February 4, 2008
By Alan W. Dowd
Before and after President George W. Bush’s final State of the Union address, his critics hammered away at his record. For instance, in their “pre-buttal,” delivered some four days before Monday’s State of the Union, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid took turns attacking Bush’s foreign policy, counterterrorism strategies, foreign-aid programs, education reforms and healthcare initiatives. Then, in her response to Bush’s address, Governor Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas declared, “The last five years have cost us dearly—in lives lost; in thousands of wounded warriors whose futures may never be the same; in challenges not met here at home because our resources were committed elsewhere.” And just before noting that Americans “have no more patience for divisive politics,” she added, “If more Republicans in Congress stand with us this year, we won’t have to wait for a new president to restore America’s role in the world, and fight a more effective war on terror.”
All of this is to be expected, and none of it is out of bounds, especially in an election year. However, the Left’s deep-down disgust with George W. Bush continues to amaze. After all, this is the man who, according to Peggy Noonan, “destroyed the Republican Party.” But even if Noonan has succumbed to a bit of rhetorical excess, there are other reasons the Left might, at least, appreciate the Bush presidency.
Take, for example, how he eschewed the realism embraced by the wise old men in his own party—the ones who bequeathed to him and his predecessor the radicalized chaos of Afghanistan, the “stability” of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the open-ended occupation of Saudi Arabia, the Middle East “peace process,” the measured responses to the mass-murder of Marines in Beirut—and instead pursued a foreign policy that looked and sounded more like Woodrow Wilson’s than that of the elder Bush.
“The world has a clear interest in the spread of democratic values, because stable and free nations do not breed the ideologies of murder,” he declared. “They encourage the peaceful pursuit of a better life.”
And there was more.
“The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands,” he intoned in 2005. “America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one… So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”
“It is presumptuous and insulting to suggest that a whole region of the world—or the one-fifth of humanity that is Muslim—is somehow untouched by the most basic aspirations of life,” he preached in the early days of his presidency, sounding positively Wilsonian.
But these weren’t mere words. There was action behind them: When the Left writes its history of the Bush presidency, there will be no mention that his was the first administration to officially call for the creation of a Palestinian state, long a cause championed by America’s Left. Of course, the tradeoff was that Bush refused to deal with Arafat and his terrorist brethren.
Bush launched genuine wars of liberation that freed women from a medieval monstrosity in Afghanistan and shut down a vast torture chamber in Iraq. In place of the Taliban and the Baathists, Bush propped up a pair of progressive, popular governments in the heart of the Muslim world, bolstering them with the sort of open-ended, nation-building efforts the Left once championed in places like Haiti and Bosnia and Kosovo. He created new aid programs to support pro-freedom elements behind Islam’s iron curtain. And he carried out a long-overdue withdrawal of troops from the theocratic thugocracy in Saudi Arabia.
His policies would be equally dramatic—and one would think, equally appealing to the Left—in the realm of arms control. The Left has always told us that nuclear arms reductions would solve the world’s problems. Well, Bush set America on a path to slash its nuclear arsenal from 7,000 warheads to just over 2,000, and convinced Moscow to do the same. It’s the sort of disarmament program Bush’s predecessors could only imagine but dared not attempt. So why isn’t the Left celebrating Bush’s sweeping reductions?
Likewise, the president’s critics on the Left overlook the development programs he poured into the chronically undeveloped world. “We must include every African, every Asian, every Latin American, every Muslim, in an expanding circle of development,” he explained. And then he increased and revitalized foreign aid with his Millennium Challenge Account program. He conceived and promoted huge new aid programs in Africa, devoting perhaps $45 billion to the global fight against AIDS.
Here at home, Bush supported something close to amnesty for illegal immigrants. The Right punished him for it, and the Left certainly didn’t applaud him.
Under his administration, albeit partly as a result of the forces unleashed by 9/11, federal spending grew from $1.9 trillion to about $3 trillion. But government growth was also aided by new entitlements like Medicare Part D, the widely popular and costly prescription benefit Bush endorsed, and new education spending under No Child Left Behind, which Bush promoted. In fact, in his first five years in office, as USA Today reported, Bush increased K-12 education spending by an average of seven percent annually—more than double the increases his predecessor achieved.
So the question remains: Why do liberals despise this big-government, big-spending, humanitarian, nation-building, idealistic, internationalist, arms-cutting president? And why do so many conservatives still defend him?
