UNIVERSITY PARK, Texas – With the George W. Bush Presidential Center opening today, the former president and his team are moving back to the beginning in seeking to shape the legacy of their four years in office.
Meet George W. Bush, compassionate conservative. Again.
Though it’s easy to forget in a presidency that saw 9/11, two wars, Hurricane Katrina, and a financial crisis, “compassionate conservatism” was the philosophy Bush used to first define himself on the national stage. He defined it as insisting on “responsibility and results,” coupled with an obligation to help “citizens in need.”
The Republican Party has all but abandoned that vision in the post-Bush years. Anyone running for office as a “compassionate conservative” now can count on a nationally funded primary challenge.
The tea party movement’s fierce insistence on cutting government spending has come to define the party of 2013. For many of them, Bush-era spending was prologue to the profligate Obama years, and a lesson in how not to govern as conservatives.
But 2012 didn’t end like conservatives hoped that it would. That makes for fortuitous timing for a team looking to reassess the legacy of the 43rd president.
In interviews and op-eds, aides to the former president have sought to redirect attention to lasting Bush accomplishments that don’t get as much attention these days.
They’re touting the Medicare prescription drug program, the bipartisan No Child Left Behind education law, and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. These are achievements that were expensive, and some remain controversial, but they are now widely praised as having saved and improved lives.
Two big items of unfinished Bush business also figure in. Bush allies are arguing that the former president was ahead of demographic and political curves by pushing for immigration reform and a remaking of the nation’s Social Security system – initiatives that are now or will soon be revisited by Washington.
Though Bush himself likes to say he’s not fighting for history’s judgment, he’s made clear he’s eager for a reevaluation. He’s predicting a revival of interest in “compassionate conservatism,” which he described to The Dallas Morning News this month as “the idea that articulating and implementing conservative ideas leads to a better life for all.”
“The best way for people to understand what I meant by ‘compassionate conservative’ is to look at the programs we implemented and look at the results,” Bush told his – and his new museum’s – hometown newspaper.
Bush may get some help in defining his legacy from some unlikely sources. The Democratic presidents who sandwiched his time in office both had glowing praise for aspects of the Bush record that emphasize the compassionate piece of his conservatism.
“I want to thank President Bush for passing PEPFAR. No president of my party could have passed that through the Congress,” former President Bill Clinton said. “I have personally seen the faces of some of the millions of people who are alive today because of it.”
President Obama even drew Bush’s legacy into a current political fight, over immigration reform. He called on Republican members of Congress to follow the lead of the most recent Republican president and pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill for him to sign – a bill that would be similar in its outlines to the measure Bush failed to pass during his second term as president.
“If we do that,” Obama said, “it will be, in large part, thanks to the hard work of President George W. Bush.”
It’s impossible to imagine a Bush legacy that doesn’t take full account of the Iraq War, Katrina’s aftermath, and the housing and financial market collapses that made for a consequential two terms in office. The politically polarizing Bush years may never be known for their compassionate side.
But it is also possible to imagine a way forward for the Republican Party that draws on its not-so-distant past. It may be George W. Bush 1.0 who stands as an example for his party’s future.