Hill Weighs Bush’s Legacy

Posted September 28, 2008 at 4:49pm

As an unpopular President Bush eyes his final weeks in the White House, even his Republican colleagues up the road say the nation may need a timeout before rendering judgment on his tenure.

Bush’s two terms in office have been bookended by two major catastrophes for the country, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the current economic meltdown. He’s faced partisan brawls and been criticized mightily — even by some in his own party — for his handling of the Iraq War and natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.

His relationship with Congress has had its ups and downs as well, with lawmakers sometimes frustrated with the administration’s failure to seek their input on major decisions and efforts to swell the executive branch’s power. Democrats have clearly made up their minds, but Congressional Republicans still struggle to define the legacy of a man for whom they still have personal affection and see as a strong leader on combating terrorism, lowering taxes, promoting social conservatism and realigning the judiciary.

“Are you writing [about his legacy] next week or 20 years from now?” Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) asked. “Because I believe it will be very different 20 years from now than today. … I dare say that not many presidents survive eight years in office and go out peaking at favorability.”

The view mirrors that of Republicans in Congress who are appealing for more time to judge the man who helped batter a party brand that they now must rehabilitate. Many said they think it may take years — or decades — for history to determine the wisdom in Bush’s decisions related to the major issues facing his presidency.

Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), who earlier this year penned a memo comparing the Republican Party to bad dog food, said it will be 25 years before Bush’s place in history can be considered. “We’re in the eye of the storm right now,” he said.

Similarly, Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (Mich.), chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee, said it will be 20 to 30 years before “the public that hasn’t moved forward with their lives” figures out where Bush stands.

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) suggested it could take even longer — on the order of a half-century. “Look at Truman in 1952 and Truman today,” he said. “He didn’t have much of a legacy when he left in ’52 and now look at him. He’s probably one of the better presidents of the United States.”

Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.), facing a tough fight for re-election, ducked the question. “Now’s not the time to talk about it,” he said.

One of the greatest unknowns for Bush’s legacy is how it will be affected by the economic downturn, which hit a critical mass just last week when he proposed a massive rescue plan for shaky financial institutions. Before then, most on Capitol Hill believed Bush would best be remembered for his response to the 9/11 attacks and his decisions related to the wars on terrorism and in Iraq.

Most Republicans still believe the fate of Bush’s campaign to remake the Middle East will determine his standing as his administration recedes. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), one of Bush’s staunchest Congressional allies, said the war will largely define what history says about the outgoing commander in chief. “The fact it’s turning out well bodes well for his legacy,” he said.

As for the economy and its imprint on Bush, Cornyn said the future will define whether the president’s solutions worked, and what hand — if any — his policies had in precipitating the crisis. “If it turns out well, if Henry Paulson pulls a rabbit out of the hat, it will not reflect negatively on anybody,” Cornyn said. “It’s just too early to say.”

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), a moderate who has often disagreed with Bush during his two terms, said despite their differences, Bush’s efforts “to secure the country from another devastating attack” will be a hallmark of his tenure. Still, Snowe said she believed Bush could have left on stronger footing and with a more successful record had he engaged Congress instead of expecting a full embrace of his proposals with no questions asked.

“That could have minimized so many issues and tensions that existed,” Snowe said. “He was very active in usurping the powers of Congress. It could have been far better had he been accessible, open and responsive to ideas.”

Bush’s minimal outreach to Congress and his waning popular support complicated the White House’s effort to win swift approval for its markets rescue proposal — with resistance primarily from members of his own party in the House. They remained skeptical last week even after numerous appeals from high-ranking Bush emissaries, including Vice President Cheney, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Paulson.

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) said last week that Bush’s clout has dissipated dramatically as evidenced by his colleagues’ refusal to back the $700 billion Wall Street bailout without conditions. “It’s like Jell-O,” he said.

Conservative House Republicans have long harbored resentments that the Bush administration did not take a harder line against spending, instead engineering passage of a significant expansion in entitlement spending with its prescription drug bill and failing to check an earmark explosion under GOP control of Congress. “It’s no secret that a lot of conservatives have been disappointed at his record of fiscal discipline,” Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said.

For those Members, the Bush administration’s interventions to stem the Wall Street meltdowns will leave a sour aftertaste. “I think with the Republican base, with the people of my district, it would sully his reputation even more,” Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) said.

The rebuke of Bush’s dealings with the legislative branch also is one of Congressional Democrats’ leading charges against his administration. Democrats still nurse open wounds over the way Bush arrived at the decisions to initiate the war in Iraq, launch a secret and some say illegal domestic surveillance program, and handle detainees at U.S. military installations.

“I often think of where we would be if Al Gore had been elected in 2000,” Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) said. “We wouldn’t be in the Iraq War, we wouldn’t have squandered the surplus. He started out being a compassionate conservative. What happened?

“So that’s why now it’s like, ho-hum.”

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.