June 15, 2011

Perhaps I should thank the current crop of Republican presidential candidates for providing me with an experience I never, ever expected: During this week’s debate in New Hampshire, I had a moment of nostalgia for George W. Bush.

Let me note that this was tempered by another response to Bush that I’ll get to. Yet compared with the New Hampshire Seven — and with today’s Republican majority in the House of Representatives — Bush was the reincarnation of Theodore Roosevelt.

The 2012 GOP presidential field on display Monday offered not one idea about how to solve the problems facing our country that didn’t boil down to cutting taxes, slashing regulation or eliminating large swaths of government.

The big winner of the debate was Rep. Michele Bachmann, partly because she went in with a strategy and executed it, partly because she had a stage presence honed by hundreds of television appearances and partly because she didn’t seem crazily extreme, as her many outrageous statements in the past would have led you to conclude.

But she looked almost conventional only because the rest of the Republican Party has veered so far right that it has caught up with her. In the current GOP, she is the mainstream — and that ought to petrify more reasonable Republicans. Even Bachmann’s astonishing call to get rid of the Environmental Protection Agency (created under the Republican administration of Richard M. Nixon) passed without a challenge from her rivals.

That’s why I felt nostalgia for Bush, especially the guy who was a candidate for president in 2000. Unlike this crowd of Republicans, Bush acknowledged that the federal government can ease injustices and get useful things done.

Say what you will about his No Child Left Behind education-reform program. It accepted, correctly, that the federal government has to play an important part in reforming our public schools and held them accountable to a set of standards.

To get it passed, Bush worked with two of the most progressive Democrats in Congress, the late Edward M. Kennedy and Rep. George Miller of California. The reform now needs to be reformed, of course, but it was a serious initiative.

And while there are many problems with the way Bush chose to provide prescription drugs under Medicare, he was quite right to believe it had to be done. Any health insurance plan worthy of being called comprehensive needs to provide prescription coverage. Bush didn’t pay for this benefit, and its structure is more complicated and more expensive than it has to be. But Bush did address a real need.

Oh, yes, and I really do miss some of Bush’s early rhetoric. I cannot imagine a Republican today giving Bush’s 1999 speech in Indianapolis titled — shades of Barack Obama? — “The Duty of Hope.”

Bush criticized the view “that if government would only get out of our way, all our problems would be solved” as a “destructive mind-set.” He scorned this as an approach having “no higher goal, no nobler purpose, than ‘Leave us alone.’ ”

On the contrary, Bush declared: “We have always found our better selves in sympathy and generosity, both in our lives and in our laws.” Amen. A Republican who expressed such sentiments today would be pummeled mercilessly by Fox News.

Now, there are limits to my Bush nostalgia. In brief: He sent troops to battle in two wars and cut taxes, largely on the wealthy, leaving us in deep fiscal and foreign policy holes.

The budget disaster he stuck us with requires little elaboration. But notice all the stories in the wake of the debate about Republicans moving back toward isolationism. The lesson here is that reckless interventionism inevitably produces a backlash into potentially reckless non-interventionism.

In particular, the war in Iraq was undertaken before we had settled the war in Afghanistan. Bush and his advisers did not think through the costs or the consequences of running two wars simultaneously. We are living with the terrible aftermath of these choices, and Americans of all political stripes are understandably exhausted.

That’s why Bush nostalgia takes you only so far. The 43rd president, who might have given life to a constructive sort of moderate conservatism, instead unleashed the Tea Party furies that now engulf the Republican Party and threaten to turn Michele Bachmann, of all people, into a political giant.

ejdionne@washpost.com