion experience with helping him give up drinking and strengthen his marriage. The policy component was the faith-based initiative, in which Bush argued, in his campaign and in a speech at Notre Dame University in the spring of 2001, that bringing faith-based approaches to bear on intractable social pathologies could represent a "third wave" of modern welfare policy--the earlier waves being the building of the welfare state and the drive toward local and personal accountability embodied in the welfare reform enacted in 1996.

On economics, Bush bypassed the advocacy by many supply-siders in the 1990s of a consumption-based flat tax and pressed instead for moderate cuts in tax rates, generous expansion of the pro-family child tax credit, and (in such cases as the death tax and double taxation of corporate dividends) outright abolition of some federal taxes. In the first half of 2001 he fought hard for a much larger tax-cut package than was expected of a president who had recently lost the popular vote, and got much of it--though at the price of an overly long "phasing in" of the rate reductions, the sort of delay that supply-siders believe postpones a good deal of the economic advance the tax cuts are designed to achieve. When the issue was reopened in 2003, following unexpected GOP gains in the 2002 congressional elections, Bush demanded and won immediate effective dates for the income tax reductions and passage of a reform provision that reduced the personal side of the double taxation of dividends by nearly two-thirds, from 39.6 percent under Bill Clinton to 15 percent today. The stock market went into a bull move, and the economy began to accelerate from the sluggish 2001-03 recovery. However, the 2003 tax package made none of the first-term Bush tax cuts permanent, leaving some of the key ones with statutory expiration dates before the end of what would be the second Bush term.

Foreign policy played a minimal role in the 2000 election. Bush pleased conservatives with his willingness to abrogate the ABM treaty with the Soviet Union and begin deployment of an anti-missile system, and with his more skeptical take on U.S. relations with China. He kept within the bipartisan internationalist consensus by backing President Clinton's interventions against Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic in the former Yugoslavia. But on broader foreign-policy themes, Bush in 2000 sounded more like George H.W. Bush than Reagan, with his rejection of "nation-building" and praise of "humility" in foreign policy.

With the events of September 11, 2001, Bush and many other Americans came to the conclusion that American foreign policy had a lot to be humble about. He quickly concluded that the rise of a form of bold, organized, mass-murdering jihadism in the Arab and larger Islamic world had put the American homeland at risk to a degree unmatched even by World War II. And he came away from 9/11 with Reaganite assumptions about the role America needed to play in the world.

What are the core Reaganite assumptions about the modern world? Much of their spirit is captured by the title of the platform plank offered by Reagan delegates at the 1976 GOP convention: "Morality in Foreign Policy." This resolution was a direct rebuff to the Nixon-Ford-Kissinger school of "realism"--which has a bias toward preserving the global status quo, however oppressive and dictatorial this might be--and of détente with the Soviet Union. Kissinger, secretary of state at the time, pleaded with Ford campaign manager James Baker to declare war on the Reagan plank and was furious when Baker refused to do so. Baker, who as secretary of state would himself prove to be a realist in the Kissinger mode, knew that fighting "morality in foreign policy" might turn a narrow Ford convention edge into a Reagan nomination. The Reaganite plank passed by voice vote. While Ford preserved his hold on the nomination, the moralist phase of Republican foreign policy had begun.