President Bush has taken a well-deserved flogging on his civil liberties record, but he hasn't been all bad. Here are ten things the president has done to protect or advance American civil liberties.
Transformed the immigration reform debate.In 2006, there was a debate within the Republican-dominated Congress over the future of America's 12 million undocumented immigrants. The response of the House was mass deportation; the response of the Senate was comprehensive reform with a citizenship path. President Bush strongly and openly favored the latter approach, to the point of essentially ending the debate within his party over deportation. It cost him dearly among his base, but it moved the immigration reform debate to the center and provided political cover for other Republicans willing to entertain humane immigration reform proposals. Thanks in part to President Bush's position on this issue, real bipartisan immigration reform may be possible in 2009.
Declared the first federal ban on racial profiling.During his first State of the Union address in early 2001, President Bush vowed to end racial profiling. In 2003, he acted on his promise by issuing an order to 70 federal law enforcement agencies calling for an end to most forms of racial and ethnic profiling. The ban was not airtight, but it was the first ban of its kind.
Did not appoint justices in the mold of Scalia and Thomas.While the jury is still out on the new jurists, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, neither are likely to be mistaken for Robert Bork. Roberts seems slightly less conservative than his predecessor, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, while Alito seems slightly more conservative than his, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. While this represents an incremental shift in the 5-4 calculus on some narrowly-constructed rulings, it does not represent the bold rightward trajectory that many had expected--or at least not yet.
Accepted record numbers of refugees and asylum-seekers.During the second term of the Clinton administration, the United States accepted an average of 60,000 refugees per year and 7,000 asylum-seekers per year. From 2001 to 2006, under the leadership of President Bush, the United States accepted more than four times as many asylum-seekers--some 32,000 per year--and an average of 87,000 refugees per year.
Used the bully pulpit to protect American Muslims.In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiment was on the rise. Almost every other president in the history of the United States who had faced terrorist attacks from abroad ultimately gave in to xenophobia--President Woodrow Wilson being the most egregious example. President Bush did not, infuriating elements of his base by meeting with pro-Arab and pro-Muslim civil rights groups and holding Muslim events at the White House. When Democrats relied on anti-Arab sentiment while criticizing the transfer of several U.S. ports from British to UAE ownership, it became clear just how far this xenophobia had spread--and just how important it might have been that the president had made an effort to reject it.
Integrated the executive branch.The top four positions in the executive branch are those of the president, the vice-president, the secretary of state, and the attorney general. Until President Bush came to power, none of these four offices had ever been occupied by a person of color. President Bush has appointed the first non-white attorney general (Alberto Gonzales), as well as both the first (Colin Powell) and second (Condoleezza Rice) non-white secretaries of state. There have been non-white legislators and two non-white Supreme Court justices, but prior to the Bush administration, the upper echelon of the executive branch had always been all-white. President Bush changed that.
Protected the right to bear arms.When President Bush came into office, the Clinton-era "assault weapons" ban was still in effect. Even though he had supported the ban consistently during his 2000 campaign, President Bush made no serious effort to seek its renewal and it expired in 2004. Since that time, President Bush has also signed legislation preventing local law enforcement agencies from forcibly confiscating legally-owned firearms, as was done on a large scale in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Extended federal pension benefits to include same-sex couples.Although President Bush's rhetoric has often been troubling, he has yet to change a single federal policy in a way that detrimentally affects LGBT Americans. Couple this with a 2006 bill he signed that gave non-spousal couples the same federal pension standards as married couples, his decision to appoint an openly gay man as U.S. ambassador to Romania, his refusal to turn lesbian and gay families away from the White House Easter egg hunt, his decision not to overturn President Clinton's executive order banning federal employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and his warm words about the vice-president's daughter and her family, and you have an administration that is not as homophobic as many had feared it would be.
Signed an executive order banning federal eminent domain seizures.The Supreme Court's ruling in Kelo v. New London (2005) gave the government power to seize private property for commercial use if the local government deemed the commercial use helpful to the community as a whole, giving the government more power to seize private property than it had ever had before. While executive orders hold no legislative power, and the federal government has not historically made eminent domain claims, President Bush's executive order banning same would force any future president wishing to claim eminent domain powers to make the visible and unpopular move of rescinding the executive order. If the federal leadership wishes to claim broad Kelo eminent domain powers in the future, it will not be able to do so quietly.
Did not create "an America we won't recognize."The greatest contribution President Bush has made to civil liberties has been his failure to live up to expectations. During the 2004 campaign, Senator Hillary Clinton warned us that re-electing Bush would radically transform our country, leaving us with what she called "an America we won't recognize." While President Bush has a horrible civil liberties record, it is only incrementally worse than that of his predecessor and certainly not so much worse as to pose a grave threat to the existence of our liberal democracy. His record on civil liberties has been, I am sad to say, quite normal for a president--perhaps better than I would have expected from a president responding to the worst terrorist attack in our country's history.