Two new polls out Wednesday comprise a startling finding: More Democrats now view George W. Bush favorably than unfavorably. An Economist-YouGov poll gives him a 51 percent favorability rating among Democrats; a Fox News poll puts him at 48 percent. Democrats’ estimation of the former president has risen at an increasing clip since President Trump entered the White House, but Bush’s favorability among Democrats seems to have jumped since a speech he gave last Thursday that criticized Trump (though not by name): “We have seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty,” he said. “Disagreement escalates into dehumanization. … We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism – forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America.”
Let’s be clear: Yes, Trump is even worse than Bush, and any denunciation of the current president’s hateful rhetoric is welcome. But viewing him favorably is a mistake.
Bush’s record is one of the worst in American history. He and his administration helped facilitate the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression. They misled the country into a war that cost tens of thousands of lives. They spied on Americans without warrants and violated legal prohibitions on torture. They botched the response to Hurricane Katrina, costing 1,800 lives while Bush talked about his FEMA director doing a “heckuva job.” They blew a budget surplus on tax cuts that failed to help the economy and exacerbated inequality. They gutted environmental regulations, distorted climate change science and lay down for companies to exploit natural resources at will. They exploited homophobia to drive up voter turnout. And in one of several scandals not out of place in the Trump administration, when it came to light that Bush’s Justice Department had fired nine U.S. attorneys for political reasons, Bush sheltered advisers under executive privilege. None of this deserves rehabilitation.
Furthermore, as Philip Bump pointed out, the same week Bush lamented a political debate “degraded by casual cruelty,” he appeared at fundraisers for Ed Gillespie, the Republican nominee for Virginia governor. Gillespie has adopted a Trump-esque approach to the general election, running ads deceptively linking illegal immigration and crime and trumpeting his support for Confederate statues. It seems Bush’s objections are based not on foolish policies or rude words, but merely whether the speaker is a friend of his.
This new view of Bush is part of a broader pattern of Democrats eulogizing the Republicans they once rightly ripped. In June, Joe Biden encouraged Mitt Romney to run for Senate. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) recently joked that “Wouldn’t it be nice if [Romney] were president of the United States?” Remember, Romney accepted Trump’s endorsement long after the latter had fueled the “birther” smears against President Barack Obama. Romney waged an unsuccessful campaign to run Trump’s State Department, eight months after Romney made a show of calling Trump a “fraud.” Romney’s domestic policy overlapped heavily with Trump’s, and whatever foreign policy differences they had are mooted by Romney’s groveling for secretary of state. Even Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — who at least deserved a little praise for voting against the Obamacare repeal — should always have his legacy tied up in choosing as his running mate Sarah Palin, who more than any other politician over the past decade paved the way for Trump.
To rehabilitate Bush and other former GOP standard-bearers is to perpetuate a false divide between Trumpism and Republicanism. “Blame Washington” has become “drain the swamp” — empty slogans giving a populist sheen to anti-populist policies. Mismanagement and corruption have only worsened; while a few Republicans dislike the president, there has been barely a peep at his Cabinet’s multiple scandals and failures. Subtly prejudiced policies have remained subtly prejudiced policies, albeit with a party leader who doesn’t understand subtlety. To rehabilitate Bush is to let Trump reset the boundaries of what is acceptable in policy and in politics. No one should be in favor of that.