Bush Begat the Tea Party; Obama Can’t Deal With It

Did the rebellion against big government really begin more than a decade ago?

National Journal
Beth Reinhard and Michael Hirsh
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Beth Reinhard Michael Hirsh
Oct. 3, 2013, 2:35 a.m.

The gov­ern­ment is closed.

There’s really no bet­ter way to il­lus­trate the per­vas­ive dys­func­tion that for years now has gripped Wash­ing­ton. After years of shut­down threats, debt-ceil­ing stan­doffs, fili­busters, dead-end le­gis­la­tion, and end­less pos­tur­ing — on the floor, on cable news, on talk ra­dio, on Twit­ter — both sides have suc­ceeded, fi­nally, in bring­ing things to a crash­ing halt.

And for many, both in this town and out­side of it, the per­sist­ent, po­lar­ized en­vir­on­ment is ac­cep­ted with a shrug.

But it wasn’t al­ways this way. And it didn’t just hap­pen. A hand­ful of Wash­ing­ton play­ers bear in­or­din­ate re­spons­ib­il­ity for the state we’re in. We’ve asked eight Na­tion­al Journ­al writers to name names — to identi­fy the people who broke Wash­ing­ton. This week, we’re post­ing the res­ults. Dis­agree with the choices? Nom­in­ate your own here.

George W. Bush: He Gave Rise to the Tea Party

Dur­ing his five years in of­fice, Pres­id­ent Obama has of­ten blamed his prob­lems on what George W. Bush left him with: two wars, a his­tor­ic re­ces­sion, an out-of-con­trol fin­an­cial sys­tem and a huge budget de­fi­cit. But W.’s most en­dur­ing leg­acy to his suc­cessor may have been the tea party move­ment, and the polit­ic­al dys­func­tion that it has brought.

That may seem an odd con­clu­sion. Today Obama is the cent­ral vil­lain in tea-party rhet­or­ic, and Bush is hardly ever men­tioned. Yet the re­bel­lion against Big Gov­ern­ment that the tea party has come to em­body really began more than a dec­ade ago with a grow­ing sense of be­tray­al among con­ser­vat­ives over Bush’s run­away-spend­ing habits. Con­ser­vat­ives were angered by his re­fus­al to veto any spend­ing bills, es­pe­cially in his first term, not to men­tion what happened dur­ing the nearly six years of GOP con­trol of the Sen­ate and House from 2000 to ‘06, when fed­er­al spend­ing grew to a re­cord $2.7 tril­lion, more than doub­ling the in­crease dur­ing Bill Clin­ton’s two terms. The fi­nal out­rage that lit the brush­fires of tea-party fer­vor was Bush’s spon­sor­ship of the $700 bil­lion Troubled As­set Re­lief Pro­gram in the fall of 2008, just be­fore he left of­fice, in or­der to bail out Wall Street.

(Photo by Brendan Smia­lowski/Getty Im­ages)

It is ar­gu­ably true that Pres­id­ent Obama’s de­cision in 2009 to pile a gi­ant stim­u­lus and a new na­tion­al health-care pro­gram on top of TARP trans­formed those brush­fires in­to a true na­tion­al con­flag­ra­tion — and a move­ment. But in real­ity Obama’s ac­tions were more like a tip­ping point, many con­ser­vat­ives say. “This so­cial and polit­ic­al phe­nomen­on of the tea parti­ers was burn­ing all through the Bush years,” Re­id Buckley, broth­er of the late Wil­li­am F. Buckley and the self-ap­poin­ted keep­er of his flame as a fath­er of mod­ern con­ser­vat­ism, said in a 2010 in­ter­view. “It’s a long-term slow boil that has dis­af­fected most people who call them­selves con­ser­vat­ives. There’s noth­ing I have against Pres­id­ent Obama that in this I wouldn’t charge Bush with.”

It wasn’t just spend­ing of course. Bush also built the in­trus­ive post-9/11 na­tion­al-se­cur­ity state that Obama has em­braced, and which a grow­ing num­ber liber­tari­an tea parti­ers have come to hate, in­clud­ing Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency sur­veil­lance and a pro­gram of fre­quent but secret drone strikes.

True, on many is­sues, Bush gained en­thu­si­ast­ic con­ser­vat­ive sup­port. Among them were his hawk­ish re­sponse to the 9/11 ter­ror­ist at­tacks; his aban­don­ment of the Kyoto Pro­tocol and res­ist­ance to do­mest­ic ef­forts to re­duce the car­bon emis­sions linked to cli­mate change; his con­ser­vat­ive nom­in­ees to the Su­preme Court; the two large tax cuts he passed in 2001 and 2003 (the lat­ter was the first tax cut ap­proved dur­ing war­time in Amer­ic­an his­tory); and above all, his 2005 at­tempt to re­struc­ture So­cial Se­cur­ity, the pil­lar of the pub­lic so­cial safety net, in­to a pro­gram that re­lied less on gov­ern­ment and more on mar­kets to de­liv­er eco­nom­ic se­cur­ity.

