Democrats have had a problem during the Trump administration: How to properly bash the president? With a party leadership unfortunately composed largely of humorless squares, even Trump's playground taunts give him a certain advantage in the zinger department.
One poor tactic many Democrats have resorted to is comparing Trump unfavorably to the previous Republican president, George W. Bush. Most recently, when Trump immediately blamed Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) for the truck attack in New York City on Tuesday, because Schumer supported the green card immigration lottery, Schumer reached for the Bush comparison:
President Bush, in a moment of national tragedy, understood the meaning of his high office & sought to bring our country together.
— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) November 1, 2017
President Trump, where is your leadership? The contrast btwn Pres Bush’s actions after 9-11 & Pres Trump’s this am couldn't be starker.
— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) November 1, 2017
This is a disastrous instinct — not only historically inaccurate, but a political poisoned chalice.
Trump has been a pretty awful president, but thus far he is not even close to as bad as President Bush, the second-worst president in American history (behind Andrew Johnson).
Let's review some of what President Bush actually did in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. He did, it's true, avoid explicitly blaming all 2.1 billion Muslims, saying in a speech afterwards that people who carry out attacks under such a religious justification "blaspheme the name of Allah."
But he did invade two Muslim countries, both of which turned into bloody disasters. The invasion of Afghanistan was at least related to the attacks, though Bush badly botched the occupation (as well as idiotically turned away a chance to obtain genuine rapprochement with Iran, and directly caused the North Korean nuclear breakout by pulling out of a 1994 diplomatic framework).
Much worse, Bush leveraged the outrage over 9/11 to invade Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with the attacks. His administration juked up false intelligence — over the disputes of actual experts like Hans Blix and Scott Ridder — to claim that Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction" factories had not been shut down. The invocation of WMDs was itself highly misleading, lumping in not-terribly-dangerous chemical weapons, which Iraq had possessed in the past, with extremely dangerous nukes, which it had not. Finally, Bush and his cronies (particularly Vice President Cheney) created a false impression that Iraq had something to do with 9/11 through more garbage intelligence and constantly mentioning them in the same breath. In a September 2003 poll, 70 percent of the American population believed that Saddam Hussein had something to do with the terror attacks.
The Iraq disaster killed 4,500 U.S. soldiers, something like 400,000 Iraqis, and radically destabilized the entire region. It led directly to the rise of ISIS and contributed powerfully to the Syrian Civil War. It was the worst foreign policy blunder in American history — perhaps not the bloodiest, but the biggest piece of sheer senseless stupidity since Russia's Kerensky Offensive in World War I.
On civil liberties, Bush was a straight-up lawless authoritarian. As part of these wars of aggression (itself a war crime, under international law), the Bush regime created a torture program under the CIA, designed and enabled at the highest levels of government. Many innocent people — including, on occasion, the CIA's own informants — were tortured, and some detainees were tortured to death. This was a violation not just of international law and a signed treaty, but U.S. law as well. It led to no useful intelligence, profoundly damaged America's reputation around the world, and led many experienced anti-terror professionals to resign in disgust.
Bush set up an extralegal gulag-esque prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, where hundreds of Muslims scooped up more-or-less at random were caged for years — and many brutally tortured. The haphazard roundup meant that many (and perhaps most) of the detainees were innocent, and the lack of due process meant that both convictions and releases were extremely difficult to attain.
Bush also set up a warrantless wiretapping program, lied about it, and successfully pressured The New York Times not to publish the story before the 2004 election. He kidnapped American citizens suspected of terrorism and held them for years without trial or due process, in what was later ruled as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
The main target of all this crime, abuse, and violence was the Arab Muslim world. It was Muslim countries that were invaded. It was Muslims who were tortured. And it was Muslim-Americans that were targeted for police oppression and robbed of due process. Bush's anti-Muslim bigotry was immensely worse than Trump's has been, so far — he just hid it behind a liberal facade.
(And all this is leaving aside Bush's grotesque domestic policy record — the massive handouts to the rich, firing U.S. attorneys who were not "loyal Bushies," the corporate stooges in every regulatory agency, the wretched economic performance, letting New Orleans drown, and, of course, the world-shattering financial crisis.)
The problem with Democrats polishing the Bush presidency turd is twofold: First, it allows Republicans to skate on what should be a gigantic political liability. Instead of tying Bush's failed presidency around the neck of every Republican in the land, Democrats are instead boosting his popularity. No doubt in large part due to elite signaling like Schumer's, Democrats now approve of Bush by a 51-42 margin.
Second, it badly misleads people as to the nature of the political fix America is in. Trump is not some aberration in an otherwise-normal political party. He is merely every despicable Republican impulse cranked up to 11 — only this time, he's so incompetent that he hasn't managed to actually achieve much. So let us stop pretending otherwise.