George W. Bush took office during a relatively peaceful time in American history, but just a few months into his presidency, he was confronted with the worst act of terror ever committed on American soil. Suddenly, Bush was a wartime president. As the next election neared, was everyone still happy with his leadership?
The Last Four Years
Let’s start with domestic policy. Bush promoted the idea of “compassionate conservatism,” or the use of small-government and free-market values to solve social issues. Some of the clearest examples were his proposed reforms to Medicare and Social Security. Republicans worried that both programs were outdated and in danger of bankruptcy due to the growing number of senior citizens. For Medicare, he backed a plan that expanded prescription drug benefits, but required members to purchase the added coverage through private insurance companies. The Medicare Modernization Act was signed in December 2003. Although benefits and market competition increased, the program was more expensive than anticipated. Bush’s plan for Social Security reform intended to alleviate future costs by encouraging younger workers to instead invest in private savings accounts. Of course, this would remove a large portion of funding for the existing recipients. With little Congressional support, the proposal was eventually abandoned. Another major part of Bush’s agenda was education reform. He hoped to recreate the same success he had on the same issue as governor of Texas. The result was the No Child Left Behind program, which expanded federal funding for education, but also imposed rigorous testing standards on school districts. Schools that did not meet the new standards would be offered help, but further failure would result in penalization. Congress overwhelmingly passed the plan with bipartisan support. Test results did improve over time, but critics were unhappy with the increased reliance on testing and the difficulties placed on school districts to meet the requirements.
Bush’s domestic policy also reflected his religious background. In his first executive order, he created the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to funnel money to local religious charities, rather than spending the money on government-run social programs. Supporters believed that these groups would be more effective than the government, but opponents considered it to be a violation of the separation of church and state. Lastly, Bush ended the use of a Clinton-era loophole used to provide federal money to embryonic stem cell research, which would have been used to develop treatments to diseases such as Parkinson’s.
Economically, Bush offered a return to the conservative policies of Ronald Reagan. He proposed a tax cut of $1.6 trillion, reducing taxes for all income brackets. He also doubled the child tax credit, incentivized retirement savings, and phased out federal estate taxes. Senate Democrats forced a compromise to bring the tax cut to $1.35 trillion and set them to expire in 2011. After Republicans performed well in the 2002 midterms, Bush signed a second round of cuts. Republicans also narrowly passed a reduction in capital gains and savings taxes, bringing them to their lowest since World War II. Bush’s tax cuts reduced federal revenue by an estimated $4 trillion over ten years. Since they were not accompanied by a reduction in government spending, the deficit soared. Consequently, 2001 remains the last year that the US government had a surplus. Although the stock market improved and unemployment was down, wealth inequality worsened and it would soon become clear that the economy was not on stable ground.
All of the domestic legislation during Bush’s term quickly became background noise after September 11, 2001. On the day of the attack, Bush was visiting an elementary school in Florida. It was initially believed that the first plane to hit the World Trade Center was the result of an accident. Bush was informed of the second plane during a reading lesson, which he completed before being evacuated to Air Force One. He later defended his passive reaction by explaining that he wanted to project a sense of calm in front of the children. Bush ordered all commercial flights to be grounded and gave authorization to shoot down any planes that did not comply after attempting direct contact. Nearly 3,000 Americans were killed in the attacks. When Bush eventually returned to Washington, DC, that evening, he gave a televised address to the nation, in which he stated, “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.” 9/11 gave the Bush Administration a clear foreign policy goal: protect Americans and defeat terrorism at all costs.
The attacks were carried out by Al Qaeda, an Islamic terrorist group led by Osama Bin Laden. In exchange for financial support from Bin Laden’s personal wealth, they had been granted sanctuary in Afghanistan by the Taliban, a radical Islamic regime that controlled the country. The Bush Administration planned to not only defeat Al Qaeda, but to also remove the Taliban and rebuild the country’s government to fit democratic norms. On September 18, Congress passed a joint resolution authorizing the use of force. A few weeks later, the US began airstrikes against Al Qaeda and Taliban targets. By November, US forces and local anti-Taliban groups had driven the terrorists out of most northern cities. Throughout the next few years, remaining Al Qaeda forces, including Bin Laden, retreated to the mountains of the eastern border and into neighboring Pakistan. It soon became clear, however, that stabilizing Afghanistan’s government would be a much more complicated and expensive process than expected.
