For a couple of years, it was the love that dared not speak his name. In 2008, Republican candidates hardly ever mentioned the president still sitting in the White House. After the election, the G.O.P. did its best to shout down all talk about how we got into the mess we’re in, insisting that we needed to look forward, not back. And many in the news media played along, acting as if it was somehow uncouth for Democrats even to mention the Bush era and its legacy.
The truth, however, is that the only problem Republicans ever had with George W. Bush was his low approval rating. They always loved his policies and his governing style – and they want them back. In recent weeks, G.O.P. leaders have come out for a complete return to the Bush agenda, including tax breaks for the rich and financial deregulation. They’ve even resurrected the plan to cut future Social Security benefits.
But they have a problem: how can they embrace President Bush’s policies, given his record? After all, Mr. Bush’s two signature initiatives were tax cuts and the invasion of Iraq; both, in the eyes of the public, were abject failures. Tax cuts never yielded the promised prosperity, but along with other policies – especially the unfunded war in Iraq – they converted a budget surplus into a persistent deficit. Meanwhile, the W.M.D. we invaded Iraq to eliminate turned out not to exist, and by 2008 a majority of the public believed not just that the invasion was a mistake but that the Bush administration deliberately misled the nation into war. What’s a Republican to do?
You know the answer. There’s now a concerted effort under way to rehabilitate Mr. Bush’s image on at least three fronts: the economy, the deficit and the war.
On the economy: Last week Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, declared that "there’s no evidence whatsoever that the Bush tax cuts actually diminished revenue. They increased revenue, because of the vibrancy of these tax cuts in the economy." So now the word is that the Bush-era economy was characterized by "vibrancy."
I guess it depends on the meaning of the word "vibrant." The actual record of the Bush years was (i) two and half years of declining employment, followed by (ii) four and a half years of modest job growth, at a pace significantly below the eight-year average under Bill Clinton, followed by (iii) a year of economic catastrophe. In 2007, at the height of the "Bush boom," such as it was, median household income, adjusted for inflation, was still lower than it had been in 2000.
But the Bush apologists hope that you won’t remember all that. And they also have a theory, which I’ve been hearing more and more – namely, that President Obama, though not yet in office or even elected, caused the 2008 slump. You see, people were worried in advance about his future policies, and that’s what caused the economy to tank. Seriously.
On the deficit: Republicans are now claiming that the Bush administration was actually a paragon of fiscal responsibility, and that the deficit is Mr. Obama’s fault. "The last year of the Bush administration," said Mr. McConnell recently, "the deficit as a percentage of gross domestic product was 3.2 percent, well within the range of what most economists think is manageable. A year and a half later, it’s almost 10 percent."
But that 3.2 percent figure, it turns out, is for fiscal 2008 – which wasn’t the last year of the Bush administration, because it ended in September of 2008. In other words, it ended just as the failure of Lehman Brothers – on Mr. Bush’s watch – was triggering a broad financial and economic collapse. This collapse caused the deficit to soar: By the first quarter of 2009 – with only a trickle of stimulus funds flowing – federal borrowing had already reached almost 9 percent of G.D.P. To some of us, this says that the economic crisis that began under Mr. Bush is responsible for the great bulk of our current deficit. But the Republican Party is having none of it.
Finally, on the war: For most Americans, the whole debate about the war is old if painful news – but not for those obsessed with refurbishing the Bush image. Karl Rove now claims that his biggest mistake was letting Democrats get away with the "shameful" claim that the Bush administration hyped the case for invading Iraq. Let the whitewashing begin!
Again, Republicans aren’t trying to rescue George W. Bush’s reputation for sentimental reasons; they’re trying to clear the way for a return to Bush policies. And this carries a message for anyone hoping that the next time Republicans are in power, they’ll behave differently. If you believe that they’ve learned something – say, about fiscal prudence or the importance of effective regulation – you’re kidding yourself. You might as well face it: they’re addicted to Bush.
Paul Krugman is professor of Economics and International Affairs at Princeton University and a regular columnist for The New York Times. Krugman was the 2008 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics. He is the author of numerous books, including The Conscience of A Liberal, and his most recent, The Return of Depression Economics.