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

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

President Obama and former President George W. Bush arrive at the opening ceremony of the George W. Bush Presidential Center April 25, 2013 in Dallas, Texas. The Bush library, which is located on the campus of Southern Methodist University, with more than 70 million pages of paper records, 43,000 artifacts, 200 million emails and four million digital photographs, will be opened to the public on May 1, 2013. The library is the 13th presidential library in the National Archives and Records Administration system.
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?


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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