Nobody, not even on the right, is defending George W. Bush's record in a convincing manner. No matter how one looks at it, his eight years in the White House has been a disappointment at best, a disaster at worst. Trying to pin down exactly why he became such a widely unpopular figure was surprisingly difficult for me, but I've narrowed it down to three events which did most to sink him.
Katrina: The federal goverment was too slow in responding to the hurricane, and the fact that the man in charge of FEMA was a crony with little experience made this a political nightmare. It tarnished the Republican image of being good managers and symbolized the collapse of Bush's second term agenda.
Failing to regulate the housing market: I'm not sure if the Bush administation could of stopped the subprime mortgage fiasco, but it sure didn't try that hard. In fact, Bush wanted to encourage high home ownership, particularly among minority voters, which made him reluctant to reign in the irresponsible loans being made by the banks (although he tried to reform Fannie/Freddie). This should serve as a valuable lesson for those wishing to use government to be "compassionate" instead of prudent.
The chaotic post-invasion of Iraq: This is by far the most important mistake Bush made. He and Rumsfeld sent in too few troops to control the country, and then after the insurgency began continued to refuse a change in strategy from 2003-2007 despite the fact that the insurgency only continued to gain strength during this time. They did not make serious attempts at nationbuilding, instead trying to pass off the fighting to a new Iraqi government that was weak, inexperienced, infiltrated by sectarian actors, and under constant attack from a deadly insurgency. Of course, this strategy could not be sustained. His efforts to "stay the course" in the face of continued bloodshed eventually destroyed his administration's credibility in his second term. Regardless of the merits of the surge, the fact remains that the price we and the Iraqis paid during post-invasion of Iraq remains unjustifiably high.
Looking at Bush's approval rating over time, one doesn't see any single moment where Bush's popularity collapsed. Instead, it just slowly dwindled away, relentlessly day after day, driven by first Iraq and then the economy.
Bush wasn't a failed president because he occupied a Middle Eastern nation, lied about WMDs, increased spending, snubbed our allies, wasn't conservative/moderate enough, exposed a CIA agent, met with Jack Abramoff, wanted to privatize Social Security, increased the budget deficit, violated the constitution, cut taxes for the rich, was friends with the Saudis, tried to amnesty Mexicans, gave contracts to Haliburton, supported big oil, or tortured prisoners. He failed because he just didn't grasp that he needed to act when his advisors were twidling their thumbs while the house was burning down. All of this was compounded by Bush's overall inability to communicate his goals in speeches which often sounded strained and insincere.
The fact is that nobody outside the Michael Moore left would care that there were no WMDs in Iraq if the war had cost 300 lives in a few months rather than 4,000 lives (and many more Iraqi deaths) over a period of five years. Nor would we bemoan the fact that the war hurt our world standing. Nobody would care that there was a "culture of corruption" if the goverment readily and efficiently responded to the Hurricane before it hit. Nobody would be whining now about Bush helping the rich, making free trade deals, increasing the deficit, or other aspects of his economic policy if he could have head off the subprime mortgage time bomb. (Or for that matter, making unpopular bailouts.)
His accomplishments such as building missile defense and improving relations with East Asia, conversely, would have been less obscure.
Over the last eight years Bush has been attacked in a deranged and often disgraceful manner by people more interested in making the news, pushing an agenda, avenging the past, selling a book, winning an election, making cheap shots, scoring political points, being popular, or cracking a joke than in advancing the nation's best interests. Many conservatives, including myself, defended the man against this unprecedented savagery, which sometimes led us to overlook his flaws. Looking back, though, probably 90% of what we said then is still valid and we should not be ashamed of it.
I only wish that George W. Bush had been as strong and decisive a person as the many millions of us who had supported and admired his leadership thought he was. He was a good man with an ambitious agenda and I'm thankful he stood his ground against much of the political/media/foreign policy elite. He had many accomplishments that may take time to fully appreciate. But that has not and will not save him from being harshly judged for his fatal errors.