Bush, Obama and a Lesson in Principles

Over the course of his presidency President Obama has taken considerable heat over his administration’s multiple unconstitutional policies. Most of this criticism has come from Republicans. Even when Obama has violated civil liberties the American left, the alleged bulwark of civil rights, has been reticent to voice disapproval. This raises the question about whether the left’s typical concern over civil liberties is a principled position or just another political ploy.

But partisan politics isn’t only a problem for the left. The right’s newfound concern for civil liberties and the Constitution is interesting in the light of what Republicans were saying for the eight years of George W. Bush’s presidency. Despite Bush’s rising popularity, an uncomfortable truth that most conservatives would like to avoid is that Bush was basically as bad as Obama. There is even a compelling case to be made that many of Obama’s bad policies are continuations of Bush’s bad policies.

One of the main criticisms of Obama has been his signing of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) which gives the president the authority to arrest and indefinitely detain (that is, kidnap) American citizens. However, as the Cato Institute’s Gene Healy and Timothy Lynch point out, this policy has its origin in the Bush Administration, which claimed executive authority to designate American citizens as enemy combatants and throw them in prison without trial or even being charged with a crime.

As it turns out, Bush’s policy is indistinguishable from Obama’s.

Another criticism of Obama has been his administration’s position on drones. Many have decried Attorney General Eric Holder’s repeated claims that the president can legally order a drone strike to take out an American citizen if that person was deemed dangerous. Others have claimed that drones will lead to the expansion of the surveillance state and an increase in violations of the Fourth Amendment’s protections against illegal search and seizure.

How does this relate to George W. Bush? For starters, the drone program began under his administration and his policy of indefinite detention gives us no confidence that he would have opposed the Obama drone policy towards American citizens. The larger question is whether conservatives would have opposed the policy if Bush had publicly supported it.

When it comes to violations of the Fourth Amendment, Bush leads the way. Less than 40 days after the 2001 terror attacks the Patriot Act was passed and signed into law. Most lawmakers didn’t even bother to read the legislation (maybe they had to pass it to find out what was in it). Amidst the ensuing tide of nationalism few people even blinked as their constitutional rights were signed away.

In reality the Patriot Act was an unprecedented infringement of basic civil liberties. Judge Andrew Napolitano sums up the Patriot Act this way:

“For the first time in American history, the government, without showing probable cause and without getting a search warrant from a judge, can read your mail before you do, can go to your lawyer’s office and seize your files and the lawyer can’t tell you, and it can do that same with a bank, with a hospital, with your physician, and with your pharmacist.”

“The Patriot Act has allowed the government to circumvent completely the Fourth Amendment requirement of a search warrant in order to obtain information to be used against an individual in a criminal prosecution.”

This doesn’t exactly sounds like an administration hellbent on protecting the Constitution.

The similarities between Bush and Obama don’t end there. Obama’s signature piece of legislation is the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare. As terrible as this law is, Bush also helped to socialize health care by supporting and signing Medicare Part D, legislation responsible for adding $20 trillion in unfunded liabilities to the federal budget.

Perhaps most perplexing has been the level of criticism aimed at Obama over the bailouts and the stimulus, programs that he has indeed supported. But as terrible as these policies are, they were begun under Bush. For supporting the same thing, Obama gets called a socialist and Bush is somehow still a supporter of capitalism. I don’t dispute that Obama has strong socialist tendencies, but it gives me no comfort when a politician like Bush tells me he has “abandoned free-market principles to save the free-market system.”

Obama has also been heavily criticized for his use of executive orders, but Bush used presidential signing statements in a similar way. Rather than just signing a bill into law, he would frequently issue a statement that either changed the way the law was interpreted or ignored entire portions of the law that the president found undesirable.

Obama has been blasted for increasing the size of government, but historian Tom Woods notes that under Bush the number of government bureaucrats increased by a whopping 91,196, this coming after an actual reduction in that number by President Clinton. The cost of federal financial regulation increased 29% under Bush after falling under Clinton. When all was said and done, Bush was the biggest spender since Lyndon Johnson, an original supporter of the New Deal whose Great Society programs led to massive increases in spending in the 1960s.

Why bring all this up now? After all, isn’t Obama and his gaggle of big-government cronies the enemy of liberty now? Perhaps, but conservatives still have a tendency to pine for the good ol’ days of G-Dub when freedom rang and life was good. It’s time we all come to grips with the harsh reality that if we judge Bush the same way we measure Obama we see that the former was roughly as terrible as the latter. He doesn’t get a pass just because he has an “R” beside his name.

Continuing to blindly support Bush only serves to undermine the case against Obama’s policies today. Would we prefer to stand on principle and support freedom and the Constitution, or would we prefer to idolize politicians who say they’re on our side and then betray us? We have to choose one option. Which will it be?