Second look at Bush 41?

The collapse of the Soviet Union was the transformative event of the late 20th century. Engaging Mikhail Gorbachev and integrating the new Russia into the new world order was politically controversial — and described as naïve — but Bush had the credibility and the resolve to stand up to the doubters. President Obama is now confronting a more aggressive Russian leader and a war caucus pushing for a more assertive U.S. military posture in Iran and Syria and Ukraine. It is worth asking: What would George the Elder do?

On the domestic front, he sought out a 1990s version of the grand bargain, a budgetary mix of tax increases and spending cuts. On the political front afterward, Bush was vilified, particularly by conservatives: “Read my lips, I lied,” screamed the New York Post. Pat Buchanan roughed him up in the 1992 Republican primaries, Ross Perot finished him off in the general election, and Bill Clinton was made president.

But on Bush’s watch, the top income tax bracket was raised from 28 percent to 31 percent and real discretionary spending started trending down. The federal budget deficit declined during his last year in office, eventually morphing into a surplus over the next eight years. As a one-termer, he got precious little credit for the rising employment rate, which began improving before he even left office, or a stock market surge that also began on his watch and continued for most of Bill Clinton’s time in office. The market gains during Bush’s tenure exceeded those of John F. Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt, but did not quite match Clinton and Reagan. (The presidential stock market king is Calvin Coolidge, followed by… Barack Obama.)

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