Hey GOP: Cheer Up, Chin Up!

Why are Republicans so depressed?  President Bush's two-term presidency enters its last year in pretty good shape and with a lot better record than pundits would have us believe.  The Democrats took Congress in 2006, but they appear to have blown their chance, with approval ratings at historical lows.  The Republican presidential candidates are solid, especially compared to the Democrats.  President Bush has built the foundation of what could be a Republican dynasty for another American Century.  The greatest threat to that prospect has nothing to do with the Vast Left Wing Conspiracy.  The Republicans have nothing to fear but a discouraged Republican base.

The Economic Track Record

Let me start not with the Bush presidency, but with the Clinton presidency.  Bill Clinton inherited peace and prosperity on a platter, handed to him by Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.  On the foreign front, the Cold War with its threat of nuclear annihilation was recently over, with the victory going to the West led by the U.S.  The fourth largest armed force at the time, the outlaw regime of Saddam Hussein, had just been defeated in short order by the U.S. coalition.  All Clinton had to do was keep Saddam in his box.  All the large fires had been put out, with just a few smoldering embers needing attendance here and there.

On the domestic front, the economy had been on a strong growth streak since the Reagan tax cuts.  The savings and loan crisis caused a minor setback, with a short eight-month recession that ended in March 1991, almost two years before Clinton would sit in the Oval Office.  By the time Clinton took office, the economy had been on a 10-year growth streak that averaged 3.3% annually and was in fact bouncing back from that minor recession, leading into 4% growth by 1994.  The stock market followed a similar trajectory: exponential growth continuing from the beginning of Reagan's term.

I give that background to contrast to the situation President Clinton left President George W. Bush.  The Dow Jones Industrial Average reached its pre-Bush peak on January 14, 2000, more than a full year before Bush sat in the Oval Office.  In 2000, before Bush even took office, the Dow declined over 6% and was continuing its downward trend.  The federal budget through September 2001 was signed by President Clinton.  The eight-month recession officially started in March 2001
, just two months after President Bush was sworn in, and in the heart of the last fiscal year under a Clinton budget.

Clinton received a strong and growing economy from Bush I, and left an anemic and shrinking one for Bush II.

With the Cold War won and Saddam Hussein defeated, the world remained essentially at peace as Bill Clinton danced with Hillary and the Gores at his inauguration.  If you ignore, as President Clinton did, the millions who were killed in the Congo, Sudan, Rwanda, North Korea and elsewhere around the world, as well as the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, at U.S. embassies and on the USS Cole, the next eight years were also relatively peaceful - if you also ignore Somalia and Yugoslavia.

In this second humanitarian mission to Somalia (not to be confused with the first one, under Bush I, previously completed successfully and without U.S. fatalities), 18 U.S. Special Ops forces were killed, with one being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu and shown on TV throughout the world.  The subsequent pullout was cited by Osama bin Laden as proof that the U.S. would back down under pressure, and emboldened him to support al Qaeda attacks on the U.S.  In fact, the plan for the big attack on U.S. soil was hatched around 1996 and in operation for five years prior to its final execution on September 11, 2001, or less than eight months after Bush took office.

So Bush II entered the White House in January 2001, with a stock market and economy on the decline and the jihadi movement on the ascendance (and keyboards with their "W" keys removed).  Within just two months, the economy would be officially in recession.  Within eight months the U.S. would suffer its greatest attack on U.S. soil ever.

That was how George W. Bush was welcomed to his office.

So how did he do after that?

His first budget took effect October 1, 2001.

  • The recession that started in March officially ended eight months later in November 2001, or one month after his first budget was in effect and just two months after the 911 attacks.
  • Real GDP  grew by 3.9% from 2003 to 2004, and would continue annual growth greater than 3% since.
  • Unemployment peaked in 2003 at just 6%, below what it was in Clinton's first two years.  Throughout 2006-7, unemployment remained below 5%, considered a full-employment level.
  • Gross federal debt now stands at about 65% of GDP, higher than it was in 2000, but about what it was from 1993-97.
  • The stock market started recovering about a year after 911, reaching its post-2000 low on October 9, 2002.  It would later reach an all-time high.  Today it is about 75% above its 2002 low, and still higher than it ever was before Bush became President.
In short, after absorbing the one-two punch of an inherited recession and the 911 attacks, the U.S. economy under President Bush was back on track shortly after and has been going strong ever since.

The War on Terror

On the foreign front, President Bush almost immediately eliminated al Qaeda's sanctuary in Afghanistan, driving the al Qaeda leadership into caves and bringing democracy to a country devastated by years of war, Soviet Communism and the ruthless Taliban.

The bigger threat was that terrorists would graduate from box-cutters to weapons of mass destruction.  Countries that showed the highest likelihood of a nexus between WMD and terrorism, namely Pakistan, Iraq, and Libya, were immediately dealt with:  Pakistan by diplomacy,  Iraq by forcible regime change, and Libya by a combination of diplomacy and the example of Iraq.