Yet throughout his pres­id­ency, Bush was far more com­fort­able with an as­sert­ive role for Wash­ing­ton than many con­ser­vat­ives were. They re­coiled from his pro­pos­als to ex­pand the fed­er­al role in edu­ca­tion, cre­ate a pre­scrip­tion-drug be­ne­fit un­der Medi­care and es­tab­lish a path­way to cit­izen­ship for mil­lions of il­leg­al im­mig­rants.

On some of these is­sues — es­pe­cially the post-9/11 re­sponse and the war in Ir­aq — a sense of pat­ri­ot­ism and party loy­alty papered over grow­ing con­ser­vat­ive dis­con­tent with Bush’s fisc­al ir­re­spons­ib­il­ity and na­tion­al-se­cur­ity reck­less­ness. But the fis­sures in the party were quietly widen­ing. Among the con­ser­vat­ives who cooled on Bush were some of today’s in­tel­lec­tu­al cham­pi­ons of the tea party, such as Jim De­Mint, the former sen­at­or from South Car­o­lina who now heads the Her­it­age Found­a­tion and is a lead­ing play­er in the Obama­care stan­doff; and Tom Coburn, the zeal­ously fisc­ally con­ser­vat­ive sen­at­or from Ok­lahoma. For De­Mint, Bush’s TARP and stim­u­lus in the fall of 2008 were “the last straw” in his dis­af­fec­tion from Bush, an aide to the sen­at­or said. “There’s a lot of af­fec­tion for Bush be­cause of how pas­sion­ately he fought the war on ter­ror. But as far as do­mest­ic policy goes, con­ser­vat­ives felt be­trayed.” Coburn, in a speech on the Sen­ate floor in Oc­to­ber 2005, in­veighed against the re­morse­less ear­mark­ing of his fel­low Re­pub­lic­ans and the spend­ing of the Re­pub­lic­an-con­trolled White House. “All change starts with a dis­tant rumble, a rumble at the grass­roots level, and if you stop and listen today, you will hear such a rumble,” he said.

Coburn spoke then of “com­mit­tees full of out­raged cit­izens” form­ing in the heart­land. He sup­por­ted the Pork­busters move­ment led by Glenn Reyn­olds, a blog­ger (In­sta­pun­dit) and law pro­fess­or from Ten­ness­ee, which re­sembled a dress re­hears­al for the tea party move­ment. “It star­ted when Re­pub­lic­ans were in charge,” Coburn told Na­tion­al Journ­al a few years ago. He ad­ded that Bush’s “Medi­care pre­scrip­tion drug plan — that was the worst thing ima­gin­able, $13 tril­lion in un­fun­ded li­ab­il­it­ies.”

George W. Bush left be­hind many bale­ful legacies, among them a $3 tril­lion war in Ir­aq that didn’t need to be fought, and the worst fin­an­cial crisis since the Great De­pres­sion. But he also helped to frac­ture his own party — and thus Wash­ing­ton.

-Mi­chael Hirsh


Barack Obama: A Di­vider, Not a Uniter

Mr. Pres­id­ent,

We thought you were dif­fer­ent, but you turned out to be like all the oth­ers. You prom­ised hope and change, but we trust gov­ern­ment even less than be­fore. You offered a new brand of post-par­tis­an gov­ern­ing, but the red states and blue states are farther apart than ever.

Wash­ing­ton was a mess when you ar­rived in Janu­ary of 2009, but by break­ing your prom­ises and, frankly, our hearts, you made it worse.

You vowed to ban lob­by­ists from the White House only to sneak them in through loop­holes.

You barred cor­por­ate dona­tions to the first in­aug­ur­a­tion but let the spe­cial in­terest money rain down the second time around. You even learned to love su­per PACs.

How could you?

Signed,

Hope­less and Changed (for the worse)

“The Obama brand was presen­ted to Amer­ic­an pub­lic as a new and uni­fy­ing force in Amer­ic­an polit­ics, but he’s turned out to be an ab­so­lutely con­ven­tion­al politi­cian,” said Re­pub­lic­an con­sult­ant Kev­in Mad­den, who ad­vised Mitt Rom­ney’s un­suc­cess­ful pres­id­en­tial cam­paigns in 2008 and 2012. “He’s been very di­vis­ive.”

(Chip So­mod­ev­illa/Getty Im­ages

This week’s gov­ern­ment shut­down rep­res­ents a new low in Wash­ing­ton, re­in­for­cing how little gets done and every­one hates each oth­er. And while polls show that Re­pub­lic­ans in Con­gress still get more of the blame, Amer­ic­ans are in­creas­ingly point­ing the fin­ger at the Oval Of­fice.