Ironically, the two sides may have the same reasons for their divergent opinions of this polarizing president.
First and foremost, Bush defeated two of the Left’s standard-bearers in bitterly contested elections.
In 2000, he refused to back down during the Orwellian post-election campaign of Al Gore, author and chief adherent of the global-warming creed. That endeared Bush to the Right and enraged the Left.
Then, Bush played hard ball in 2004, overcame incredibly high odds as an unpopular president presiding over an unpopular war, and defeated a liberal archetype in John Kerry.
These were Bush’s original—and unforgiveable—sins.
Speaking of sin, Bush openly talked about how Jesus changed his heart, how his evangelical faith shaped his decisions. Not coincidentally, he encouraged government agencies to make more room for faith-based groups. The Left’s reaction was predictable.
A 2003 piece in The Nation condemned Bush’s “heretical manipulation of religious language,” declaring that “Bush’s discourse coincides with that of the false prophets of the Old Testament.”
In 2006, Kevin Phillips, who never fails to remind us that he was a Republican strategist, concluded that “the White House is courting end-times theologians” and embracing “a crusading, simplistic Christianity.” “No leading world power in modern memory,” he inveighed, “has become a captive of the sort of biblical inerrancy that dismisses modern knowledge and science.”
But it was more than Bush’s religiousness, “manipulation” of religion, or connection with the evangelical wing of Christianity that drove the Left to dislike him so much. It had to be.
After all, Jimmy Carter openly shared his born-again, evangelical faith with Americans.
Likewise, Bill Clinton wore his faith on his sleeve. Indeed, in the post-Lewinsky era, he seemingly spent more time with evangelical pastors than he did with his cabinet and staff. As E.J. Dionne has observed, “Bill Clinton could quote Scripture with the best of them. Bill Clinton could preach with the best of them. He gave some very powerful speeches at Notre Dame, where he sounded Catholic; at African-American churches, where he sounded AME or Baptist…He quoted Scripture at least as much, if not more than George W. Bush does.”
Plus, it pays to recall that Bush’s faith-based programs have their roots in Clinton’s Charitable Choice reforms, which opened the way for religious charities to compete for federal grants and use federal resources to provide social services to those in need.
So what is it about Bush’s faith that provokes such venom? I would submit that much of it has to do with the way his faith informed his position on unborn life.
As a consequence, he would veto a bill that used tax dollars to fund the deliberate destruction of human embryos in support of stem-cell research. “Our conscience calls us to pursue the possibilities of science in a manner that respects human dignity and upholds our moral values,” he observed, reminding Congress of a timeless truth: Just because we can do something, just because science makes something possible, doesn’t mean we should do it.
Plus, Bush would appoint judges and justices that seemed open to pulling the plug on Roe. He would reinstate the ban on federal assistance to international abortion providers. His administration would notify states that Medicaid would no longer cover abortion pill RU486—and that states could provide medical coverage under the Children’s Health Insurance Program to “unborn children.” His administration would promote “embryo adoption.”
As others have observed, Roe is the Left’s Holy of Holies. To undermine it is to commit blasphemy and heresy and desecration.
Finally, the Left’s hatred of Bush has been propelled by his stalwart stance on what one observer shrewdly calls “the wars of 9/11”—the military operations that inevitably followed (and will continue to follow) the attacks on America’s homeland.
Again, the Left’s reaction was predictable. After all, since the 1960s, the Left has grown increasingly opposed to the use of American power. Viewing everything through the prism of Vietnam, the Left distrusts American power and sees war itself as the enemy.
In addition, the wars of 9/11 served as fuel for Bush’s black-and-white view of the world—even George Will calls him “our Manichean president”—which further alienated Bush from the Left. In this regard, it pays to recall that the postmodernism which captivates and animates much of the Left assures us that there are no differences between evil and good, no objective truth, no absolutes—except, of course, the absolute that claims there are no absolutes. Thus, someone who uses phrases like “Axis of Evil” and “evil doers” and “monumental struggle of good versus evil” and, as he did during his final State of the Union, “evil men who despise freedom,” is not likely to be embraced by those who see the world in shades of grey.
But those who believe there is good and evil, that force is not inherently evil, that there is even a time for war, would rally around such a president, which may explain why many conservatives still support the president and many liberals never did.