In retrospect, it’s relatively easy to see why the Bush years still weigh so heavily on us, and why they were such a sharp break with the past. His ascension to the White House gave Republicans control of both elected branches of the federal government for the first time since 1953, but the uniqueness of the moment goes much further. In 1953 the president was Dwight Eisenhower, a cautious moderate distrustful of subsidy-seeking corporations (recall his warnings about the “military-industrial complex”) and contemptuous of the reactionaries in his own party. With a steady and often hidden hand, Ike neutralized extremists within the GOP and his own administration who wanted to bomb the Soviets and roll back the New Deal. Bush was a much more conservative and decidedly less competent man who, like his vice president, had made his fortune in the government-subsidized corporate world. He became the means by which the burgeoning far right and crony-capitalist wings of the GOP took over the government.
While Bush’s personality and decisions were important, deeper political forces were at play. What happened during the Bush years should be understood not as the results of the empowerment of one man but, as Alan Wolfe explains in his essay in our ebook, of an ideology:
Contemporary conservatism is a walking contradiction. Unable to shrink government but unwilling to improve it, conservatives attempt to split the difference, expanding government for political gain, but always in ways that validate their disregard for the very thing they are expanding. The end result is not just bigger government, but more incompetent government.
The ideological contradictions unleashed within the GOP during those years have only grown. We see it in the increasingly stormy and dysfunctional relationship between the corporate and Tea Party wings of the party, in the freak show that was the 2012 GOP primary, and in the bottomless, robotic mendacity of the Mitt Romney campaign.
Most Americans today don’t want to think about the Bush years. The former president’s face comes on the television and they think, Please, no. For liberals, the very thought of the man summons the emotions we felt during his eight years in office, the slow-motion experience of a passenger in a car wreck: rage, fear, and powerlessness. For conservatives, contemplating Bush provokes the discomfort of cognitive dissonance, of having to reconcile one’s fervent former support of the president with his disastrous record. The opinions of Red and Blue America may be more divergent than ever, but on this one point we can all agree: we want the memory of Bush and his administration to just go away.
But the understandable urge not to think about Bush—not to reexamine his record, his policies, and his ideology—needs to be resisted, because comprehending what went wrong in Washington during the Bush years is, I believe, key to understanding what can be done to set the country right.
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