As the nation arrives, for the first time since 1825, at the end of consecutive eight-year presidencies, a summing up of the second of them must begin with this fact: Not since Abraham Lincoln's has an administration been so defined by a single subject as George W. Bush's has been by the Iraq War, which the country now thinks was improvidently begun and incompetently conducted. Historical judgments are, however, subject to history's contingencies, and if, a decade hence, Iraq has a nonsectarian regime controlled by a multiparty, recognizably democratic process, and if this exerts an improving tug on the region, Americans might then consider the war at least partially redeemed.
If history's judgment is that the war was positively related to the fact that there was no attack on America after 9/11, then history's judgment of the commander in chief will be much less severe than today's unhinged critics of him can imagine. Furthermore, some, and perhaps many, Americans probably are alive today because persons conspiring to commit mass murder were thwarted by the president's ferocious focus after 9/11.
He believes that America has "a calling from beyond the stars to stand for freedom." But "standing for" does not entail "exporting." To stroll in Arlington cemetery among headstones recording deaths during the appallingly named "Operation Iraqi Freedom" is infuriating: No American should have died for freedom in Iraq, and none did. All who sacrificed there did so for the security of America's freedom. The "nation building" there has been a learning experience, teaching Americans to recoil from suggested repetitions.
The administration's failures in responding to Hurricane Katrina were real but secondary to, and less shocking than, the manifold derelictions of duties by the governments of Louisiana and New Orleans. A failed nomination to the Supreme Court, that of Harriet Miers, was, however, indicative of the obduracy, arrogance and frivolity that at times characterized this administration. On the other hand, among Bush's excellent legacies, gifts that might keep on giving for decades, are two justices—John Roberts and Sam Alito.
Within the lifetimes of most Americans now living, today's media-manufactured alarm about man-made global warming might be an embarrassing memory. The nation will then be better off because Bush—during whose administration the embarrassing planet warmed not at all—refused to be stampeded toward costly "solutions" to a supposed crisis that might be chimerical, and that, if real, could be adapted for considerably less cost than will be sunk in efforts at prevention.
Just as Bill Clinton's presidency was costly for the Democratic Party, which had fewer senators, representatives, governors and state legislators when he left the White House than when he entered it, Bush's presidency has taken a terrific toll on the Republican Party's sense of itself. Consider:
By grafting a prescription-drug entitlement on to Medicare, just as the demographic deluge of the baby boomers' retirements was beginning, the president expanded the welfare state more than any president since Lyndon Johnson created Medicare in 1965. By signing every grotesque spending measure that arrived on his desk with the support of a majority of congressional Republicans—e.g., the 2002 farm bill that increased corporate welfare for agriculture at a time of record farm profits —the president committed his party to a situational ethic of governance that amounts to no ethic at all. By signing the McCain-Feingold speech-rationing (a.k.a. "campaign reform") legislation, the president violated his oath to defend the Constitution. By federalizing the family tragedy of Terri Schiavo, the president and some congressional allies made risible their stock of rhetoric in praise of limited government. By enacting the No Child Left Behind law, which is the thin end of a potentially enormous wedge, the administration licensed potentially unlimited federal supervision of the quintessentially local responsibility of education in grades K through 12, thereby further weakening federalism. And by presiding, in its last four months, over more and more flamboyant government intervention in the economy than at any time in 75 years, the administration completed the GOP's intellectual disarmament.
Actually, however, the contraction and self-marginalization of the Republican Party began before Bush entered office. In 2000, he became the first Republican to win the presidency while losing the North. In 2004, when he won re-election by winning Ohio, that was the only large state he carried outside the South. That year Bush became the first president since his father in 1988 to win more than 50 percent of the vote. This was a costly achievement, attained by embracing a sterile template of politics: Get your base riled up—it does not much matter about what—and hope that your base is a bit larger and angrier than the other party's, and that swing voters are a small slice of the turnout.
The president does not depart an angry man. He takes his leave with the serenity of someone sustained by a providential sense of history, as well as by wide reading of presidential histories, which contain many accounts of miseries. He leaves in eager anticipation of resuming life where he has been happiest, deep in the heart of Texas.