It’s George W Bush’s world, and we’re just living in it.
Not Donald Trump’s. Not Hillary Clinton’s. Not even United States President Barack Obama’s. No, the unhinged arguments at the heart of the 2016 presidential election are not really a debate about the legacy of the current occupant of the White House. They’re not about Obamacare, or the Recovery Act; the Paris climate agreement or even the Iran nuclear deal. They are, at their heart, an unresolved argument about the world as the 43rd president defined it: For worse, for much worse, and then for better.
If you’re the kind of person — on the Left or Right — who cannot hear the name George W. Bush without foaming at the mouth, you should leave your comment or post your tweet right now. Because it’s time to take a sober look at a presidency bookended by the spectacular mass murder on September 11, 2001, and the spectacular financial meltdown of 2008. From the rise of Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) to mass surveillance; from tax cuts for the wealthy to immigration reform; from the excesses of Wall Street to the struggles of Main Street; this US presidential election is taking place in a country that is still torn apart by the Bush years.
Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s hyperkinetic first chief-of-staff, liked to say that President Bush had left them a ribbon-wrapped gift of a sandwich: Two wars, the worst recession in living memory and a disastrous international reputation.
But Bush also left them a path out from his own colossal disasters: The massive government bailout of the financial sector and a Federal Reserve prepared to take unprecedented measures to bankroll the global economy. A drone war to kill terrorist targets without boots on the ground and a more stable Iraq that could allow for a US withdrawal.
While Obama got to work on his special sandwich, Bush’s Republican Party is still stuck in the middle of it all. For the GOP can no more find its way out of the Bush debates than Britain’s Labour Party can decide how to deal with the legacy of former prime minister Tony Blair.
The single most contentious issue riling the Republican Party is immigration: An issue that derailed Bush’s presidency. After winning a second term, Bush declared he enjoyed a considerable amount of political capital and would spend it on a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants. He failed, mostly thanks to the vocal, nativist opposition of far-right talk radio hosts and their equivalent in the House of Representatives. It was the revival of those reform efforts that Trump skewered so effectively in the GOP primaries, as he demolished his three biggest foes: Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and, yes, Bush’s brother, Jeb.
George W. Bush — along with every other sane Republican — had realised long ago that the Republican Party had no future as a nativist rump, hostile to the fastest growing demographic bloc of voters in the country. It’s unclear whether Trump’s new management team can move their candidate into this space. Despite their half-hearted spin, Trump left the indelible impression that he would deploy a deportation force against all undocumented immigrants, especially the ‘murderers and rapists’ he claimed Mexico was exporting to the US.
The second most contentious issue of this election: how to treat Muslims and Arabs, and particularly Muslim Americans. In this area, Bush’s approach was vastly more enlightened than Trump’s, although it’s fair to say that Genghis Khan also crossed this low bar.
Bush visited a mosque in Washington less than a week after the 9/11 attacks to declare that “Islam is peace” and that Muslim Americans “need to be treated with respect”. He added: “Women who cover their heads in this country must feel comfortable going outside their homes.” (In those days it was hard to imagine a European country banning a burkini.)
But you could also make the case that Bush stoked the politics of fear — especially in the 2002 and 2004 elections — that led directly to this point of peak Islamophobia. It was under Bush’s watch, just one year after his second inauguration, that the fever took over.
And it’s outlasted the war on terror, although Trump is doing his best to revive both. His party refuses to disown him for trashing a Muslim American family who lost a son in Iraq, or for wanting to close US borders to a billion Muslims. It cannot or will not condemn him for proposing to torture detainees, in direct breach of international laws of war.
Republicans cannot say where they stand on the Bush spectrum of the war on terror. Trump naturally hates it, pretending to have opposed the war in Iraq, as well as Bush’s hostile turn against Russia. And the Republican foreign policy establishment hates Trump for all that and more.
Before the Democrats feel too smug about the Bush conundrum, they should consider their own internal struggles. Much of the Hillary-Bernie Sanders battle was defined by the singular question of how to treat Wall Street: Whether the bailout was justified and whether bank regulation went far enough. Many Sanders supporters remain opposed to Hillary because of her hawkish views on the Middle East.
And for all their hatred of all things Bush, Democrats in Congress voted overwhelmingly with Republicans to stop Obama from closing Guantanamo Bay. After eight years of an economic turnaround, America has yet to resolve the debate about rescuing Wall Street. After eight years of troop withdrawals, it is considering sending troops back to Iraq and maintain what looks like a lot like a permanent force in Afghanistan. After eight years of Obama, America has not escaped the legacy of Bush. And no matter who wins this presidential election, America is unlikely to do so any time soon.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Richard Wolffe is a Guardian US columnist, as well as chief digital and marketing officer at Global Citizen, a non-profit organisation dedicated to ending extreme poverty.