With the 2008 presidential season heating up and the Bush presidency slipping into its twilight, President Bush appears determined to draw bright lines to remind America where he stands. His eye on history, he means to leave his mark for posterity. Oddly, the place he’s chosen to make his stand is in the nation’s emergency rooms and pediatric wards. He is battling to prevent the Democratic-led Congress from spending an extra $6 billion per year on health care for uninsured children.
Odd, because Bush’s watchwords when he sought the presidency seven years ago were compassion and bipartisanship. Odd, too, because his signature issue before he entered the White House was children’s welfare and education, and yet now he is fighting to ensure that fewer children find their way to the doctor’s office.
Most of all, it’s odd because it’s so transparently nonsensical. Just last week, the president asked Congress for an extra $42 billion in emergency funds, outside this year’s budget, to pay for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. That brings total emergency war funding this year to $189 billion, all of it borrowed and left to our children to repay. And yet, a scant week after asking for the extra $42 billion to finance the war, the president mounted the barricades this week to block the extra $6 billion per year that Congress wants to waste on sick kids.
Bush even threatened to veto half of next year’s federal budget if he must, to save the $6 billion. The Democrats are considering rolling next year’s defense, veteran affairs and social service budgets into one bill, hoping that will shield the social spending from a veto. Bush says he’ll veto all that, $700 billion in all, just so he can block the children’s health and a few other increases, totaling $11 billion. He’s already accusing the House Democrats of holding “our troops” hostage to the $11 billion in new social spending. Congress, he said, must spend in a “responsible” way.
Bush’s latest words on the topic were delivered this past Tuesday, October 30, in a press briefing outside the White House. In a stinging rebuke to Democrats, he charged that Congress “is not getting its work done,” that instead of legislating, the House “has wasted valuable time on a constant stream of investigations.”
The president’s sense of symbolism, usually impeccable, could not have been more unfortunate that day. As he complained of “constant” investigations, he was flanked by two House Republican leaders — Minority Leader John Boehner and GOP Whip Roy Blunt — who were members of the Republican-led House in the 1990s. That would be the chamber that wasted five years and $80 million investigating the Clinton administration half to death.
Investigating what? The current House, Democratic-run, has been probing the government’s use of torture, the catastrophic loss of New Orleans and the tens of billions of dollars lost to mismanagement, corruption and no-bid contracts in Iraq. The Republican House, in which Boehner served as a leader, spent its time investigating the president’s sex life and the first lady’s failed business dealings. If nothing else, Bush should keep better company when he’s slinging mud.
But the president could do so much more, so much good, if he really wants to secure his legacy. He could acknowledge the failure of many of his policies and spend time helping to clean up some of the mess he’s leaving behind — the massive debt, the degraded environment, the sullied image of America around the world, the losing wars and their terrible side-effects. He could work with the House, rather than against it, to develop a responsible budget that provides for the public’s crying needs. He could sit with Senate leaders and begin to find a way out of the misbegotten Iraq War that Americans have utterly repudiated. He could nominate judges, commissioners and department heads who represent the best of America, not its extremists and moneybags.
For starters, he might try helping kids get to the doctor.