A Matter of Trust

Repeating the old party line, Politico goes the extra mile to delegitimize President Obama’s indictment of the Republican Party’s history of fiscal irresponsibility:

President Barack Obama is trying to ride the wave of anti-incumbency by taking on an unpopular politician steeped in the partisan ways of Washington.

It doesn’t matter that George W. Bush left office 16 months ago. [. . . .]

Obama cranked up his indictment of the GOP in Ohio this week, criticizing “the ‘just say no’ crowd” and the Republicans’ “selective memory” of the economy in January 2009.

The message is layered. A shot at Bush (without mentioning his name.) A jab at congressional Republicans (although rarely saying “Republicans.”) A defense of the actions he’s taken so far.

The New Republic hits on why “Bush-blaming” remains relevant, from a causal standpoint: if you break a guy’s legs, you can’t call him a whiner for bowing out of a marathon the very next week. And you can’t act appalled when he points to you as the reason why.

But the relevance of Bush’s record runs deeper still, making the former President “fair game” for at least one additional, vital reason: the Republican Party has given the electorate no cause to think that they’ve learned their lesson. It’s not like we haven’t heard the “small government” argument before. Maintaining the Clinton surplus was a key point of Bush’s campaign — and yet his first domestic priority, once elected, was to broker a hyper-partisan upper-class tax cut that, because it wasn’t offset by coordinate spending cuts, immediately swallowed half the surplus. Bush never even attempted to live up to the organizing principle of his entire campaign. Why should the next guy be any different?

Nor has the GOP made any real apology for its performance in office. This is a matter of basic responsibility. Republicans can either admit that Bush was a failed president and strive to distinguish themselves, thus earning the right to live down his legacy; or they can defend his performance on the merits, and attempt to avoid the blame issue altogether. Instead, they’re asking the American people to “forgive-and-forget,” but without ever actually conceding wrongdoing. Rhetorically brilliant, maybe, but a more dishonest approach to the politics of failure than anything that can be attributed to the Democrats.

Remarkably, it’s probably going to work — as long as we keep treating Bush as the problem.

He’s not. Really, he’s not. He’s just the symptom of the larger problem, that small-government conservatism, while attractive, remains, for whatever reason, impractical. Call it human nature, but no mainline conservative politician has thus far had the will to execute the second, painful step of the “cut taxes/cut spending” plan. Reagan couldn’t. Bush couldn’t. Why should we trust the next guy? We shouldn’t — especially because the GOP still won’t admit that the last guys did anything wrong. Until that happens, Bush will remain relevant to prove that, even if the conservative message sounds appealing, it’s never going to happen.

Or, in his words, fool me once…



  1. “Bush never even attempted to live up to the organizing principle of his entire campaign. Why should the next guy be any different?”

    So that’s the motto for the Obama years?

    1. It is honest at least.

  2. The reason small government doesn’t work is because what every choose to do it requires legislation. In order for the legislation to be effective it needs funding. In order to get funding it will need a budgetary committee. Once it has budgetary funding it will require an office to implement and enforce the legislation. If you try to legislate for a smaller government you will end up with the Office of Small Government which will about 12,000 people and have an annual budget of $800,000,000

  3. Pi makes an interesting assumption, but changing the size of government is not that complex or hard. One of the few things Ames didn’t pick up on, which always amused me as a fed, is that both Clinton and Bush (43) shrank the “size” of government by shifting work from federal employees to contractors (who often sit in the same buildings, eat in the same cafeterias, etc). And, like it or not, if either Party ever got serious about shrinking government and passing a balanced budget, there are already legal mechanisms in place to let federal workers go.

    Now, having said that, I have a bone to pick ames – Democrats are just as guilty here, in that they don’t often really change the landscape. Sure, they do have a better track record of trying to match spending to receipts – mostly by raising taxes. But there’s nothing in Mr. Obama’s budget trajectory to suggest he had the slightest interest in balanced budgets, especially since he needs deficits to help recover the economy and pay for a war or two.

    1. That’s probably true, but it’s probably too early to start aiming to balance the budget — let’s get ourselves out of the current crisis first — and then the tax increases are a step in the right direction.

      1. What’s the excitement about a balanced budget? I have plenty of friends who run their families on a balanced budget but never get out of debt. We should be focusing on drastic cuts in spending first.

        1. That’s a great idea if you want to see what a double-dip recession looks like. Budget cuts is something you have the luxury to do (and should do) during periods of economic growth. Recessions are a time for deficit spendings.

          1. I’m thinking more longterm here. In the longterm i’m much less interested in a focus on balanced spending. I want to see deep spending cuts and operating in the black will be a pleasant side-effect.

          2. Considering the extent and severity of this recession, I very much doubt that will be possible for at least the next couple of years. Maybe in Obama’s next term.

            1. It would be interesting to see what non-military areas of the government the Obama administration would be willing to cut spending on.

              And I just have to say that second term isn’t looking like a guaranteed thing anymore.

            2. I’m not familiar enough with the federal budget to speculate, but I imagine health care and social security will be difficult to avoid, considering that’s where most of the money actually goes.

              And yes, I guess Obama’s relection is beginning to look a bit uncertain – or it will, as soon as the GOP find someone who can actually beat him.

              Any day now…

            3. That’s exactly it. I would worry about Obama’s re-election if his weakness was more than theoretical. As it stands, the notion of any Republican politico doing better than McCain seems fairly far-fetched. Oh God, please let it be Palin.

            4. That’d be quite the trainwreck, but I doubt she’d survive the GOP primary when it comes down to it. But maybe run as a third-party candidate?

            5. oneiroi · ·

              It’s all speculation, but I still think Obama is going to be fine. As Ames said, most of the complaints are theoretical. ALl angry about wanting to “take back” the government.

              If the economy keeps getting better, there’s not much to grasp on to go against him. IMO.

              That being said, I still say the problem with the deficit is the unwillingless of politicians to talk honestly about budget. They need to let people know t here will either be cuts to benefits/programs, or higher taxes. Politicians are unwilling to make that assertion so we end up with more spending and lower taxes.

              I’d be happy if Obama did do say something like, listen, we’re rolling back Bush tax cuts, and taking out Bush’s medicare expansion. But the same people who complain about the deficit wouldn’t like that either.

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