Let's talk about Iraq for a moment.  Yes, we failed to find huge stockpiles of ready-to-use modern WMD.  But we did find WMD; in fact we found over 500 of them.  The Duelfer Report admits "we cannot express a firm view on the possibility that WMD elements were relocated out of Iraq prior to the war."

"Moreover, many location associated with the previous WMD programs and sites under monitoring by the United Nations have been completely looted.  In fact, the sites that fill the database of monitored locations are radically different postwar.  Equipment and material in the majority of locations have been removed or ruined.  Often there is nothing but a concrete slab at locations where once stood plants or laboratories."
These "looters" were not random Iraqi citizens looking for copper piping they could sell.  They were, in all likelihood, Saddam loyalists executing their "Plan B": get rid of the evidence of WMD, move the top baathist command out of country and mount a decentralized insurgency.

But no matter about finding WMD, the Duelfer report tells us that Saddam had the capability and every intention of reconstituting his WMD programs as soon as he could, which would have happened sooner rather than later with his Oil For Food bribery schemes.

There is also no doubt that Saddam had terrorist connections.  The only questions were how strong were those connections to al Qaeda specifically, and to the 911 attacks even more specifically.  That is a long subject, but suffice it to say that US Judge Harold Baer ruled that Saddam's regime was, in fact, partly responsible for the 911 attacks.  Judge Baer was appointed by President Clinton.  Expert testimony from Clinton's former CIA director James Woolsey supported the contention that "Iraq helped train al-Qaeda terrorists, and provided them with safe houses and forged documents."

As for the conduct of the war, Saddam's regime was removed in just a few months.  He was captured, tried by the new Iraqi government, and executed.  His psychopathic sons and heirs were killed in an intense gun battle.  Other countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia were not drawn into the war.  Democratic elections in Iraq were held on three separate occasions, resulting in a coalition all-Iraqi government that drafted its own constitution and continues to function and be accepted more and more by Iraqis.

By our military adapting to insurgent tactics, it now appears that foreign influences by Iran and al Qaeda are being neutered, al Qaeda in Iraq is being defeated and the former Sunni and Shia insurgents are slowing coming into the fold, avoiding all out civil war.  Both US Coalition and Iraqi casualty counts are down and oil production and infrastructure repair are up and on the mend.

It has taken almost five years and 3,190 U.S. combat fatalities to date to accomplish that.  God bless those heroes.  I hate to treat any death as a statistic, but the fatality count has been an ongoing subject in the media (at least before the surge, when the rate started declining).  Here is a list of individual battles in World War II in which more than 3,190 servicemen were killed in action, limited to the Pacific theater and to the US Navy and Marines.

  • Invasion of Marianas
  • Return to the Philippines
  • Iwo Jima
  • Okinawa
  • Unspecified Pacific or Asiatic area.
I'm not sure how important the Marianas were to the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, but I think the removal of Saddam's regime and its replacement with a reasonably democratic government not hostile to the U.S. was pretty important to peace in this world and to U.S. security in particular.  I do not view the deaths of our servicemen in Iraq as in vain.  I thank God that there are still men and women willing to fight for our country, especially under such thankless conditions.

In the broad scheme of things, President Bush chose a moderate course against the radical jihadi movement, a movement that could potentially spiral out of control across dozens of countries with millions of Muslims ready to behead infidels, release a few WMD and install the new caliphate.

Bush is not trying to bomb anyone back to the stone age; he is trying to bring some semblance of democracy and self-government to the Middle East and Asia.  He is not indiscriminate.  He used measured force in Afghanistan and Iraq, but firm diplomacy in Pakistan, Libya, North Korea and elsewhere.  His actions were not unilateral, "cowboy" or against international opinion.  He formed a coalition of over 45 countries, including the United Kingdom and Australia, to remove Saddam's regime.

Regarding that international opinion, major roadblocks to getting UN approval for using force in Iraq came from France and Germany.  Since then, those countries and Canada have elected pro-US leaders, while the original coalition remains largely intact.  President Bush, counter to the picture painted by the media, has strengthened our standing in the international community.

Political Battles

With the war on terror, President Bush has handled a truly existential, but still simmering, crisis.  In the meantime, he has also managed the day to day affairs of government.  In the important area of Supreme Court appointments, Bush gave us John Roberts and Sam Alito.  Our last two Democrat-appointed justices were Breyer and Ginsberg.  What more needs saying?

With the Katrina crisis, the U.S. government carried out the most successful rescue and evacuation operation in history.  While the media concentrated on bureaucratic snafus at FEMA, the military and Coast Guard were busy hoisting people off the roofs of their flooded homes to safety -- by the thousands.  When a tsunami struck on the other side of the world killing hundreds of thousands, the US military was there first, and with the most aid.  All this, by the way, while conducting combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

All this was done under unrelenting pressure from Democrats, the media and international busy-bodies.

