George W. Bush's Think Tank Advances Education Policy Agenda
George W. Bush has steadfastly avoided the political fray since leaving the White House, save for the casual endorsement of Mitt Romney he offered in May through an elevator’s closing doors.
But the former president has nonetheless advanced a robust policy agenda in the last few years, using his Dallas-based think tank, the Bush Institute, to signal the issues on which he plans to focus his post-presidency.
Far from steering clear of public policy—as media reports often portray him—Bush has quietly guided the institute to start building upon parts of his presidency that remain hot topics of debate: foreign aid, accountability in education, tax policy and democracy movements.
Bush and his staff are careful to honor post-White House standards of decorum that typically limit how much presidents engage in day-to-day politics—and the nonpartisan bent required for the institute’s tax-exempt status.
But some of the ideas that Bush and the institute are promoting put him at odds with many in the GOP, and especially those who participated in this year’s acrid Republican presidential primary.
“One of the ironies of contemporary politics is that the Republicans are ignoring or rejecting the last Republican president,” said George C. Edwards, an expert on the presidency at Texas A&M University. “You have a president interested in compassionate conservatism, and that’s not something the Republicans seem to be interested in right now.”
Behind the Scenes
Ex-presidents have long found ways to stay involved in projects and issues important to them, although usually behind the scenes.
One of the iron-clad post-presidential rules has been to give due deference to successors, and most former commanders in chief abide, although Jimmy Carter, for instance, has flouted that edict on occasion.
Only in the past few decades—with a number of presidents living for decades after leaving office—did those substantive policy efforts come more into the public view, experts said.
And Bush, 66, is following the pattern by focusing his impact on certain topics.
“When you leave office, you get to slow down and decide where you’re going to focus your attention,” said Martha Kumar, a presidential scholar at Towson University in Maryland.
It can be somewhat difficult to divine Bush’s personal policy beliefs from the think tank’s work—which includes everything from position papers to interactive websites to hands-on teaching curricula—given that institute staff has a fairly wide berth to pursue research.
Institute officials are also quick to note that Bush has made clear he doesn’t expect them to defend his legacy.
But the former president has backstopped the institute’s efforts with his own speeches. And officials point out that the institute’s principles stem from Bush’s core beliefs, predating his time in the White House.
The think tank’s staffers say they want to be part of policy debates but are trying to work on policy proposals they hope endure longer than the latest partisan squabble.
“Even if there weren’t an election, we would still be harping on the same issues,” said Jim Glassman, executive director of the institute, part of the presidential center set to open at SMU next spring.
The election year, however, provides an interesting contrast, particularly after the GOP primary candidates bashed some Bush-era initiatives in an effort to out-conservative one another.
The GOP contenders targeted foreign aid, a topic Bush has frequently championed.
Rick Perry proposed setting the foreign aid budget back to zero and then reallocating to countries he deemed worthy. Ron Paul advocated eliminating such spending altogether. And Romney, the all-but-official GOP presidential nominee, said he would also curtail some aid.
No Child Left Behind
Likewise, the contenders slammed the No Child Left Behind education law, one of Bush’s signature legislative accomplishments, as a failed federal overreach.
And even Romney—who hired Rod Paige, Bush’s education secretary, as an adviser—proposed scaling back the federal involvement outlined in the law, which aims to require schools to measure progress but has been criticized as making them too concerned with standardized testing.
Bush and his institute staff steer clear of addressing those specific critiques, but they aren’t shy about defending their work.
Dr. Mark Dybul, a global health fellow, described the importance of foreign aid in promoting national security and economic growth. He said that the aid is a fraction of the federal budget, but that it “has a massive impact on how we’re perceived in the world.”
As if to illustrate the point, Bush and his wife, Laura, recently spent time in Africa to promote the institute’s cancer-fighting initiative, Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon.
And Kerri Briggs, director of the education initiative, pointed out that the institute has stayed out of the broader No Child Left Behind debate, instead focusing on improving middle schools and principals.
But she added that robust standards for students, teachers and school districts are still top of mind.
“There are a fair number of people questioning accountability,” Briggs said. “But we think it matters, and we are going to say so.”
Even when there haven’t been direct conflicts between the Bush Institute’s aims and the campaign rhetoric, distinctions nonetheless remain.
Bush, touting the institute’s economic growth initiative, has spoken of the importance of his namesake tax cuts, which are still popular among conservatives. He has, however, framed tax policy as the first step to economic recovery, even ahead of balancing the budget.
That’s compared to the primaries, where the candidates practically tripped over one another to brag about the federal agencies and other budget items they would cut.
Or take Bush’s and the institute’s efforts to promote democracy movements in places like Syria and Egypt. The proposal doesn’t stray too far from the GOP norm, but the think tank stops its advocacy at providing moral and educational support, leaving up to policymakers the tricky details of how exactly to achieve results.
And moving forward, institute officials said they’re happy to work within that framework: participating in the overall conversation but not necessarily the daily debate over specific policies.
“It’s somewhat liberating,” said Glassman, the institute director. “We like to take a longer view.”
At a Glance: Ex-President's Focus
The George W. Bush Institute offers perhaps the best insight into the issues on which the former commander in chief plans to focus his post-presidency. The think tank, part of the presidential center set to open at SMU next spring, has several initiatives ongoing, but a few touch on hot topics in this year’s presidential race.
Global health: Many Republicans favor slashing foreign aid, but the institute is steadfast in focusing on how best to provide assistance to Africa and other locales. The Bushes just returned from a trip to Zambia and Botswana to promote their cancer-fighting initiative, Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon.
Education: Some conservatives have taken to bashing Bush’s No Child Left Behind education law as a failed federal overreach. The institute has stayed out of that debate, focusing instead on middle schools and principals, but it continues to promote rigorous standards and other accountability measures.
Economic growth: Balancing the federal budget, cutting spending and reducing the national debt have dominated the presidential race. Bush and his institute agree those issues are important, but they’re promoting tax policy as the key to spurring economic recovery.
Human freedom: Bush and institute officials, along with many other conservatives, support democracy movements in Syria, Egypt and other countries. But the think tank is focused more on moral and educational support, launching an online video archive of interviews with freedom activists. They’re leaving up to policymakers the challenge of how exactly to engage those countries.