The End of the Bush Era

Wisconsin Delegation
Boys Nation & Girls Nation Senators
Blue Room of the White House
August 2001

It seems like a snapshot from a different life, the moment back in the summer of 2001 when I shook hands with President George W. Bush in the Blue Room at the White House following remarks in the East Room. I was 17. We talked briefly of Tommy Thompson. 911 was still merely a number a person called for help.

Watching and listening to the Twin Towers fall during my senior year of high school, I saw the President trudge out into the rubble, bullhorn in hand, seizing the one moment that permitted him to lead us as he could lead - in a forgotten, almost Braveheart fashion, a style that was not suited for sitting behind a desk. The War in Afghanistan made sense. The call for clarity, amidst the chaos of reacting to non-state actors, seemed to make sense, too. I empathized deeply with the burdens of being responsible in the context of September 11, as illustrated in this poem I wrote in late 2001 (back in my poetry writing days):

Stepping onto a vast, liberal campus from a small town, I joined the College Republicans, riding that wave. It was not easy going. In 2003, I stood halfway down Bascom Hill with a thin red line opposing the anti-war masses gathering around the Abe Lincoln statute in preparation for the Books Not Bombs protest and march. Later that month, in an old rectory living room in Canton, Mississippi, our deeply divided volunteer home building crew watched and debated the opening salvos of the Iraq War (within days of my first visit to New Orleans). I supported it - Colin Powell was on board, UN resolutions had been broken, and I presumed the President had access to far better intelligence than I did.

In 2004, I volunteered on the Bush re-election effort, thinking that some of the growing non-conservative aspects of his presidency would be tempered by victory in Iraq and a return to normalcy at home. And John Kerry simply didn't seem to have the raw leadership qualities necessary. I sat as part of the backdrop at a Bush rally in Richland Center that fall (as shown in several of the photos). But I saw even then the problems of trying to carry water (and boy, did we ever carry those leaky pails) for an increasingly Rovian Republican Party - one that wasn't providing me with a product I could sell to my peers, one that wasn't organic, one that seemed to abhor intellect far too often.

Late that year, a group of "non-progressive-liberals" banded together to found a new "conservative" campus newspaper in response to both major campus newspapers endorsing the exact same liberal slate of candidates in November 2004. My politics was driven by a need for diversity of campus intellectual opinion as a route to healthy balance more than a defense of President Bush. After the paper's launch in 2005, however, and as I joined this blog in June 2005, I began to see that President Bush was driving the party toward a cliff edge.

His administration was pushing policies and ideas antithetical to what I knew of conservatism - and they were being labeled conservative. I would spar with one of my old roommates about whether Bush was simply not intelligent enough for the job. To this day, I question whether he was smart enough. Still, we agreed that his PR abilities alone - irrespective of the problematic realities - were failing at an alarming rate - see Katrina, warrantless wiretapping, Guantanamo, the War on Terror. Federal spending and the size of the federal government grew. And do did my discontent. You'll find, in my early years on the blog, I refrained from talking about Bush, in large part, because being an apologist required going farther out on a weak branch than I cared to risk. There was a disconnect between some of the faces of the state and congressional GOP that I knew and the party most associated with Bush.

Senior year saw a great deal of development for me; I had to defend my beliefs and associations, and I had to hone them as a result. I grew up. I realized a more libertarian ethic was needed to maintain balance in government and to be more true to myself. After graduating in 2006, I hit the campaign trail on a state legislative race in Wisconsin. On the trail, I could feel the acidic Bush coattails washing over the local electoral landscape, and the state and national results (my own race excepted) bore out my fears. By 2007, I felt Bush had so twisted and perverted the meaning of conservatism in the public mind that I could no longer associate with the party espousing his unique concoction.

What was the point - where was the advantage in doing so? What exactly were the principles this party now actually signified? Even the ones that weren't bad were now tainted. If one reads the blog from the time of my return, you'll find I began to unload my critiques of the administration - its failures on the fiscal front, the size of government front, and the free market front in the crucible of the current financial crisis. In this post before the 2008 election, I laid out the trajectory of my disenchantment.

On the Iraq War, that monster that consumed his presidency, Bush never convinced me, in the end, that we truly went to war for some other reason than his deep-seated and ill-informed desire to be a war president. History may yet judge the undertaking differently in the very long term, but in the short term, Bush's adventuring was anything but conservative - as with domestic policies like No Child Left Behind and faith based initiatives, Bush was never properly cognizant of or concerned about the limits of what government can do or should do.

In the end, not all aspects of the Bush Era embody failure or disappointment. President Bush did succeed in some foreign affairs respects - as this list demonstrates (and I would add the often overlooked opening of Libya). But even in that list, I think the African successes gained the U.S. minimal medical diplomacy cred for a huge cost that could have been spent domestically instead. And while some paint Bush as adept on China, I think we failed to recognize our competitor fully - as with Russia - due to the distraction of Iraq (a point I've been reiterating since I drafted an opinion piece for my high school newspaper in 2002).

I believe the Roberts nomination was a success. I think Roberts transcended partisan rancor, and his sheer talent and persona are good for the court at an institutional level. That President-elect Obama voted against his nomination tells me something about our next President's character.

I also believe Bush showed real leadership in rebuffing attempts to lock the U.S. into international legal agreements. While he suffered greatly for it (and didn't sell most of these actions very well), I think his administration's concerns about retaining U.S. sovereignty and flexibility of action were on point.

Finally, the Bush administration did not see any additional terrorist attacks on U.S. soil following September 11, 2001. It can be debated whether he's really responsible, or whether that's overridden by the deaths in the Iraq War, etc. But in the end, it did seem to be his overriding goal - for better or, often, for worse - following the seminal moment of his presidency (unless the financial crisis grows into a more pivotal point in retrospect). And he can state factually that no additional attacks occurred on his watch.

Some out there are talking of Bush as the worst president ever. I don't place him below James Buchanan. And a few others - certainly Andrew Johnson, Nixon, probably Pierce. However, I don't think he achieved "good" president status in the balance. He made gray into black and white, and that made all the difference. He was The Decider, but sometimes we didn't need to decide. Or there wasn't a decision to be made at all.

I think this random picture, a personal favorite, best sums up, somehow, the Bush I came to know. It was taken by a supporter at a 2004 rally in West Allis, Wisconsin. It was going to be thrown out after the '06 cycle along with other boxed campaign remnants, but I saved it for the its strange irony:

George W. Bush taught me, during my formative years, to be skeptical of government - not through his own skepticism, sadly, but rather through his words and actions in government that were deserving of more skepticism than I applied - or admitted - for the first 3/5 of this tenure. I look forward to giving President Obama a more robust treatment from the start.

I regret that I did not have a president that I could truly take pride in for most of my adult life thus far. I regret that I went from being proud to being disappointed, not solely through the swaying of the media, but - even after discounting that effect - through my own observation, realization, and analysis.