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Bush: Year One in review

By W. James Antle III
web posted January 21, 2002

Bush celebrated his first year in office on January 20, following his inauguration as the 43rd President of the United States one year ago on January 20, 2001
Bush celebrated his first year in office on January 20, following his inauguration as the 43rd President of the United States one year ago on January 20, 2001

You may recall that when George W. Bush was running for president, I was something less than a cheerleader for his candidacy. I questioned his conservative credentials, flirted with various third-party options and challenged the premise of his candidacy (i.e., his appeal to people outside the Republican base). How has he done after a year in office?

President Bush has been more conservative than any postwar president other than Ronald Reagan. His record compares favorably to Republicans Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. Only Reagan had more impressive domestic policy accomplishments at this juncture of his presidency. This has to be admitted, even by Bush's critics on the right.

The Bush tax cut was not ideal. It did not cut taxes nearly enough as a percentage of the economy or in terms of the overall marginal-rate reduction. Lower marginal income tax rates do not occur quickly enough, to the detriment of the economy. The tax-rate increases of the 1990s were not repealed. But it marked the first time marginal income tax rates were cut since 1986. Its passage came even after Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-VT) decided to bolt the Republican Party and despite the opposition of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and liberal Sen. Lincoln Chaffee (R-RI). Although even the original proposal - which was reduced to win centrist support - could have been much larger, the tax reduction as it passed was larger than most observers anticipated.

Not even the probable reemergence of the budget deficit has caused Bush to yield to Democratic calls to abort supply-side tax cuts going to upper-income taxpayers. To forgo such tax cuts as advised by Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) would impact investment decisions and job creation. Roughly 80 percent of those who would be hit by higher taxes are business owners filing individual returns, who represent the small businesses responsible for 82 percent of net job growth since the 1980s. Bush's tax cut, if maintained, will allow the economy to perform better than it would without it. Risk-takers will find better returns on their investments and there will be greater incentives for productive economic behavior.

On government spending, Bush has not been ideal either. Yet he has shown sounder instincts on this front than either the Democrats or congressional Republicans. When, pre-9/11, he sought to limit most increases in federal spending to 4 percent, Republican appropriators joined their Democratic analogues in revolt. Even post-9/11, most of Bush's proposed spending increases are in constitutionally mandated areas such as national defense, with a handful of exceptions, such as his horrible education bill (that Teddy Kennedy loves it tells you all you need to know) and the unconscionable airlines' bailout. A willingness to confront government spending has never been one of Bush's strong suits, but it is worth noting that everyone else wielding considerable Beltway heft is worse.

Bush should be applauded for withdrawing from the obsolete ABM treaty. Not only is this a crucial first step toward building a meaningful missile defense, but also the withdrawal was completed without worsening our relations with Russia or even impairing the administration's working relationship with Democrats who are serious about foreign policy. The president also appointed a very able commission to advance the idea of free-market reform of Social Security, touching what was previously thought to be the third rail of American politics. It is to his credit that he has not allowed the Democrats to talk him out of this idea based on misleading rhetoric about recent stock market performance.

Many of Bush's appointments have been stellar. His administration contains such luminaries as Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice and John Ashcroft. Conservatives concerned about the policy distance between Rumsfeld and Powell should recall the similar relationship between Caspar Weinberger and George Schultz during the Reagan years. Mitch Daniels has been a tough budget director, perhaps the best since Jim Miller during Reagan's second term. Among Bush's best lower-level appointments are Kay Cole James, Otto Reich (unjustifiably slurred by Chris Dodd, D-CT), civil rights commissioner Peter Kirsanow and Michael Powell, son of Colin.

As his dazzlingly high job-approval ratings attest, Bush has been a remarkably unifying wartime leader. He has conducted himself with both resolve (committing forces to Afghanistan and trouncing the Taliban, in contradiction of conventional wisdom) and restraint (not waging war against Islam or the entire Arab world) while speaking forcefully and compassionately to the nation following unspeakable terrorist violence. Only Rudy Giuliani was a more compelling and comforting public official following the 9/11 attacks.

Bush repudiated dumb Clinton policies in areas such as the ridiculous Kyoto treaty, demonstrating his willingness to make coalitions when necessary (as in the war on terrorism) but act unilaterally in the US interest when that is necessary too (as in this instance). He has moved away from Clinton's legacy-seeking coddling of Yasser Arafat and has moved toward a truer even-handedness in the region: Understanding of the Palestinians' desire for self-government while supportive of the Israelis' campaign against terrorism.

This president has also done as much as politically possible to advance the pro-life cause, staking out a morally defensible if practically risky compromise on embryonic stem-cell research while coupling it with an eloquent televised defense of the sanctity of human life. He has signaled his support for popular abortion restrictions and reinstated the Mexico City policy. His quiet but forceful movements on this issue are part of the reason The Washington Post can report that he has emerged as the new leader of religious conservatives.

Of course, Bush has not been perfect. Ramesh Ponnuru summarized some of his faults remarkably well in National Review: "But Bush and the conservative movement share weaknesses: a reluctance to challenge liberal pieties concerning race; failure to exploit the full potential of the new investor class; blindness to the costs of continuous mass immigration; lack of zeal to shrink government; a reactive approach to health care; and a general lack of creativity."

Nearly every failing of the Bush presidency has revolved along these lines. Bush has been foolish to promote an ill thought out plan to amnesty illegal immigrants. His faith-based initiative degenerated from a remarkable idea that would shift resources from the welfare state to institutions that really have life-changing power to a Great Society-like giveaway program likely to threaten religious liberty in the long term. While he has made good appointments to civil-rights positions he has been unwilling to show leadership on racial preferences himself.

While Bush resisted the worst statist impulses following 9/11, portions of the PATRIOT Act weakened constitutional protections and created bad precedents future administrations are sure to follow. Simply because powers are not currently being abused does not mean that they will not be in the future. Bush and Ashcroft have given both civil libertarians and security-obsessed statists reasons to criticize them, but greater consideration of the Bill of Rights is in order.

Bush has thus far exceeded expectations, including my own, while demonstrating a degree of humility, dignity and class that has been missing from the office of the presidency in recent years. He deserves to be supported, but not uncritically. Let us hope that he continues to build on his successes while the conservative movement regains its voice to influence him positively in other areas.

Consider this observation from Ponnuru: "Conservatives should be grateful Bush is as conservative as he is, since they have no independent political power to force him to be. As they celebrate Bush's successes, they might profitably worry about their own failures."

Conservatives have heeded Ponnuru on the former. It remains to be seen if they hear the latter.

W. James Antle III is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right and can be reached at wjantle@enterstageright.com.

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