FOOL ME TWICE

07.29.12

Paul Begala on George W. Bush’s Very Bad Economic Advice

Dubya might be skipping the GOP convention, but he’s not shy about sharing his thoughts on the economy. Too bad America would be better off without them.

If there were a Mt. Losemore of lousy presidents, George W. Bush would be on it twice. No one in the last century even comes close.

So it was politically wise for Bush to announce he is skipping the GOP convention. Lord knows the people of Tampa have suffered enough. Bush is no genius, but he is politically astute enough to know he is still toxic. He keeps a low profile, and a grateful nation sends its thanks for that.

But wait: a sighting. And another. Perhaps to show he has a sense of humor, Bush has something called The Bush Institute. (Insert joke about Dubya needing to be institutionalized here.) The Institute has a new book out, and the former president is out promoting it.

The book is titled The Four Percent Solution: Unleashing the Economic Growth America Needs. You gotta hand it to Bush. Either he was born without the moral compass that engenders humility or he has one sick sense of humor. To start with, let the record show that George W. Bush was in fact president of the United States for eight years. And for those eight years economic growth averaged not four percent, but 2.04 percent. For Bush to attach his name to a book claiming to be a recipe for economic growth is what we Texans call chutzpah. What’s next? Charlie Sheen as spokesperson for Just Say No? Chris Christie’s fitness video? Kim Kardashian’s tips for a long and happy marriage? The mind boggles.

Where Dubya is concerned I have tried so hard to be Elvis Costello, who famously sang, “I used to be disgusted, but now I try to be amused.” But I just can’t get past the retching revulsion I feel about what this man and his policies did to our nation and the world. We will set aside the legacy of lost blood and treasure caused by his unwarranted invasion of Iraq for another day—perhaps when His Airheadedness decides to publish a book on national security. For now let us focus on the economy and the Bush Institute’s book.

The institute’s executive director, James K. Glassman, who also wrote the introduction, is no stranger to failed economic prophecy. In 1999 he co-authored (with current Romney adviser Kevin Hassett) a book with the unintentionally hilarious title “Dow 36,000: The New Strategy for Profiting From the Coming Rise in the Stock Market.” They almost got it right. Instead of a rise in the stock market there was a crash. The Dow went to 6,500, and 13 years after their book was published it is around 13,000. So they were only off by 23,000 points.

Asked about his time as president, Bush remarks, “Eight years was awesome. And I was famous and I was powerful.” Oh my God. The greatest nation on earth was led by a four-year-old.

In promoting the book, the former president gave an interview to the Hoover Institute—fitting, since both Presidents Hoover and Bush presided over economic policies that led to depressions. The beginning of the interview showcases Dubya at his best: he chats amiably and knowledgeably about the Texas Rangers (Lord, why didn’t you make Dubya Baseball Commissioner instead of president? He would have been a great Commissioner; he believes baseball should be played on real grass, with pitchers batting, and no interleague play. He is as right about everything baseball-oriented as he is wrong about everything presidentially oriented.)

After baseball, the former president reflects on his time in the Oval Office—the most solemn, difficult job on earth—and summarizes it thus: “Eight years was awesome. And I was famous and I was powerful.” Oh my God. For the better part of a decade, the greatest nation on earth was led by a four-year-old.

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'Remember when somebody threw a shoe at W.?'

Although I have not yet begun to tap the depth of my disdain for Bush, intellectual honesty compels to admit that he is right to focus on growth. Too many liberals focus exclusively on fairness; as if everyone drowning in a sinking ship would be okay. And too many conservatives focus only on deficits - although their hawkishness seems to extend only to hammering the middle class and the poor, never to paying their own fair share for a debt caused in great part by tax breaks for the rich. Growth is the secret sauce.

For all their supposed hatred of Europe, it is the Republicans who are proposing the solution that has failed in Europe: austerity. If the problem is a lack of growth, the answer cannot be to reduce demand even further. If unemployment is too high, layoffs won’t help.

The key to growth is the middle class. The economic elitists on the right seem to think that if we coddle a privileged class of elite investors, prosperity will, as they say, trickle down to the rest of us. If that were true, the Bush economy would have produced a boom rather than a depression. A middle-class-focused economy like, say, the one Bill Clinton gave us and Barack Obama is fighting for, would invest in people, in education, in infrastructure, in technology, in science and green jobs.

And here’s the cool part: it works for everyone. President Clinton used to say he hoped his economic policies would create more millionaires and billionaires than Ronald Reagan could have dreamed of. And they did. Because it is the middle class that drives our economy. When middle class people have more money, they can buy more stuff. And when they buy more stuff the rich people who own the companies that make stuff get richer still.

The wealthiest family in America is not the Zuckerbergs or the Buffetts or even the Gateses. It is the Walton family. Sam Walton started Wal-Mart on the principle that middle class and poor people were the country’s economic engine. He focused on them, and today the six people who inherited his fortune are worth an estimated $89.5 billion. That one family of six is wealthier than 48.8 million lower—and middle—income families combined.

If you want to give those 48.8 million lower-income families a shot at becoming the next Walton family, ignore Bush’s book. Instead, go read It’s the Middle Class, Stupid, by my old runnin’ buddies James Carville and Stan Greenberg. They give voice to the folks Bill Clinton used to call “the forgotten middle class.” Their book gives clear, compelling policy prescriptions to rescue the middle class, and save the American Dream.

My political advice may surprise you: as much as I enjoy bashing Bush (and will till my dying day), the Democrats’ better course would be to focus, as President Obama has, on reviving the middle class. Because if we save the middle class, we will restore growth, and make the poor, beleaguered top one percent richer still.