In an interview, the former president makes the case for his ‘freedom agenda’ and defends his record on the economy and spending.
The former leader of the free world sits in a comfy chair wearing Crocs. As twilight sets in, George W. Bush keeps one eye on a muted World Series game. “That’s what I’m talking about,” he tells the TV in his home library after one impressive Rangers play.
The 43rd president of the United States looks healthy, rested and confident. That last is especially notable, considering he’s not yet two years out of what can only be called a controversial presidency.
Mr. Bush ran as a uniter, but the hung 2000 election bequeathed him a divided nation. The terrorist attacks of September 11 brought brief national cohesion, but it was soon shattered by recriminations over the Iraq war. A difficult second term—overshadowed by war turmoil and capped by a financial crisis—saw him leave office with anemic approval ratings. But as readers of “Decision Points,” his memoir set to hit stands today, will discover, this is not a president agonizing over the big decisions he made or wringing his hands about history’s judgment.
The book is not the usual chronological fare; Mr. Bush wrote thematically, with 14 chapters chronicling decisions he made in life and office, and it is very much in his own voice. We get his insights on his decision to quit drinking, on stem cell research, Hurricane Katrina and enhanced interrogations. Six chapters deal with the momentous foreign and domestic policy decisions that followed from 9/11.
I come armed with a slew of spending questions. Why didn’t he veto more GOP spending bills? Why didn’t he use the war as a reason to cut back on domestic spending? But he shuts me down by referring to the chart. I point out that, chart or no, there is a perception he oversaw fiscal profligacy.
“Yes, there is,” he concedes. “I think the Medicare reform caused certain conservative writers to say ‘Bush has been fiscally irresponsible.’ And they did not look at the facts. And the facts are that we have a very solid fiscal record”—despite spending “a lot of money” on war, homeland security, and Hurricane Katrina.
But what about 2003 Medicare reform, which saw Republicans add a major new prescription drug entitlement? He rejects the premise of the question. “The entitlement already existed, and the entitlement was Medicare. And that’s the threshold question—should we have Medicare? If the answer is no, my attitude is fine, go debate it. If the answer is yes, then let’s modernize it.” The prescription-drug program is about allowing Medicare to give seniors a “$15 drug in order to prevent a $30,000 operation that your taxpayer money would be committed to paying.”
Congress will soon be debating the fate of the Bush tax cuts. They were the centerpiece of his 2000 campaign and have been an unadulterated supply-side victory. As the memoir notes, what followed the 2003 legislation—which included important cuts in top marginal rates, capital gains and dividend taxes—was 46 consecutive months of growth.
Isn’t the point here that not all tax cuts are created equal, and that there’s more value in the 2003 supply-side winners, than in, say, Mr. Bush’s 2008 one-time tax “rebates” that caused only a temporary GDP blip? “I don’t want to differentiate,” he responds, though he does a bit. “I do know this, 70% of new jobs in America are created by small businesses . . . and the rates matter to small business. And capital gains matter to investment.” His bigger point is that all the cuts come down to a “philosophy” that’s pretty simple to follow: “We’d rather you spend your money than the government spend your money.”
There’s a lot of emotion in Mr. Bush’s memoir—much of it for the families of troops who died protecting the country. But when it comes to the policy decisions we discuss during the interview, this does not seem like a man going to bed tortured by what-ifs or what-will-comes.
What will future historians say? “I’d hope they’d say he had certain principles that were the foundation of his presidency, and on which he was unwilling to compromise.”
And what about those who believe he wasn’t really a conservative—that he’s to blame for setting the stage for the Obama ascendancy? He smiles. “I say read the book.”
Ms. Strassel writes the Journal’s Potomac Watch column.
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