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Bush’s Gilded Age


Defenders of former president George W. Bush now focus their efforts on claims that he enhanced the nation’s security. There aren’t many objective metrics for assessing security, but there’s only one they use over and over again: 9/11 did not recur on his watch. One weakness of this argument is that 9/11 did not occur on the watch of any of his predecessors, either. But when we look at the performance of the nation’s economy under Bush, it’s easy to understand the obsession with making a case on national security. The definitive numbers are now in from the U.S. Census, and they’re devastating. In particular, Bush’s failures stand out when he’s stacked up next to his predecessor, Bill Clinton. Marc Ambinder does a good job:

Consider first the median income. When Bill Clinton left office after 2000, the median income-the income line around which half of households come in above, and half fall below-stood at $52,500 (measured in inflation-adjusted 2008 dollars). When Bush left office after 2008, the median income had fallen to $50,303. That’s a decline of 4.2 per cent…

Bush’s record on poverty is equally bleak. When Clinton left office in 2000, the Census counted almost 31.6 million Americans living in poverty. When Bush left office in 2008, the number of poor Americans had jumped to 39.8 million (the largest number in absolute terms since 1960.) Under Bush, the number of people in poverty increased by over 8.2 million, or 26.1 per cent. Over two-thirds of that increase occurred before the economic collapse of 2008…

The story is similar again for access to health care. When Clinton left office, the number of uninsured Americans stood at 38.4 million. By the time Bush left office that number had grown to just over 46.3 million, an increase of nearly 8 million or 20.6 per cent.

Karl Rove has often been compared to Mark Hanna, the legendary Republican political strategist who virtually invented William McKinley and was the power behind the throne at the height of the era that American historians now call the “Gilded Age.” Bush and Rove brought back the Gilded Age: through deregulation and tax cuts benefiting the wealthiest 1% of Americans, they reintroduced a period of vast wealth accumulation in the hands of a tiny fraction of the country. The term “gilded age” was coined by Harper’s editor Charles Dudley Warner and contributor Mark Twain, who used it as the title of a jointly composed novel. In the novel, they lampooned the greed and political manipulations of the class of industrialists who were then coming to dominate the country and the Republican party to which both Warner and Twain were attached. They used the term “gilded” to reflect the fact that a thin veneer of noble pretense covered a core that was base. If Rove wanted to recreate the America of William McKinley and Mark Hanna, the current Census statistics show that, in one sense at least, he may have accomplished his goal.

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