A re­cent Bloomberg sur­vey found that 40 per­cent blame the GOP for what’s wrong in Wash­ing­ton, while 38 per­cent blame the pres­id­ent and con­gres­sion­al Demo­crats. Back in Feb­ru­ary, Obama had a nine-point edge over Re­pub­lic­ans and in­de­pend­ents were evenly di­vided over who was re­spons­ible. Now, 42 per­cent of in­de­pend­ents fault with Obama and his al­lies in Con­gress, while 34 per­cent blame Re­pub­lic­ans on Cap­it­ol Hill.

The latest CNN poll found a sim­il­ar trend, with the per­cent­age who blame con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans for a gov­ern­ment shut­down down five points and the per­cent who blame Obama up three points.

“At some point when your team is los­ing, you don’t blame the in­di­vidu­al play­ers. You blame the coach,” said Re­pub­lic­an lob­by­ist Vin Weber, a seni­or fel­low at the Humphrey School of Pub­lic Af­fairs at the Uni­versity of Min­nesota. “There’s a flaw in lead­er­ship, wheth­er it’s be­cause of ideo­logy or in­ex­per­i­ence.”

Per­haps Obama’s biggest fail­ing has been his in­ab­il­ity to build re­la­tion­ships and make deals on Cap­it­ol Hill—a short­com­ing in sharp re­lief dur­ing the on­go­ing de­bate over a health care law that didn’t win a single Re­pub­lic­an vote. Even Demo­crat­ic mem­bers com­plain they get short shrift from a de­tached White House and that Obama’s cru­sade for the con­tro­ver­sial health care law laid the ground­work for the rise of an in­transigent tea party.

Long­time lob­by­ist Charlie Black noted that it was Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden who reached a last-minute agree­ment with Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell to avoid the so-called fisc­al cliff at the start of this year.

“The pres­id­ent wasted 17 months, and in one week­end the old pros made a deal,” Black said. “All the pres­id­ent knows how to do is cam­paign and at­tack.”

Re­pub­lic­ans point to a few key mo­ments in which the pres­id­ent’s tone and tim­ing in­flic­ted dam­age. Only three weeks after a lofty in­aug­ur­a­tion speech, he ripped Re­pub­lic­an crit­ics of his eco­nom­ic stim­u­lus plan at a Demo­crat­ic re­treat in 2009. “We’re not go­ing to get re­lief by turn­ing back to the very same policies that, for the last eight years, doubled the na­tion­al debt and threw our eco­nomy in­to a tailspin,” he said. Two years later, he lit in­to the Re­pub­lic­an de­fi­cit-re­duc­tion plan in a speech, as House Budget Com­mit­tee Chair­man Paul Ry­an awk­wardly sat in the front row. Last month, just a few hours after the mass shoot­ing at the Wash­ing­ton Navy Yard, the pres­id­ent un­loaded on Re­pub­lic­ans for fail­ing to agree to a spend­ing plan. “Are they really will­ing to hurt people just to score polit­ic­al points?” he de­man­ded.

Obama’s tend­ency to im­pugn Re­pub­lic­an motives—in­stead of at­trib­ut­ing con­flict to a dif­fer­ent view of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment’s role or con­trast­ing eco­nom­ic philo­sophy—has helped erode what little good will was left between the two parties when he took of­fice.

“I was ac­tu­ally hope­ful that some­how he would change the en­vir­on­ment, but in­stead he ex­acer­bated an already per­il­ous situ­ation,” said former Sen. Norm Cole­man, R-Minn., chair­man of the board of the Amer­ic­an Ac­tion Net­work. “He offered the greatest op­por­tun­ity and the greatest prom­ise, and if you look at the dis­tance from the prom­ise to where we’ve des­cen­ded, that says it all.”

In fair­ness to Obama, few Re­pub­lic­ans were will­ing to give him a chance. The re­mark that seemed to en­cap­su­late the GOP’s all-con­sum­ing hos­til­ity came from Mc­Con­nell, who told Na­tion­al Journ­al in 2010: “The single most im­port­ant thing we want to achieve is for Pres­id­ent Obama to be a one-term pres­id­ent.”

Obama’s former deputy press sec­ret­ary, Bill Bur­ton, said it’s im­possible to reach com­prom­ises with tea-party con­ser­vat­ives seek­ing con­trol of the Re­pub­lic­an Party.

“There’s a false idea that if the pres­id­ent spent more time play­ing golf with [House Speak­er] John Boehner or hav­ing cock­tails with [Sen.] Ted Cruz that all this an­im­os­ity would be papered over,” Bur­ton said. “There have been no will­ing part­ners.”

-Beth Re­in­hard

Who do you think broke Wash­ing­ton? Tell us here.

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