If you're looking for reasons to be disgusted with George W. Bush, here are the top 10:
1. The war in Iraq. Over a thousand soldiers and counting have died to subdue a country that was never a threat to the United States. Now we're trapped in an open-ended conflict against a hydra-headed enemy, while terrorism around the world actually increases.
One of the silliest arguments for the invasion held that our presence in Iraq was a "flypaper" attracting the world's terrorists to one distant spot. At this point, it's pretty clear that if there's a flypaper in Baghdad, the biggest bug that's stuck to it is the U.S.A.
2. Abu Ghraib. And by "Abu Ghraib" I mean all the places where Americans have tortured detainees, not just the prison that gave the scandal its name. While there are still people who claim that this was merely a matter of seven poorly supervised soldiers "abusing" (not torturing!) some terrorists, it's clear now that the abuse was much more widespread; that it included rape, beatings, and killings; that the prison population consisted overwhelmingly of innocents and petty crooks, not terrorists; and that the torture very likely emerged not from the unsupervised behavior of some low-level soldiers, but from policies set at the top levels of the Bush administration. Along the way, we discovered that the administration's lawyers believe the president has the power to unilaterally suspend the nation's laws—a policy that, if taken seriously, would roll back the central principle of the Glorious Revolution.
Two years ago, when Kathleen Kennedy Townsend was running for governor of Maryland, I noted her poor oversight of a boot camp program for drug offenders where the juvenile charges had been beaten and abused. "It's bad enough," I wrote, "to let something like institutionalized torture slip by on your watch. It's worse still to put your political career ahead of your job, and to brag about the program that's employing the torturers instead of giving it the oversight that might have uncovered their crimes earlier. There are mistakes that should simply disqualify a politician from future positions of authority." Every word of that applies at least as strongly to Donald Rumsfeld and to the man who has not seen fit to rebuke him publicly for the torture scandal, George Bush.
3. Indefinite detentions. Since 9/11, the U.S. government has imprisoned over a thousand people for minor violations of immigration law and held them indefinitely, sometimes without allowing them to consult a lawyer, even after concluding that they have no connections to terrorist activities. (Sirak Gebremichael of Ethiopia, to give a recently infamous example, was arrested for overstaying his visa—and then jailed for three years while awaiting deportation.) It has also claimed the right to detain anyone designated an "enemy combatant" in a legal no-man's land for as long as it pleases. Last month the Supreme Court finally put some restrictions on the latter practice, but that shouldn't stop us from remembering that the administration argued strenuously for keeping it.
4. The culture of secrecy. The Bush administration has nearly doubled the number of classified documents. It has urged agencies, in effect, to refuse as many Freedom of Information Act requests as possible, has invoked executive privilege whenever it can, and has been very free with the redactor's black marker when it does release some information. Obviously, it's impossible to tell how often the data being concealed is genuinely relevant to national security and how often it has more to do with covering a bureaucrat's behind. But there's obviously a lot of ass-covering going on.
And even when security is a real issue, all this secrecy doesn't make sense. Earlier this year, the Transportation Security Administration tried to retroactively restrict two pages of public congressional testimony that had revealed how its undercover agents managed to smuggle some guns past screeners. Presumably they were afraid a terrorist would read about it and try the method himself—but it would have made a lot more sense to seek some outsiders' input on how to resolve the putative problem than to try to hide it from our prying eyes. Especially when the information had already been sitting in the public record.
The administration has been quick to enforce its code of silence, regularly retaliating against those within its ranks who try to offer an independent perspective on its policies. While the most infamous examples of this involve international affairs, the purest episode may be the case of chief Medicare actuary Richard Foster, who apparently was threatened with dismissal if he told Congress the real projected cost of Bush's Medicare bill. Even if the White House didn't know about the threat—and I strongly suspect that it did—it created the organizational culture that allows such bullying to thrive.