Soon after 9/11, Bush made it clear that his administration considered any nation that harbored terrorist groups to be a hostile regime. In his State of the Union address in 2002, he applied this distinction to North Korea, Iraq, and Iran by labelling them as a new “Axis of Evil.” Under the “Bush Doctrine,” his administration was prepared to strike first against any foreign adversary it deemed a threat, even if the US had to act alone. This mindset was used to expand the War on Terror beyond Al Qaeda and into Iraq. Several members of the Bush Administration had also served under his father during the Persian Gulf War. Although the US-led coalition successfully drove Iraqi forces under Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991, many officials wanted to finish the job by removing Hussein from power completely. They used intelligence reports of “weapons of mass destruction” (WMDs) to support their case. Bush initially wanted to focus on Afghanistan, but once the Taliban was in retreat, his administration turned its attention to Iraq. Throughout the next year, they worked to plan an invasion, gain international support, and explain to the public that Hussein was hiding WMDs that could easily fall into the hands of terrorists. Congress granted Bush the authority to go to war if he felt it was necessary. On March 17, 2003, Bush ordered Hussein to leave Iraq within forty-eight hours. As expected, Hussein chose war. Two days later, American and British forces launched a bombing campaign. Ground troops followed soon after. Like Afghanistan, the invasion began relatively successfully. Hussein was captured on December 13. Also like Afghanistan, the Bush Administration had no clear plan for how to stabilize the country afterwards. The power vacuum left by Hussein resulted in extreme sectarian violence. On top of this, as it turns out, Hussein was not hiding the WMD stockpile that the Bush Administration promised.
The 9/11 attacks also prompted increases to domestic security, which came at the cost of individual rights. Bush created the Department of Homeland Security, the youngest cabinet department, to oversee anti-terrorism operations inside the country. He also created the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which federalized airport security. Under the Terrorist Surveillance Program, the National Security Administration was authorized to monitor communications with suspected terrorists without warrants. The most infamous legislation was the Patriot Act, which expanded domestic surveillance to extreme degrees. The Bush Administration’s treatment of foreigners was even worse. Military tribunals were used for non-US citizens in order to circumvent the US legal system. Captured terrorists were classified as unlawful enemy combatants instead of POWs so that they could not be granted the protections of the Geneva Conventions. Accused terrorists were held indefinitely at the US-controlled base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. American personnel used “enhanced interrogation techniques” (usually considered torture) on prisoners, most notably waterboarding, or simulated drowning. Through the process of rendition, or the movement of prisoners to secret locations around the world to avoid legal systems, additional captured combatants were subject to torture. The Bush Administration made it clear that any suspension of rights could be justified as protecting American lives.
Since the end of the Cold War, presidential elections had mostly focused on domestic issues. Polarization continued as the two parties debated the role of government. Bush’s compassionate conservatism was turning out to be less effective and more expensive than advertised. After 9/11, however, the War on Terror was the main topic on voters’ minds. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were carried out with relative ease. But as time went on, things were starting to seem a little more complicated. Was there an exit strategy? And why did we invade Iraq, again?
In the aftermath of 9/11, George W. Bush’s approval ratings reached extreme heights. He solidified his positive standing within the party with the capture of Saddam Hussein. Bush and Dick Cheney were re-nominated for the Republican ticket without challenge.
The race for the Democratic ticket offered more excitement. Candidates included House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt from Missouri, Connecticut Senator and former vice-presidential candidate Joe Lieberman, and activist and television host Al Sharpton. The three frontrunners were Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, and North Carolina Senator John Edwards. Kerry was a Vietnam War veteran and three-time Purple Heart winner, turned anti-war activist. He was considered a safe, moderate choice, in the spirit of Bill Clinton. Howard Dean, on the other hand, was seen as a left-wing populist. He was one of the few Democrats to harshly criticize the Iraq War. Dean became the early favorite thanks to his passionate grassroots followers, known as Deanites or Deaniacs. Dean is credited as the first candidate to effectively use the internet as a campaign tool, earning him a large fundraising advantage.
