Bush Sr. was a better president than Clinton was

I posted a short tweet that annoyed a lot of people, apparently:

I could make a case that George HW Bush was solidly one of the 10 best presidents all time. The man he lost to was solidly not. We should mourn Bush and the passing of his version of the GOP, replaced by the Confederacy of Dunces – from his son directly to Trumpism.

I’m a proud liberal who cast his first vote for Clinton over Bush, voted for Clinton over Dole, was an early Obama supporter, and voted for Bernie. Here’s my super-concise bottom line: I’ll take a moderate Republican whose signature legislative accomplishment was a bipartisan tax-raising budget deal and whose signature foreign policy achievements were ably managing the end of Cold War and then a well-executed multi-lateral coalition war that did not lead to a disaster…

…over a conservative Democrat, most of whose long-term achievements were cynically conservative, had a mixed foreign policy record, decisively lost Congress (the first time the GOP took the House since [correction: 1953]), and became only the second president to be impeached in U.S. history — for some incredibly stupid conduct, which made his second term a totally wasted four years.

Here are the best things Clinton did with long-term impact:

  1. RBG and Breyer
  2. The 1993 budget deal, which moved towards balanced budgets with tax increases, and navigated through the conservative Dems in Congress.
  3. Oslo and the peace process in Israel/Palestine, but that ultimately collapsed
  4. CHIP.

But Clinton’s domestic accomplishments were markedly conservative, and people forget just how bad the legislative record was, just off the top of my head. Keep in mind that blew the health care opportunity with hubris and chaos, and then turned sharp right:

  1. Welfare “reform.” (Cutting families off).
  2. AEDPA death penalty expansion and habeas restriction.
  3. A terrible anti-immigration law IIRIRA. A terrible law to get himself re-elected.
  4. The Prison Litigation Reform Act. Dreadful.
  5. The Crime Bill of 1994, with gun control on the positive side, but some right-wing compromises. And it was billed by the framing of “super-predators” as a coded racist dog-whistles. Not nearly as bad as Willy Horton, but still.
  6. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (exec order) and anti-gay marriage DOMA

Foreign policy other than Israel/Palestine was disappointing. Rwanda, Somalia, delayed intervention in Bosnia/Herzegovina.

And then there’s Whitewater, perjury, obstruction of justice, and impeachment. We can agree that Ken Starr was an abusive partisan hack, but Clinton recklessly opened himself up to all of it.

Now for Bush Sr. There is a LOT not to like, too. I’ll grant that the Willie Horton ad was a low point in American politics. Clinton used race in his 1992 campaign, too, to marginalize Jesse Jackson for political points, but it is nothing compare to Willie Horton. So I fully concede that terrible mark against Bush. And there’s Clarence Thomas. And I’ll admit that Souter was a happy accident.

But I’ll take Bush’s bipartisanship and multi-lateral foreign policy success over Clinton’s record. Bush’s 1990 budget deal moved towards deficit reduction relying mostly on Democratic votes. The bill passed the Senate 54-45, with 35 Democratic votes! Stunning compromise. And Bush was punished for it by increasingly ideological GOP leaders and voters.

Bush also managed two foreign policy challenges with deft multilateralism: the end of Soviet Union and the Iraq War. Was the Iraq War avoidable? Maybe. But once the crisis hit, he built an international coalition, won decisively, and then — here’s the key — he avoided the disaster that his son created by pulling back against Gen. Schwartzkopf’s push to march to Baghdad, a tough call, but the right call. And a really important call.

Bush also took steps to push Israel towards peace negotiations, too (opposing the finance of new settlements).

And Bush did not get himself impeached.

Did Bush have some right-wing policies? Some, but I think we should appreciate the lost species of the moderate Republican, and not forget how Clinton appropriated so many right-wing policies himself. Did Bush have some ethical challenges (pardon Weinberger?). Sure, but fewer relative to most presidents.

So yes, I’d rank Bush above Clinton. Solidly.

Author: Jed Shugerman

Legal historian at Fordham Law School, teaching Torts, Administrative Law, and Constitutional History. JD/PhD in History, Yale. Red Sox and Celtics fan, youth soccer coach. Author of "The People's Courts: Pursuing Judicial Independence in America" (2012) on the rise of judicial elections in America. I filed an amicus brief in the Emoluments litigation against Trump along with a great team of historians. I'm working on "The Rise of the Prosecutor Politicians," a history of prosecutors and American politics, and another project on the origins of independent agencies in America.

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