Nostalgic for George W. Bush

After two years of near silence, the 43rd president is starting to reemerge.
By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, November 10, 2010; 6:42 PM

I miss George W. Bush.

I don't miss him in the sense that I wish he were still president. If he were, we might be at war with Iran and North Korea by now, and perhaps Portugal. Neither do I miss the endless debates over waterboarding and the Iraq war - bad memories that have returned to the news as Bush has re-emerged into public view this week to launch his book.

Rather, I miss him because in the end he was willing to toss aside his ideological orthodoxy when the national interest required it - a trait conspicuously absent among his fellow conservatives these last two years.

It was the final chapter of Bush's presidency, and is correspondingly the final chapter of his memoir, "Decision Points." As Bush describes it, he had just been told by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson that they should spend hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to buy up mortgage assets, and he approved the plan in full. "If we're really looking at another Great Depression," he recalls saying, "you can be damn sure I'm going to be Roosevelt, not Hoover."

By Tea Party doctrine, that's heresy. But Bush, in "Decision Points," doesn't back off at all from his defense of the auto industry rescue and the federal ownership of financial companies - even though those positions today would make him a pariah in his own party.

"The strategy was a breathtaking intervention in the free market," he writes of the TARP bank-bailout program. "It flew against all my instincts. But it was necessary to pull the country out of the panic. I decided that the only way to preserve the free market in the long run was to intervene in the short run."

In an extended book-launch interview with Bush, NBC anchor Matt Lauer referred to a Pew Research Center poll that found nearly half of Americans hold the false belief that TARP was passed under President Obama, while only 34 percent know it originated under Bush.

"Oh, yeah?" Bush replied. "Fifty percent of the people were wrong." He defended his rationale for supporting TARP: "Do you adhere to your philosophy and say, let them all fail? . . . Or do you take taxpayers' money and inject it into the system in hopes that you prevent a depression? And I chose the latter."

Neither did Bush shy from his position when interviewed Tuesday by Rush Limbaugh. "If you had it to do over, would you do the TARP bailout?"

"Yeah, I would have," Bush told Limbaugh. "I didn't like it at all, but when you're president you get faced with stark choices, and I couldn't have lived with myself had the country gone into a deep depression, and people's lives would have been affected."

Limbaugh, declining to challenge Bush on this, changed the subject to Democratic culpability for the subprime-mortgage disaster.

Bush resumed his defense of his interventionist economic policies Wednesday, when he sat down with Lauer for another interview, this time on the "Today" show. "The lesson there is that I had to set aside an ideology," he said.

Setting aside ideology? Those are fightin' words in Washington now.

Bush was fiercely ideological, too, but in this instance he felt the competing pull of responsibility. "I felt like the captain of a sinking ship," he writes in the memoir, adding: "This was one ugly way to end a presidency."

Even then, the ideologues were opposed. Bush quotes "one Republican senator" - Jim Bunning of Kentucky - as saying the TARP program would "take away the free market and institute socialism in America." He recalls his own party's efforts to defeat TARP, and a public letter written by Grover Norquist saying only "Dear President Bush: No."

Bush acknowledges that he undertook "the most drastic intervention in the free market since the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt," but he says it "helped spare the American people from an economic disaster of historic proportions." He defends the "automakers' rescue" with federal loans: "I had to safeguard American workers and families from a widespread collapse." He admits that the AIG bailout was "basically a nationalization of America's largest insurance company." But, he adds, "that was a hell of a lot better than a financial collapse."

In one of his few pieces of advice for those who remain in Washington, Bush recommends that "Congress should not infringe on the Federal Reserve's independence in conducting monetary policy."

As Sarah Palin and other conservatives lash out at the Fed this week, it's another reason to pine for Bush.

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