Monday, July 30, 2012

What Democrats Learned From Bush

Today, George W. Bush is widely regarded, by Democrats and Republicans alike, as a failed president.

Most Democrats tend to go beyond that point in their assessment; Republicans not quite so far. In the absence of a clear consensus, I suppose failed is a good, fairly middle–ground term.

One thing I noticed about Democrats in the Bush years was their growing frustration over constantly being in the minority. When Barack Obama came along, Democrats had reclaimed majority status in both chambers of Congress only two years earlier, and it had been 14 years since the Democrats controlled both Congress and the White House.

They craved what Bush had enjoyed for three–quarters of his presidency — a Congress of the president's party. It wasn't exactly a dictatorship, as Bush famously lamented, but when the Republicans controlled Congress, they frequently served as a rubber stamp for Bush.

And they deliberately divided Americans. If you supported Bush, they said, you were a patriot. But if you didn't agree with him, you were not a patriot.

Democrats learned the wrong things from the Bush experience. They saw Bush's smear of Kerry as the route to re–election.

During the 2008 campaign, I never felt comfortable with Obama. It had nothing to do with his race and everything to do with his policies and philosophy. Too far to the left for my taste. But, when he was elected, I was willing to give him a chance, the same chance I give every new president, whether I agree with him or not.

Patriots do that.

He has been given the same amount of time to implement his policies that most presidents have been given (except for those who were completing someone else's unfinished term) — four years.

Thus, I — and, frankly, anyone else who participates in this year's election — have no choice but to judge Obama on his record in office. Whether that record has been a success or failure will be up to the voters.

But you can get an idea of how Obama feels about it. It's the same record he avoids discussing at every opportunity. The president who campaigned four years ago on the theme of hope and change and the pledges of transparency and uniting Americans demonstrates daily that all he knows about seeking re–election he learned from George W. Bush.

I've seen his advertisements on television, and they are all attack ads.

I guess I expected more maturity from the Democrats, that they would have learned what not to do after being restored to power — especially when it became clear that economic conditions would be worse when Obama took office than they had been in more than half a century.

Even before the 2008 election, I was saying that the next president had to focus on encouraging job creation because very little can be accomplished in a consumer–based economy when the consumers can't afford to consume.

Anything else the next president wants to accomplish, I said, will have to wait until the jobs crisis has been dealt with.

It's four years later, and I'm saying the same thing. There's just more urgency now. And the majority of voters agree with me.

But Democrats in 2012 are acting like Republicans in 2004. Instead of presenting a vision for the future and legislation designed to achieve it, Obama is doing what Bush did.

Eight years ago, opponents of the president were dismissed as unpatriotic. Supporters of the president currently seeking a second term dismiss his critics as racists.

After being smeared as unpatriotic, I believe Democrats felt a certain amount of pressure (internally if not externally) to reassure voters of their dedication to homeland security in the first presidential election following 9/11. Consequently, they nominated John Kerry, a hero of the Vietnam War, to be their standard bearer in 2004.

To discredit the Democrats' nominee, the Republicans countered with their shameless swift boating smear.

If Democrats had made a really honest assessment of the Bush years, they would have concluded that it is essential to maintain Congress' independence, that it is crucial to discuss legislation in a full, open and candid way and that they must realize that presidents and their parties do not have the luxury of selecting the sort of times in which they must govern.

In 2007, Obama did not enter the race because of economics. He entered it primarily because of his opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Polls indicate that the majority of Americans — including many Republicans — have been pleased with Obama's handling of foreign affairs.

But that isn't the issue that matters to most Americans.

It is a different time, and the emphasis is on the economy — poll after poll has indicated, for well over a year, that the economy is the most important issue in the campaign. By far.

History demands that Obama must justify his economic agenda and its results through 3½ years. He must make the case — convincingly — that his policies are working. He can't just say they are and let it go at that.

"Circumstances rule men," Greek historian Herodotus wrote. "Men do not rule circumstances."

If you go back and look at the transcripts of the debates and speeches in the 2000 campaign, you will see that very little was said about terrorism — but it came to define the Bush presidency (and, consequently, Bush's bid for a second term). And the fact is that he did win a second term — but with highly questionable tactics that did not tell the voters much about what they could expect from a renewal of the Bush presidency.

His record helped him with just enough voters for him to win re–election by the narrowest Electoral College margin since 1916, but his conduct during the campaign was misleading and deceptive.

The economic data that has been accumulating has not helped Obama's economic record. Unemployment has been stuck at 8.2% for the last few months, and the Commerce Department reported Friday that GDP in the most recent quarter sagged to 1.5%.

"A growth rate below 2% isn't enough to lower the unemployment rate," writes Tom Raum in the Washington Post.

I'm not an economist. I can only guess that Raum knows more about this than I do. But we'll find out soon. The next jobs report comes out this Friday.

I'm not what you would call a gambling man. I've been to the race track a few times in my life, but I can't recall the last time I made even a friendly wager on something.

But if I was going to make a bet, I'd bet that no one in the White House is looking forward to Friday's jobs report.

After all, it is still the performance of the economy on which many Americans will be judging this president.

Some of the president's supporters cling to the notion that likability will be enough. But after more than four rough years, voters won't be satisfied that easily. This isn't about who you want to drink a beer with after work. This is about who will do the most to make sure you have a job.

But there are those who insist it is all racial. And they will try to distract voters from the record and make them believe that voting to change presidents is somehow the act of racists.

I'm not naive enough to believe that race does not play a role in the decisions of any voters. Certainly, there are some voters who will vote against Obama because of his race — just as there are some who will vote for him because of his race.

And that, it seems to me, makes the latter just as racist as the former. How else can you explain the nearly unanimous support the president enjoys in the black community?

Of course, Democrats have done well with black voters for decades, but never as well (or with as great a turnout) as Obama did four years ago. Were those voters being racist in reverse?

It's a divisive brand of politics. It's polarizing, and it does nothing to promote the post–racial society of which Obama spoke in 2008.

Or to tell voters what kind of president he will be in a second term.

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