Dean’s momentum fizzled following his disappointing third-place finish in Iowa, where Kerry finished first, and Edwards second. Dean’s position worsened further after an unflattering audio clip became a national punchline. At his concession speech for Iowa, Dean excitedly listed off a series of states his supporters should expect to win in the future, ending with an overly-enthusiastic, YAAAH! Dean and the audience paid no attention to his unflattering exclamation, since the room was loud and full of excitement. For anyone listening to the audio captured by his microphone, however, Dean’s cheer stood out. The “Dean Scream” was played hundreds of times on news and comedy programs in the following days. Unfortunately, the innocuous clip severely damaged his reputation. John Kerry won New Hampshire and John Edwards won South Carolina. Kerry’s strong performance on Super Tuesday secured his position as the nominee. He selected John Edwards as his running mate in order to balance the ticket with a young Southerner. The highlight of the Democratic National Convention was the keynote address given by a young, Senate candidate named Barack Obama.
President Bush focused on attacking Kerry’s liberal voting record. Mirroring his father’s tactics against Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis in 1988, Bush created an image of Kerry as an out-of-touch, elitist, coastal liberal. He also labelled him as a flip-flopper, mainly for reversing his position on the Iraq War and an $87 billion funding bill. One of his most memorable ads used footage of Kerry windsurfing along with the pun that his positions went “whichever way the wind blows.” Kerry also faced accusations from the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that he lied about his war record. Their claims proved to be false, but still instilled doubt in the minds of voters. “Swift-boating” subsequently became a popular term for untrue political attacks.
Kerry attacked Bush as unqualified and argued that he had tricked the American people into an ill-conceived war in Iraq. Like Kerry, Bush faced criticism towards his military service when CBS reporter Dan Rather aired allegations that he did not fulfill his duties while in the Texas Air National Guard. These accusations were also determined to be false.
In the first debate, Kerry was aggressive, catching Bush off-guard. Television coverage showed a split-screen image of the two candidates, displaying Bush’s pronounced facial reactions to Kerry’s attacks. The image made Bush appear disdainful to viewers. The most notable line of the night came after Kerry criticized Bush for not securing international support for the Iraq invasion, saying that the only countries assisting the US were the UK and Australia. Bush brushed off his criticism with a meager defense, “Well, actually, he forgot Poland.” Bush improved his performance in the following two debates. Kerry made his biggest gaffe in the third debate when he tied a question about gay rights to Vice President Cheney’s lesbian daughter. The public had a negative reaction to Kerry’s decision to bring personal family matters into the debate.
As Election Day neared, polls showed another close race. Four days before the vote, Osama Bin Laden released a video threatening the US and criticizing Bush. The video ultimately helped Bush, as the public rallied around their leader.
Unlike the previous election, 2004 saw a large turnout. The electoral map looked similar to the 2000 results. Kerry won the Northeast, West Coast, and parts of the Midwest. Bush dominated in the middle of the country and the South. This was the first election in which the winner did not earn any electoral votes from the Northeast. Bush won important contests in the swing states of Iowa, New Mexico, Nevada, and ohio. The ohio results were so close, rumors spread that the Kerry campaign was considering filing a lawsuit. Bush chose not to declare victory that night, again denying his supporters the chance to celebrate. Luckily, the 2004 election did not devolve into a rehashing of 2000, and Kerry conceded the next morning.
In the Electoral College, one faithless elector from Minnesota cast his or her vote for “John Ewards” [sic]. That elector also voted for Edwards as vice president, making this the only time a candidate received an electoral vote for both positions. Since the electors’ votes were a secret, this person’s identity is unknown. None of them ever admitted to the hinky vote, prompting observers to regard this as a unintentional mistake.
President George W. Bush won a second term. The electoral result was 286-251. It was close, but not as close as 2000. Bush won 50.7% of the popular vote, to Kerry’s 48.3%. This was the first election since 1988 in which any candidate broke 50% of the vote, and the only popular vote win for a Republican candidate since the same year. Based on popular vote percentage, Bush earned the smallest margin of victory for a returning president in history. In Congress, Republicans held control of both Houses.
What Did It Say About America?
‘Merica! Although the cracks were already forming, patriotism was at such a high, voters had not yet fully questioned Bush’s plans for Afghanistan or Iraq. They simply wanted to support their president in a time of crisis. Despite Kerry’s moderate positions, Democrats needed to learn that they had to do more than appeal to their coastal base. In other news, thanks for Howard Dean, the internet was becoming a more powerful tool for campaigns.
Was It The Right Decision?
No! Bush’s policies were a disaster at home and abroad! We can only speculate as to how his opponents would have handled the extreme crises that he faced, but I firmly believe that the Iraq War would not have happened under any other administration, Republican or Democrat. In his second term, these missteps would finally catch up with him.