In a nationally televised address to the American people on March 4, 1987, President Ronald Reagan admitted he had traded arms for hostages in the Iran-Contra scandal and declared, "This happened on my watch." Sadly, that may have been the last time a Republican leader took ownership of a disaster by simply acknowledging the calendar. After all, according to the Republicans' ever-malleable timelines, the Clinton economic boom came thanks to Ronald Reagan, President Bush inherited a recession and 9/11 from his Democratic predecessor, and the financial collapse in 2008 was the "Obama Bear Market." And now, the GOP's new math dictates, George W. Bush deserves the credit for killing Osama Bin Laden.
No doubt, the elimination of the Al Qaeda chieftain was the culmination of years of intelligence work and military asset building that spanned the Bush and Obama administrations. But while President Bush diverted resources from Afghanistan to Iraq, shuttered the CIA's Bin Laden unit and cancelled a 2005 U.S. special operations raid into Pakistan, it was Barack Obama who as promised tripled U.S. troop strength and repeatedly declared that "that if Pakistan cannot or will not act, we will take out high-level terrorist targets like bin Laden if we have them in our sights."
That's a far cry from President Bush declaration on March 13, 2002 - just six months after the carnage of 9/11 - that in the wake of the failure to capture Bin Laden in Tora Bora, "I truly am not that concerned about him."
Nevertheless, according to the latest Republican revisionist history, George W. Bush did everything but pull the trigger on Sunday. (More ironic still, Bush’s supporters accused President Obama of taking a “victory lap” after the death of Bin Laden, which occurred exactly 8 years to the day after Dubya appeared in a flight suit on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln to declare “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq.)
Despite virtually no evidence to support the claim, GOP torture enthusiasts like Peter King (R-NY) trumpeted that "We obtained that information through waterboarding." House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) was just one of a legion of conservatives explaining that credit had one degree of separation, announcing "I commend President Obama who has followed the vigilance of President Bush in bringing bin Laden to justice." While Sarah Palin refused to even utter Obama’s name in crediting President Bush, right-wing billionaire sugar daddy David Koch complained that Obama “just made the decision, it was obvious where the guy is.” Donald Rumsfeld similarly praised his former boss:
"All of this was made possible by the relentless, sustained pressure on al Qaeda that the Bush administration initiated after 9/11 and that the Obama administration has wisely chosen to continue."
But if Republican mythology states that George W. Bush is responsible for apprehending the mastermind of 9/11, the attacks ten years ago were all Bill Clinton's fault.
That's an interesting charge, given President Bush's response to the CIA presenter of the infamous August 6, 2001 Presidential Daily Brief:
"All right. You've covered your ass, now."
That would be the same PDB about which Condoleezza Rice explained to the 9/11 Commission, "I believe the title was, 'Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States." And while National Security Advisor Rice protested in 2002 that "I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people would...try to use an airplane as a missile," counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke had anticipated exactly that. As it turned out, the plan he presented to Rice in January 2001 only became the subject of a national security "principals meeting" in the days just before September 11. (Bush, you'll recall, spent the previous month at his Crawford, Texas ranch agonizing about his policy on stem cell research which his adviser Karen Hughes described at the time as "the most important decision of your presidency.") It's no wonder Sandy Berger told Rice during the transition that "I believe that the Bush Administration will spend more time on terrorism generally, and on al-Qaeda specifically, than any other subject."
Nevertheless, conservative theology required that the 9/11 attacks which occurred eight months into the Bush presidency were entirely Bill Clinton's fault. Then die-hard conservative Andrew Sullivan summed up the tried but untrue talking point, claiming "[Clinton] was more responsible than anyone for the gaping holes in national security and intelligence that made Sept. 11 possible. The buck must stop with him." A national security disaster that spanned both administrations, in the telling of Bush Attorney General John Ashcroft to the 9/11 Commission in April 2004, belonged solely to one man:
"But the simple fact of September 11 is this: we did not know an attack was coming because for nearly a decade our government had blinded itself to its enemies. Our agents were isolated by government-imposed walls, handcuffed by government-imposed restrictions, and starved for basic information technology. The old national intelligence system in place on September 11 was destined to fail."
According to Republican calculus, Bill Clinton was also responsible for every calamity which befell the economy under George W. Bush. Given that Clinton presided over the creation of 23 million new jobs, the lowest unemployment in decades, robust economic growth and a balanced budget, that might seem like a dubious claim.
Dubious, that it, until conservatives clarify that the Clinton boom of the late 1990's was the result of the invisible hand of Ronald Reagan.
"Clinton was served up a booming economy on a silver platter," as one Townhall columnist put it, "thanks to former President Reagan and entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Larry Ellison of Oracle." But it was Reagan bath-water drinkers Lawrence Kudlow and Stephen Moore who offered the GOP's revisionist history in its purest form on February 1, 2000. Almost 19 years after the supply-side tax cuts of 1981, Moore and Kudlow argued "it's the Reagan economy, stupid."
While the chattering heads in Washington are claiming that this expansion is sweet vindication for Clintonomics, they are wrong. Dead wrong. The politician most responsible for laying the groundwork for this prosperous era is not Bill Clinton, but Ronald Reagan...
