On Friday, Michael Gerson had a column where he praises "The Decency of George W. Bush" and touts what he sees as Bush's accomplishments:
Initial failures in Iraq acted like a solar eclipse, blocking the light on every other achievement. But those achievements, with the eclipse finally passing, are considerable by the measure of any presidency. Because of the passage of Medicare Part D, nearly 10 million low-income seniors are receiving prescription drugs at little or no cost. No Child Left Behind education reform has helped raise the average reading scores of fourth-graders to their highest level in 15 years and narrowed the achievement gap between white and African American children. The President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief has helped provide treatment for more than 1.7 million people and compassionate care for at least 2.7 million orphans and vulnerable children. And the decision to pursue the surge in Iraq will be studied as a model of presidential leadership.
Pretty thin gruel at best, it seems to me, and Gerson makes clear that in praising the surge he also recognizes that the initial conduct of the war was poor. And even these are somewhat dubious accomplishments in terms of their long-run consequences, such as the long-term budgetary impact of the prescription drug entitlement and further expansion of federal control over education with No Child Left Behind.
Having said that, and stacked against the manifest screw-ups of the the past 8 years, I would give the Bush Administration credit for two things. I leave aside things that are more partisan, such as changing the judiciary, to focus on things that I think that would gain general acclaim (as Gerson does).
First, if you had told me on September 12, 2001 that seven years later we'd be able to say that there would be no major terrorist attacks on American soil in the next seven years I would've thought you were naive or crazy. Now I don't know how much credit the Bush Administration directly gets for this. And I share some of the criticisms that perhaps they went too far at times in terms of infringements on civil liberties to bring about this result. But in retrospect I really do think it has been a major accomplishment that we have not been hit by another terrorist attack in that time. Relatedly, it seems to me that the Bush Administration gets some substantial credit for Qaddafi's decision in 2003 to renounce terrorism and a general increase in deterrence against countries engaged in state-sponsored terrorism.
Second, I give him credit for using his political capital trying to raise the issue of social security reform. He did so in a ham-handed and bungling way, but right at the outset of the second term he tried to address the long-run solvency of social security. For which he had his headed handed to him and then gave up. The fear is that may mean that social security reform (and entitlement reform generally) is dead for at least another generation. I think he deserves credit for doing the right thing on trying to do this, even though he failed in the end.
Finally, Bush may be given some credit for pushing through an agenda on tax cuts. On the other hand, since he made no effort to reduce spending, these tax cuts are almost by definition somewhat temporary. Friedman used to observe that the real tax burden on the economy was the level of spending, because the spending has to be paid for eventually. So while Bush reduced taxes, this is not likely to be a long-term accomplishment.
Moreover, it is one thing to increase spending and government debt if it is for long-term investments that will recoup themselves, such as Reagan's defense buildup in the 1980s (which allowed subsequent reductions in the 1990s by winning the Cold War) or investments in infrastructure or similar things that increase economic growth. But little of Bush's spending was investment, as opposed to pure current consumption, and so a lot of it was nothing more than borrowing against future taxes to fund lower taxes today. So I give some credit, but modest, on this front.