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

The rebellion against big government really began more than a decade ago with a growing sense of betrayal among conservatives over Bush’s runaway spending habits.

U.S. President George W. Bush makes a statement on the South Lawn of the White House December 5, 2008 in Washington, DC. President Bush spoke about the economy being in a recession and the current jobless rate.
National Journal
Michael Hirsh
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Michael Hirsh
Oct. 3, 2013, 2:05 a.m.

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.

Who do you think broke Wash­ing­ton? Tell us here.

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