  • If a US Marine touched a Koran with an ungloved hand, the critics shrieked "torture", even if it would cause rioting and death in Muslim countries.
  • If a soldier shot at a house from which his unit was receiving fire, he might be court-martialed.  And if he wasn't court-martialed, someone in his chain of command might be, for not court-martialing him.
  • Any news of unambiguously good economic data included the phrase "recession" in the headline.
  • Every night David Letterman's show features "Great Moments in Presidential Speeches" which tries to make Bush look stupid.  (By the way, Bush has an IQ of about 128, which puts him smarter than about 95% of the population and in the league of Lincoln, Rousseau and Thackeray .  He also has a degree from Yale and an MBA from Harvard.)
  • The mainstream media have lied about Bush, made up anti-Bush stories, misquoted him, and admitted anti-Bush bias.
While it is true that Republicans controlled both houses of Congress for four years of Bush's Presidency, there was a weak link.  That weak link was the Senate.  With all Democratic Senators marching in loyal party lockstep, the Democrats had two fairly easy ways to defeat any Republican proposal or appointment.  First, all they needed was a very few Republican Senate votes.  Chaffee, Snow, Collins, Specter or others would jump ship (just not as far a jump as Jeffords) on multiple occasions.  Secondly, by abusing Senate rules of the filibuster, they could block almost anything by making sure no more than a handful of Democratic Senators weakened on a cloture vote.

President Bush's main fault was also a virtue.  He concentrated on his job rather than his image. You rarely heard someone from the White House say the things I said above.  With President Clinton there was a public relations war room ready to pounce on any little criticism.  With President Bush, any war room was used to command an actual war. 

Many conservatives and Republicans currently gripe about President Bush.  OK, he cut taxes, strengthened defense, defeated the Taliban, removed Saddam Hussein's regime, and appointed Roberts and Alito to the Supreme Court.  But he increased spending.

Yep, spending increased - all the way to about 20% of GDP, below what it was from 1975 through 1996.  As for the deficit, it stands at about 1.8% of GDP, again below where it was through most of those same years, and a level considered quite manageable.  If it turned into a surplus again, we'd be worrying about what to do with our temporary Social Security surplus.

President Bush was handed a terrible situation.  He got us through the crises.  The US now has a strong and resilient economy, al Qaeda is contained, Afghanistan and Iraq are roughly democratic and on the mend, our European and North American alliances are as strong as ever.

The Race Ahead

But enough about Bush; he'll be gone in a year anyway.  Which brings us back to the elections of 2008.  Politically, Republican wins theoretically are possible in either house of Congress, in the states, and the office of President.  The US at the beginning of the 21st century is still the leader of the free world.  One of only two parties will build on that -- or blow it, and they are about evenly matched politically right now.  Although the Democratic Congress has an historically low approval rating right now, almost any erosion of the Republican base would throw the victory, and possibly much of the 21st century, to the Democrats.

Let's look briefly at the presidential candidates.

On the Democratic side, the top three are, or were, Senators -- and not very experienced ones at that.  The top finisher in Iowa is still in his first term.  The second finisher served all of one term.  The third place finisher is in the middle of her second term.  That's it as far as elective national politics is concerned: a grand total of just over three terms in the Senate, combined, for the top three Iowa finishers.

To get to any executive experience, you have to scroll down the list to Bill Richardson, current governor of New Mexico (population 2 million), and to Dennis Kucinich, who was the mayor of Cleveland from 1977 to 1979 (current population under half a million).  Neither of these candidates has a ghost's chance of being elected President.

At the top of the Republican field are the Governor of Arkansas (population 2.8 million), the former governor of Massachusetts (population 6.4 million), and former mayor of New York City (population 8.2 million).  John McCain, by himself, has more Senate experience that the top three Democrats combined - and he was a US Representative before that.  Fred Thompson served longer in the Senate than any of the top three Democrats.

So much for experience, how about the issues?  Don't bother.  Despite all their plans and policies and campaign issue papers, the Democrat would help shepherd a Democratic agenda and a Republican would help shepherd a Republican one.  And either one would be inhibited by Congress, the filibuster, and the courts, all roughly split down the middle for now.

Perhaps the real issue is about character.  I propose the following thought experiment.  Imagine your son is a US Marine.  Imagine his outfit showing colors for the Commander In Chief just prior to its deployment to a jihadi viper pit overseas.  Your son must salute that Commander In Chief.  Here are the feasible choices of who your son could be saluting a year from now:

  • Hillary Clinton
  • Barack Obama
  • John Edwards
  • Mike Huckabee
  • Mitt Romney
  • John McCain
  • Rudy Giuliani
  • Fred Thompson
Just how important is a deficit of 1.8% of GDP as your son's finger tip reaches the brim of his cover?

Randall Hoven can be reached at randall.hoven@gmail.com.