It was Reagan's supply side economic ideas -- the policy of marginal rate tax cuts, a strong dollar, trade globalization (the Gipper started NAFTA with a U.S.-Canadian free trade agreement), deregulation of key industries like energy, financial services and transportation, and a re-armed military -- all of which unleashed a great wave of entrepreneurial-technological innovation that transformed and restructured the economy, resulting in a long boom prosperity that continues to throw off economic benefits to this day.
(Sadly for Reagan's hagiographers, the data suggest otherwise. As the historical record shows, from GDP growth and job creation to stock market performance and almost every indicator of the health of American capitalism that matters, the U.S. economy almost always does better under Democratic presidents.)
If Ronald Reagan gets the credit for Bill Clinton's economic successes, Clinton got the blame for George W. Bush's economic failures.
In March 2009, President Barack Obama rightly noted that, "by any measure, my administration has inherited a fiscal disaster." Former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer quickly protested Obama's "response to that trend [in his approval numbers] is to turn up the blame on George Bush and everything that came before him." That would be the same Ari Fleischer who just two days earlier defended his boss to MSNBC's Chris Matthews, describing "the recession of 2001, which we inherited."
Sadly for Fleischer and the other mythmakers of the Republican amen corner, President Bush did not inherit a recession from Bill Clinton. (He did, however, inherit a 4.2% unemployment rate and a federal budget surplus.) As I noted in January, the same National Bureau of Economic Research (NEBR) which officially declared the current recession began in December 2007 also concluded the previous downturn commenced during Bush's watch in March 2001. By the more traditional definition - two straight quarters of GDP decline - at no point was the economy in recession during the last year of the Clinton presidency.
Undeterred, the Republican Party and its echo chamber have for years continued to perpetuate the myth that President Bush "inherited a recession" from Bill Clinton. As Media Matters detailed, the sound bite was introduced before George W, Bush even took the oath of office. On December 3, 2000, Dick Cheney told Tim Russert "I think so" when asked if "we're on the front edge of a recession." Within days, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich ("the Bush-Cheney administration should be planning on having inherited a recession as the farewell gift from Clinton") and House Majority Leader Dick Armey ("this new president may inherit a recession") followed suit. By August 2002, Mitch Daniels, Bush's head of the Office of Management and Budget, announced on Fox News:
"He [Bush] inherited that recession from the previous administration. Case is closed."
Predictably, the drumbeat from the Bush team was reproduced with zero distortion from the always reliable media. While Fox News' Sean Hannity made the argument during the November 2002 mid-term election "this president -- you know and I know and everybody knows -- inherited a recession," CNN made the case for him two months earlier. On September 18th, 2002, CNN's John King announced, "That's why the president, in almost every speech, tries to remind voters he inherited a recession." Five days later, his colleague Suzanne Malveaux regurgitated the same line, reporting, "[Bush] took up that very issue earlier today, saying -- reminding voters that the administration inherited the recession."
To be sure, the Republican propaganda effort worked its magic. In 2004, pollster Geoff Garin showed that 62% of Americans believed the demonstrably false claim that an "economic recession actually began during Bill Clinton's administration, before George W. Bush took office."
As we fast forward to 2009, George W. Bush and his echo chamber continue to perpetuate the same myth. During his final press conference, President Bush sidestepped the fact he had presided over the worst eight-year economic performance in modern presidential history, insisting, "In terms of the economy, look, I inherited a recession, I am ending on a recession. In the meantime there were 52 months of uninterrupted job growth." And on Thursday, his faithful flack Ari Fleischer regurgitated the same talking point:
"We've never in this country had 55 straight months of job creation. We had that under President Bush before the bank failures of September...You know, I think he came in with a recession, he left with a recession."
Months before Barack Obama was even elected President, conservative mouthpieces began propagating the "Obama Bear Market" myth, claiming that his supposed "socialism" would "tank the market." Now, with the Dow around 12,800, a gain of well over 50% since Obama took the oath of office, Republicans are predictably silent.
The first installment of the Republicans' "previsionist" history unsurprisingly came from CNBC host and former Reagan advisor Larry Kudlow. That right-wing water carrier, who in April 2008 compared the deepening recession to an enema (calling it "an economic cleansing" and crowing that "recessions are therapeutic"), blamed a one-day 242-point drop on the Democratic Convention:
"Are the Denver Dems downing the stock market today? The Dow is off 230 points, starting right from the get-go. So-called market analysts are blaming financials and the credit crunch as they always do. But there's more.
Obama and Biden gave us plenty of class warfare in their Springfield, Ill., get together on Saturday. Tax the rich. Redistribute income and wealth. Go after all those corporate meanies. Trade protection...
...With the Denver Dems strutting their stuff, this could be a bumpy week for stocks. Did anyone say free-market capitalism is the best path to prosperity?"
With Obama's election on November 4th, that warning shot turned into a barrage. Within 48 hours, the mullahs of right-wingistan didn't merely blame Obama for two days of market declines; they traveled back in time to lay the entire Bush recession at his feet.
