Regrets? Bush Has too Few to Mention

Faced with a faltering economy and a precarious national security position, President George W. Bush made the best of a bad situation and sought to unite the country in spite of Washington’s toxic political culture.

That’s how Bush views his tenure in office, according to a recent round of exit interviews he and Vice President Dick Cheney have done as part of an effort to wind up their administration on a positive note.

Their argument is not entirely convincing.

“The president and his advisers are focusing an enormous amount of effort on trying to politically shape and spin the legacy to improve his image in history’s eyes,” said former White House press secretary Scott McClellan. “I am not surprised. There has always been great effort placed on the political marketing of this presidency.”

Bush and Cheney aren’t saying much that Americans haven’t heard before, in one form or another. But as the two men take full advantage of their last month in the bully pulpit, there are a few key themes emerging in their narrative about the last eight years.

They did their best with a vulnerable economy: “I think when the history of this period is written, people will realize a lot of the decisions that were made on Wall Street took place over a decade or so, before I arrived,” Bush told ABC’s Charlie Gibson, glossing over his long record as a deregulator, which stretches back to his time as governor of Texas.

He continued, referring specifically to the housing crisis: “I’m a little upset that we didn’t get the reforms to Fannie and Freddie…people will say that this administration tried hard to get a regulator.”

“Hard” might be pushing it, since a reform bill never made it through the GOP-controlled Congress. But the administration certainly raised the issue, highlighting the potential market risks of overgrown GSEs as early as April 2001.

Dean Baker, the liberal economist who directs the Center for Economic and Policy Research, was incredulous at Bush’s attempt to displace blame onto his predecessor.

“If he was really troubled by any of the policies inherited from the Clinton administration he kept it to himself,” Baker said. “There’s plenty of blame to go on the Clinton administration. On the other hand, he’s been sitting there for eight years. It’s pretty hard to say there’s nothing you could have done.”

Bush has also cited his administration’s “52 months of uninterrupted job growth” as a feather in his presidential cap – though in many of those months job growth was tepid, falling below the rate at which experts say a healthy economy must grow.

Iraq was a grave and gathering threat: On defense policy, both Bush and Cheney have been especially assertive in backing up their records. They have even returned to one of their most familiar rationales to defend the war in Iraq: the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction.

“Saddam Hussein had the capability of making weapons of mass destruction,” Bush told ABC’s Martha Raddatz last week. “I did not have the luxury of knowing he did not have them. Neither did the rest of the world until after we had come and removed him.”

Though Bush added that he regretted faulty pre-war intelligence, Cheney was completely unapologetic on the subject and swatted down Karl Rove’s recent suggestion that with different intelligence the country might not have gone to war.

“As I look at the intelligence with respect to Iraq, what they got wrong was that there weren’t any stockpiles,” he told ABC’s Jonathan Karl. “What they found was that Saddam Hussein still had the capability to produce weapons of mass destruction…They also found that he had every intention of resuming production once the international sanctions were lifted.”

This narrative is something of a golden oldie for the Bush team: weapons of mass destruction were central to the original case for war, but eventually took a back seat to humanitarian-oriented arguments after inspectors found no evidence of a WMD program in the country.

Extreme measures have been necessary: Iraq isn’t the only subject on which Cheney is an unabashed defender of the White House’s national security policies. When it comes to surveillance and torture, he has firmly asserted both the effectiveness and the legality of the administration’s policies.

“I think those who allege that we’ve been involved in torture, or that somehow we violated the Constitution or laws with the terrorist surveillance program, simply don’t know what they’re talking about,” Cheney recently told ABC’s Jonathan Karl, going on to argue that the waterboarding of 9/11 conspirator Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was an appropriate measure.

The White House hasn’t always been so sure.

After a 2006 interview in which Cheney seemed to confirm that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had been waterboarded, the White House walked back his comments to avoid confirming the use of that technique, which in the past has been prosecuted as a war crime.

“The vice president says he was talking in general terms about a questioning program that is legal to save American lives, and he was not referring to waterboarding,” then-White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said at the time.

This time around, Cheney left no wiggle room in his remarks.

Karl asked, “On KSM, one of those tactics [used]…was waterboarding….Even that you think was appropriate?”

Cheney answered tersely: “I do.”

Compassionate conservatism works: Bush and Cheney may be spending the lion’s share of their time defending their responses to the biggest contingencies of their time in office. But Bush is also returning to some of the themes that marked his first presidential run, circling back to the theme of compassionate conservatism – the bumper-sticker version of his approach to government that gradually disappeared in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

In an interview with National Review in early December, Bush defended this governing philosophy, which has taken a hammering from both the left and the right over the years.

“It wasn’t very well defended, but most people adhere to it,” Bush told the conservative magazine. “Compassionate conservatism basically says that if you implement this philosophy, your life would become better. That’s what it says.”

In addition to such abstract arguments, Bush has also tried to focus public attention on some of the often overlooked accomplishments that mesh better with the themes of his first presidential campaign.

“We’ve accomplished a lot in my administration. Like No Child Left Behind; 52 months of uninterrupted job growth; PEPFAR, which is the AIDS initiative in Africa; fighting malaria, where there's poverty; faith-based [programs],” Bush told Raddatz. “I mean there’s a lot that people will be able to judge this administration on.”

We don’t worry about history: For a man on a bon voyage tour, Bush has tried to sound unconcerned about how history will judge him.

“I’ll be frank with you. I don’t spend a lot of time really worrying about short-term history,” he told Gibson. “I guess I don’t worry about long-term history, either, since I’m not going to be around to read it.”

The line is an echo of his famous response to Bob Woodward’s question about how history would judge the Iraq war. Then, as now, Bush replied: “History. We don’t know. We’ll all be dead.”

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