By JULIE FANCHER, Dallas Morning News
George W. Bush hasn’t been on a ballot for 11 years, but the former president’s policy center is taking on some of the hot topics of the 2016 contest: immigration, trade and the economy.
Bush and officials at the Bush Institute, for example, are tired of hearing from candidates who say the United States is losing ground to China.
“It is so easy to blame problems on somebody else, and China is an easy target,” Bush said during an event last month. “You hear this seeping into the dialogue, this notion about we can’t possibly compete with China. Of course we can compete with China. And we can better compete with China when we work together.”
While Bush has mostly steered clear of presidential politics — his brother Jeb is one of the Republican contenders — the Bush Institute is taking on both President Barack Obama and the narrative being pushed by some on the Republican side. In doing so, the institute’s message adheres to Bush’s long-held belief in free trade and free markets.
The George W. Bush Presidential Center has been active in domestic policy since its inception more than five years ago.
In its first years, the institute’s economic initiative focused on a goal of promoting 4 percent annual growth in the U.S. economy. Mitt Romney pushed a similar goal as the Republican presidential candidate in 2012.
While Bush officials said they were proud of their work, they acknowledged that getting attention amid the chorus of domestic economic plans was difficult.
“Where we felt there was less of a scrum taking place was on the global engagement piece,” said Matt Rooney, director of the institute’s economic initiative.
Rooney, a former foreign service officer who joined the Bush Institute in June, said the pivot to trade was a natural, given Bush’s global focus as president and the institute’s location in one of the country’s biggest travel and economic hubs.
The institute on Nov. 4 launched the North America Scorecard, a tool to measure the competitiveness of North American countries against other nations and trade blocs, such as the European Union.
The scorecard uses data — from the World Bank, the World Economic Forum, The Wall Street Journal, the Heritage Foundation and the Fraser Institute in Canada — on subjects such as economic freedom and access to higher education. It assigns letter grades to compare countries and trading blocs. North America earned a B+, compared, for example, with a B for the 21-member Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation.
The scorecard also highlights areas in need of improvement. A policy working group of business and political leaders will study those areas and roll out recommendations in early 2016.
“North America is highly competitive, but we could do better,” said Rooney.
He said the United States missed an opportunity when the Obama administration rejected plans for the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry crude oil from Canada through the United States, ultimately to ports in the Gulf of Mexico.
Obama said the pipeline would not produce a meaningful number of U.S. jobs or lower domestic gasoline prices, as supporters promised. The president also cited environmental concerns.
Rooney said investment in infrastructure should be encouraged, “not blocked by governments.”
Bush, speaking at the launch of the scorecard, said a protectionist mentality “tends to pervade our society.” Such a perspective, he said, “doesn’t recognize the nature” of today’s globalized world.
Rooney said persistent challenges for the United States are immigration policy and relations with Mexico in general.
During his time in office, Bush pushed for a guest worker program and immigration overhaul but faced fierce opposition within his own party — opposition echoed today in the hard-line stances of Republican presidential contenders Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, among others.
It was an issue, the former president acknowledged, that “I tried to address, without success.”
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