Echoing CNBC's Kudlow, Dick Morris claimed the markets will "continue to tank...not just because he's a radical, not just because he's a Democrat, but because he's going to raise the capital gains tax. While Fox News' Gretchen Carlson announced, "there's a lot of feeling in the market not reacting very well to the election of Barack Obama," Fred Barnes proclaimed, "There is great uncertainty out there about [Obama's] policies." And that Thursday, the always execrable Rush Limbaugh on November 6, 2008 laid it all at Obama's feet:
"The Obama recession is in full swing, ladies and gentlemen. Stocks are dying, which is a precursor of things to come. This is an Obama recession. Might turn into a depression. He hasn't done anything yet but his ideas are killing the economy. His ideas are killing Wall Street...
...The market's down today because of the jobless numbers. That's how the Drive-Bys see it. Uhhhhh, we have the largest market plunge after an election in history. Thank you, man-child Barack Obama."
As the Dow Jones continued its slide below 7,000 in March, 2009, the conservative catcalls become a chorus. CNN's Lou Dobbs, the self-proclaimed "Mr. Independent," announced on March 9, 2009, "This is now the Obama bear market." That same day, the Wall Street Journal declared, "The dismaying message here is that President Obama's policies have become part of the economy's problem." House Minority Leader John Boehner was among the Republican leaders bemoaning "the Obama economy" and insisted that since Obama's inauguration six weeks earlier, "Certainly the stock market hasn't acted very well." Later that month, the Journal's Daniel Henninger blasted Obama's "radical presidency":
"A Democratic Party that was always anti-Wall Street is becoming anti- Main Street."
The drumbeat hardly ended there. On March 8, 2009, Fox News host Chris Wallace asked an uncomfortable John McCain, "Can this now fairly be called the Obama bear market?" That propaganda only echoed the Republican talking points regurgitated two days earlier by Bloomberg in article titled, "'Obama Bear Market' Punishes Investors as Dow Slumps" and the Wall Street Journal rant, "Obama's Radicalism is Killing the Dow." On March 6th, Sean Hannity was nearly orgasmic as he trumpeted the declines on Wall Street:
And our headline this Friday night: Welcome to Day Number 46 of "Obama's Bear Market." Now, that's what some news organizations are calling it tonight as the Dow Jones industrial average actually finished up about 30 points today at the end of a disastrous week.
According to Bloomberg News, the Dow has now dropped faster during the first six weeks of the Obama administration than any other administration in at least 90 years. But is that a surprise after weeks of talking down the economy?
But then a funny thing happened on the way to the Obama poor house: the stock market started its steady, upward swing. But for the conservative commentariat, of course, credit for that progress did not go to President Obama.
On April 18, 2009, Fox News displayed an on-screen caption proclaiming, "Stocks Rally as 'Tea Party' Rallies Take Nation by Storm. Host Brenda Buttner described the surge on Wall Street as "a Tea Party rally." As Media Matters recounted:
Buttner later asked Bulls & Bears commentator Gary B. Smith: "[P]art of the tea party was having voices heard. For so long, all we were hearing about was nationalizing banks and socialism and all that. Just having this out there, does that help Wall Street? Does that help the bulls?" Smith responded: "Absolutely, Brenda. You know, first of all, you heard for so many weeks and months that, you know, the whole country, you know, Obama won overwhelmingly, and it looked like, you know, we were going to go lockstep down this, you know, this socialist path." He continued: "And then we started having these tea parties," which, according to Smith, "shows that ... the normal, average American is just kind of sick of all the, you know, the tax-and-spend culture." He concluded: "So, I think it's all a good thing, and I think that it's helped the rally."
What was once the Bush recession is now the Bush recovery?
And it hardly ends there. On his March 18, 2010 show, Larry Kudlow asked CNBC's Jim Cramer about his belief that "Obamacare will topple the stock market." Since then, the Dow has jumped another 2.1%. But with George W. Bush in the White House in April 2007, Kudlow expressed a different view of what the Wall Street's performance said about presidential leadership on the economy. Paul Krugman helpfully recalled Kudlow's words:
"I have long believed that stock markets are the best barometer of the health, wealth and security of a nation. And today's stock market message is an unmistakable vote of confidence for the president."
Unless, of course, the President is a Democrat.
And so it goes. With their magical calendar, Republicans turn Democratic triumphs into victories for the GOP and conservative fiascos into liberal ones. But the tendency to appropriate credit and deflect blame may go deeper. After all, in the wake of his Bay of Pigs disaster, John F. Kennedy addressed the nation to make clear the fault was his alone. "There's an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan," Kennedy said, adding, "I am the responsible officer of the government." Asked 43 years later in the wake of his WMD debacle in Iraq and the Abu Ghraib scandal if he could name a single mistake he had made, Bin Laden's supposed killer George W. Bush responded:
"I'm sure something will pop into my head here...maybe I'm not as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one."
Bush need not have worried. As his supporters are only too happy to claim, according to the Republicans' magic calendar, any mistake that occurred during his term was doubtless the fault of Bill Clinton or Barack Obama.