Nostalgia is a powerful force in American politics. Consider this year’s midterm elections. Democrats wanted to return to the Clinton years, when budgets were balanced and the economy was booming. Glenn Beck and his Tea Party followers yearned for a time before Woodrow Wilson. And while the rest of the Republican Party didn’t pledge to take the country back quite as far—the 1950s, for example, would do just fine—it still pledged to take the country back. For a lot of people, the past is preferable to the present.
But is our penchant for political pining expansive enough to encompass someone as seemingly irredeemable as, say, George W. Bush?
We’re about to find out. When Bush retired in 2009, the near consensus was that he—like the Vietnam War, the Teapot Dome scandal, or Millard Fillmore—was nostalgia-proof. The national debt stood at $11.3 trillion, more than double what it was when he took office. The economy hadn’t been so bad since the Great Depression. Inherited surpluses equal to 2.5 percent of GDP had become deficits equal to 3 percent of GDP. And Americans were still dying in two wars—one neglected, the other inexplicable. In Rolling Stone, historian Sean Wilentz awarded Bush the title of “worst president in history.” Many voters agreed: his final approval ratings hovered around 22 percent, a near-record low.
Over the next few months, however, the thinking on Bush is likely to be challenged. In fact, some voters—and politicians—might even find themselves longing for a return to the Inauspicious Aughties. In part that’s because the former president is releasing a memoir of his time in office, Decision Points, on Nov. 9. After nearly two years of silence, he’ll headline the Miami Book Fair, appear on Oprah, and enjoy the predictable softening of public sentiment that comes when an embattled figure emerges from the wilderness and starts spending a lot of time to promote his side of the story. But there’s a bigger reason that Bush nostalgia is about to become a very real phenomenon inside and outside the Beltway: the Tea Party. As far-right rookies like Rand Paul, Sharron Angle, and Ken Buck begin to arrive on Capitol Hill, as they’re expected to, both mainstream Republicans and Democrats will realize that, whatever their disagreements with the former president—real or fabricated—Dubya and his ilk would be far more constructive partners in governing than the new kids on the block.
Sure, John Boehner and Co. have spent the past few months distancing themselves from their old boss and pledging allegiance to a frugal, small-government philosophy. But that's because they needed to win over Tea Partiers, who claim that they were criticizing Dubya’s profligacy long before President Obama took office. The truth is that under Bush, all the probable incoming House leaders—Boehner (Speaker), Eric Cantor (Majority Leader), Darrell Issa (Oversight), Jerry Lewis (Appropriations), and Spencer Bachus (Financial Services)—fully supported the kind of big-government conservatism that Tea Partiers say they revile.
Their votes speak for themselves. In 2001, Boehner sponsored, and the rest of his crew supported, No Child Left Behind, a massive federal incursion into education, which Tea Partiers consider a purely local issue. Two years later, the entire gang voted for Medicare Part D, an unfunded multi-trillion-dollar drug-benefit program that the libertarian Cato Institute once called “the largest expansion of the entitlement state since the creation of Medicare itself.”
And then there was TARP; of the likely leadership, only Issa opposed it. Despite what Republicans might say to consolidate power, their record suggests that once they take the reins, their view of government will remain as expansive as it was in the Aughties. “For Bush the question was not government versus no government,” explains historian Julian Zelizer, “but rather, what priorities were most important.” If the GOP’s new base refuses to play along, the leadership could find itself wishing for foot soldiers who bear a stronger resemblance to Dubya than, say, Christine O’Donnell.
Even demoralized Democrats may soon discover that Bush doesn’t look so bad in retrospect—at least not compared to what they will likely have to contend with. While Obama spent much of his first two years in office blaming Bush for his problems, and Democratic candidates spent the entire midterm election trying in vain to run against the long-departed president, the left actually has a lot more in common with Dubya than with the Tea Party. In fact, Bush pursued many of the same policy initiatives that Democrats would like—but won’t get the chance—to pursue during the second half of Obama’s term.
The parallels are striking. During the 2008 campaign, Obama “guarantee[d]” Latinos that “in the first year” of his administration he would “have a [comprehensive] immigration bill,” and when that didn’t work out, he promised to address the problem in 2010. Now Tea Partiers are determined to kill any immigration plan that involves a pathway to citizenship. Meanwhile, Obama’s other major priority, reducing fossil-fuel usage, is probably on hold until his second term, if he wins one; few of the likely incoming Republicans believe in global warming. Even areas where Obama’s position is resolutely centrist—stabilizing Social Security to cut deficits; increasing standards and flexibility in education—seem unlikely to produce any compromises.
The funny thing is that if the new House were full of Bushes, Obama could potentially get some of this stuff done. In 2005, Bush offered illegal immigrants a path to citizenship with his failed push for comprehensive immigration reform. Recent reports have revealed that he actually supported a cap-and-trade system to curb greenhouse-gas emissions, a message that was dulled by others in the White House at the time. While his plan to privatize Social Security didn’t pass muster with Democrats, Bush did show that he was willing to tackle basic entitlement reform—a quality Obama may be craving after his deficit commission reports its recommendations in December and Republicans run for political cover. And overhauling No Child Left Behind would probably be easier if so many of the likely incoming members of Congress didn’t oppose its very existence. In other words, it won’t take long for Obama and the Democrats to realize they’d rather be dealing with Bush than with the Tea Party—even if they never admit it.
When the former president reemerges next week from his bunker (or mansion) in Dallas, the press will bombard him with all sorts of reassessments, recriminations, and retrospectives. The hubbub won’t alter Bush’s place in history; his record, after all, will forever be subpar. But given the storm that’s brewing on Capitol Hill, there’s a good chance that the political classes will change their tune about Dubya in the weeks and months ahead, at least in private. As a wise woman once put it, “don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?”