5. Patriot and its progeny. The Patriot Act sometimes serves as a stand-in for everything wrong with the administration's record on civil liberties, and at times is blamed for policies it didn't create—those detentions, for example. Nonetheless, there's plenty of reasons to despise a law that allows warrantless searches of phone and Internet records; that gives police the right to see what books you've bought or checked out of the library while prohibiting the library or bookstore from telling you about the inquiry; that requires retailers to report "suspicious" transactions and, again, prevents them from telling you that they've done so. And there are plenty of reasons to despise an administration that rammed this bill through at the eleventh hour—and still wants to extend its reach.
6. The war on speech. Not all of the White House's assaults on our freedoms are linked to the war on terror. In March 2002, Bush signed the McCain-Feingold "campaign finance reform" bill, whose restrictions on political speech in the months approaching an election—i.e., at the time when political speech is most important—are so broad that they've forced a filmmaker, David T. Hardy, to delay the release of his documentary The Rights of the People until after November because it mentions several candidates. Bush approved this bill fully aware that it was a First Amendment nightmare; it's generally believed that he did so assuming that the Supreme Court would strike down its unconstitutional elements. Surprise: The Court weeded out a few measures but left most of them in place.
That's not to say the government hasn't done anything to increase the amount of political speech. Its ham-handed crackdown on "indecent" broadcasts—an effort that is to the cultural realm what McCain-Feingold is to the political sector—has turned Howard Stern into Amy Goodman.
7. The drunken sailor factor. Fine, you say: We all expect a Republican president to molest our civil liberties. But this one has poached the Democrats' turf as well, increasing federal spending by over $400 billion—its fastest rate of growth in three decades. Even if you set aside the Pentagon budget, Washington is doling out dollars like crazy: Under Bush, domestic discretionary spending has already gone up 25 percent. (Clinton only increased it 10 percent, and it took him eight years to do that.) "In 2003," the conservative Heritage Foundation notes, "inflation-adjusted federal spending topped $20,000 per household for the first time since World War II."
Of all those spending projects, Bush's Medicare bill deserves special attention. It will cost at least $534 billion over the next decade, and probably more. And it doesn't even deliver on its liberal promises: It does much more to distribute new subsidies and tax breaks to doctors, HMOs, and the pharmaceutical industry than it does to help seniors. The Medicare bill is to Bush's domestic policy what the Iraq war is to its foreign policy: an enormous expense of dubious merit that's come under fire from both the left and the right.
8. Cozying up to the theocrats. There are those who believe the White House is being run by religious fanatics, and there are those who believe it's mostly paying lip service to Bush's Christian base. I lean toward the second view. But whether he's cynical or sincere, there's nothing good to be said for the president's willingness to demagogue the gay marriage issue (and throw federalism out the window in the process), or—worse yet—to restrict potentially life-saving research on therapeutic cloning because it offends that constituency's religious views.
9. Protectionism in all its flavors. Bush has repeatedly sacrificed the interests of consumers to help politically significant industries, giving us tariffs on products from steel to shrimp. This doesn't just make a mockery of his free-trade rhetoric—it's also bad policy.
10. He's making me root for John Kerry. I haven't voted for a major party's presidential candidate since 1988, and I have no plans to revert to the habit this year. The Democrats have nominated a senator who—just sticking to the points listed above—voted for the war in Iraq, the Patriot Act, McCain-Feingold, and the TSA; who endorses the assault on "indecency"; who thinks the government should be spending even more than it is now. I didn't have room in my top ten for the terrible No Child Left Behind Act, which further centralized control of the country's public schools—but for the record, Kerry voted for that one too. It's far from clear that he'd be any less protectionist than Bush is, and he's also got problems that Bush doesn't have, like his support for stricter gun controls. True, Kerry doesn't owe anything to the religious right, and you can't blame him for the torture at Abu Ghraib. Other than that, he's not much of an improvement.
Yet I find myself hoping the guy wins. Not because I'm sure he'll be better than the current executive, but because the incumbent so richly deserves to be punished at the polls. Making me root for a sanctimonious statist blowhard like Kerry isn't the worst thing Bush has done to the country. But it's the offense that I take most personally.