Perhaps I should thank the current crop of Republican presidential candidates for providing me with an experience I never, ever expected to have: During this week's debate in New Hampshire, I had a moment of nostalgia for George W. Bush.
Let me say quickly that this was tempered by another response to Bush that I'll get to. Yet compared with the New Hampshire Seven -- and with today's Republican majority in the House of Representatives -- Bush was the reincarnation of Theodore Roosevelt.
The 2012 GOP presidential field on display Monday offered not one idea about how to solve a problem facing our country that didn't boil down to cutting taxes, slashing regulation or eliminating large swaths of government.
The big winner of the debate was Rep. Michele Bachmann, partly because she went in with a strategy and executed it, partly because she had a stage presence honed by hundreds of television appearances, and partly because she didn't seem crazily extreme, which is what you would conclude from her many outrageous statements in the past.
But she looked almost conventional only because the rest of the Republican Party has veered so far right that it has caught up with her. In the current GOP, she is the mainstream -- and that ought to petrify more reasonable Republicans. Even Bachmann's astonishing call to get rid of the Environmental Protection Agency (created under the Republican administration of Richard M. Nixon) passed without a challenge from her rivals.
That's why I felt nostalgia for Bush, especially the guy who was a candidate for president in 2000. Unlike this crowd of Republicans, Bush acknowledged that the federal government can ease injustices and get useful things done.
Say what you will about his No Child Left Behind education reform program. It accepted, correctly, that the federal government has to play an important part in reforming our public schools and held them accountable to a set of standards.
And while there are many problems with the way Bush chose to provide prescription drugs under Medicare, he was quite right to believe it had to be done. Any health insurance plan worthy of being called comprehensive needs to provide prescription coverage. Bush didn't pay for this benefit, and its structure is more complicated and more expensive than it has to be. But Bush did address a real need.
Oh, yes, and I really do miss some of Bush's early rhetoric. I cannot imagine a Republican today giving Bush's 1999 speech in Indianapolis titled -- shades of Barack Obama? -- "The Duty of Hope."
Bush criticized the view "that if government would only get out of our way, all our problems would be solved" as a "destructive mindset." He scorned this as an approach having "no higher goal, no nobler purpose, than 'Leave us alone.' "
On the contrary, Bush declared: "We have always found our better selves in sympathy and generosity, both in our lives and in our laws." Amen, and a Republican who expressed such sentiments today would be pummeled mercilessly by Fox News.
Now, there are limits to my Bush nostalgia. In brief: He sent troops to battle in two wars and cut taxes, largely on the wealthy, leaving us in deep fiscal and foreign policy holes.
The 43rd president, who might have given life to a constructive sort of moderate conservatism, instead unleashed the tea party furies that now engulf the Republican Party and threaten to turn Michele Bachmann, of all people, into a political giant.