A Consummate, Compassionate Failure

George W. Bush’s last week in office has just about ended the Reagan era. That’s not to say Reaganism is outdated – it is not and never can be – but it is to say that the Republican Party is in absolute shambles, thanks in large part to a leader who did everything but lead.
It’s sad to say, but Bush has really become our Carter. While there is certainly a good deal to defend about the policies of the last eight years, and the vast majority of liberals have completely missed the point on W., unfortunately I do have to come to the conclusion that this presidency was, on most counts, an absolute disaster. Much of his legacy is still for history to judge, so that statement is by no means definitive across the board, but on some key points, such as the economy and perhaps more importantly on the philosophical direction of conservatism, it is an apt and undeniable assessment.
I think Bush himself summed it up best when he said, “I chucked my free market principles out the window.” That really is a classic line, and it is exactly right. Bush initially chipped away at the barrier between government and the free market, and then took a sledgehammer to it, and the dam finally broke in October at the worst possible time.
For the first four years, the way he undermined the economy was a clandestine venture, easily confused for partisan pirouettes: letting Ted Kennedy write the education bill, some easily overlooked tariffs and curious rhetoric about “compassionate conservatism” (as if his ideology needed to be justified).
It was after re-election that Bush fell apart, and soon thereafter the American economy; with it went (ostensibly) the efficacy of free market economics. However, in the last few months, it has come to light that much of what was going on behind the scenes could hardly be considered laissez-faire capitalism.
While easily confused for “right-wing” economics, the Bush administration’s policies have largely favored increased government involvement in economic affairs. The strange and unfortunate thing about our circumstance is that it is apparently (and not actually) a problem of lax regulation. One tends to assume that the mortgage crisis occurred because the government let corporations do whatever they pleased. To some degree, this is the case; however, the key distinction is that what pleased the corporations also pleased the government. In other words, corporations, kowtowing to the government’s anti-red-lining laws, such as those out of Carter’s Community Reinvestment Act, sold mortgages to people who couldn’t pay for them.
So, apparent (and often very real) loan sharks, employed by the lending institutions that have now fallen apart (and subsequently been bailed out by Bush and crew), accrued mass amounts of toxic debt that was sold up the chain as mortgage-backed securities all the way to – guess who? – the government: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two bizarre paradoxes best described as public corporations (and thanks to Bush Jr., we now have quite a few more of these bastard children of New Deal economics). Not unlike Bush himself, these “corporations,” sitting at the nexus of public and private, and thus annihilating the distinction completely, were the first to fall.
The wolf in sheep’s clothing, the entire time was government regulation, not a lack thereof; that is, it was the government’s convenient crusade against red-lining and other common sense policies preventing people who can’t afford homes from buying them that caused the mess to begin with. “Affordable housing,” as we have come to see, does not lend itself to any successful business model.
While this all started with Carter, it finished with his spiritual successor, George W. Bush. Bush made some perfunctory attempts to stop the toxic debt from accruing, but there is much more evidence that he simply let it happen, ignoring the economic elephant in the room in favor of growing the national debt with a sloppy war in Iraq. There is even a supremely ironic video of Bush, at the apogee of his “compassionate conservatism,” honoring Mr. Franklin Raines himself, and the “great work” of Fannie Mae in the area of affordable housing.
This is not in the least an argument to give the Democrats a pass. Affordable housing is their pet project, and the fundamental blame falls at their feet for initiating this snowball, as well as the people who chose to buy houses they couldn’t pay for. Nevertheless, with a Republican executive, legislative and a mostly judicial branch at the height of his presidency, Bush deserves to be the whipping boy of history for his disgusting betrayal of conservative principles.
Unfortunately, when he opened the window to chuck his free market principles, he also let in the worst specter of all — President-elect Barack Obama and his neo-New Dealism. It was almost inevitable by 2008. Look at the “conservative” nominee: John McCain, of all people, the would-be running mate of John Kerry if he hadn’t felt Bush’s foul political winds carrying him to the `08 Republican nomination.
All of this falls at the feet of Bush. Certainly there is much to be said of his foreign policy, which, though flawed, proved efficacious by preventing another terrorist attack. Still, it also ties into his economic failures. Had he handled Iraq properly, perhaps by listening to the admonitions of General Shinseki and sending in a military monolith to preempt the insurgency, we might have saved a lot of American lives and dollars.
The surge worked, but it may be for naught now that Obama is in office. The Middle East will make or break Bush. Without it, his obvious domestic failures will leave him one of the biggest losers of the bunch. Obama will continue to break down walls between public and private, and the only hope for an opposition party (there certainly is not one at the moment) is for vocal conservatives to stand on principle and fight an insurgent war back to power. To do so, they need a real leader willing to keep the lines between free market and federal government as bold as can be. I suspect, with the sickeningly hypnotic ways of Obama’s constituency, that this process will take years if not decades thanks to Bush’s decimation of conservatism.

Patrick Ross is a fifth-year English and history double-major. He can be reached at pross@uci.edu.