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.
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.