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Answering Mark Levin’s Challenge

On his Facebook page, Mark Levin takes exception to some of us who have said critical words about Sarah Palin.

In his response, Mark groups Karl Rove, David Frum, and me, all of whom served in the Bush administration. While having gracious words to say about me, Mark argues that “Bush’s record, at best, is marginally conservative, and depending on the issue, worse.” He raises this point not to compare Bush to Palin, he says, but “to point out only a few of the situational aspects of the criticism from the Bush community corner.” He adds parenthetically that “If necessary, and if challenged, I will take the time to lay out the case in all its particulars, as well as other non-conservative Bush policies and statements. No Republican president is perfect, of course, but certainly some are more perfect that others, if you will.”

The gold standard for Levin is Ronald Reagan, which got me to thinking: from a conservative policy perspective, how does Bush’s record stand up to Reagan’s?

Let’s start with illegal immigration. Levin has excoriated Bush for being weak on illegal immigration — but Reagan, at least by the Levin standard, was far weaker. Reagan, after all, signed a bill granting amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants, something Bush never supported. And in a 1984 campaign debate, Reagan went so far as to say, “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though sometime back they may have entered illegally.”

Regarding the Supreme Court, Reagan appointed Antonin Scalia, among the greatest jurists in history. But he also appointed Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy, both of whom turned out to be fairly problematic from an originalist perspective. Bush appointed two terrific conservative jurists to the High Court, John Roberts and Samuel Alito, and no O’Connor or Kennedy clones.

How about taxes? Reagan was the architect of the historic 1981 tax cut, one of the most significant pieces of economic legislation in American history. Bush cut taxes multiple times as well, though the cuts were not nearly as large. At the same time, Reagan, unlike Bush, increased taxes many times during his presidency — including what was then the largest tax increase in American history (the TEFRA tax).

What about entitlements? The complaint about Bush is that he was the architect of a prescription-drug entitlement. Fair enough, though it should be said that because of free-market reforms, the cost of the plan was 40 percent below the estimates, an unheard of achievement. But even if one opposed the Medicare prescription-drug plan, one should take into account Bush’s decision to put his political capital behind Social Security reform, including personal retirement accounts. The effort was unsuccessful but politically courageous. No president, including Reagan, attempted reforms nearly as far-reaching. Reagan agreed to a plan to save Social Security that included large payroll-tax increases. In addition, Reagan enacted what at the time was the most dramatic expansion of Medicare coverage since its inception, including a complex system of price controls.

President Reagan gets the nod over Bush on federal spending, especially in his first year, when Reagan made a real run at cutting domestic spending. Still, under Reagan, spending increased by around one-quarter in real terms. Federal spending as a percentage of the economy was higher during the Reagan years than during the Bush years, though Bush inherited a more advantageous starting position. Under Reagan, the national debt increased from just over $700 billion to more than $2 trillion (this included the defense build-up at the end of the Cold War); for Bush, the figure increased from $3.4 trillion to $5.8 trillion (including the costs of two wars).

Some conservatives are highly critical of Bush’s Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), though history will vindicate that decision because much of the TARP money has been repaid, and its cost to taxpayers is lower than even its strongest early supporters expected (see here).

On social issues, both presidents were rock solid on abortion — though Bush probably has the policy advantage given his judicial nominations, his stand on embryonic stem cell research, his support for the Born Alive Infants Protection Act, and his opposition to partial-birth abortion and human cloning. Bush also promoted a constitutional amendment opposing same-sex marriage, an issue Reagan didn’t confront. On gun control, Reagan favored the Brady bill, while Bush was a stalwart defender of the Second Amendment.

How about terrorism? Reagan was impressive in some respects, including ordering the bombing of Libya in the wake of the 1986 discotheque bombing in West Berlin. On the flip side, Reagan retreated from Lebanon after the 1983 bombing of a U.S. Marine barracks. (In one of his fatwas, Osama bin Laden cited the pullout as evidence of American weakness.) Reagan also agreed to sell arms for hostages — and not just to any nation, but to the Iranian regime led by Ayatollah Khomeini. Bush, in contrast, was unyielding on terrorism.

George W. Bush was perhaps the greatest friend Israel ever had as president. Among other things, he effectively sidelined Yasir Arafat. Reagan was a strong supporter of Israel as well, though his administration did criticize the Jewish state for the 1981 bombing of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor and was the first to open talks with the PLO.

On defense spending, Bush asked for and received the largest increase since the Reagan years. Both championed missile defense, with Reagan being the pathfinder. And while neither president withdrew U.S. support from the United Nations, neither one was terribly deferential to it. Bush also unilaterally withdrew from the ABM Treaty, withdrew from a treaty to establish an International Criminal Court, and pulled the United States out of the Kyoto Protocol.

There are many other issues on which one could compare and contrast the two men; over the course of two terms, after all, presidents deal with countless issues. One must also take into account other factors, from the composition of Congress during their presidencies to their speeches to their work on behalf of the conservative movement. Reagan, for example, was a product of the conservative movement in a way Bush never was, and Reagan articulated the case for conservatism in ways Bush never did. I wouldn’t dispute for a moment that in the totality of his acts, Reagan was the most influential conservative ever to serve as president. He also ranks as among the greatest presidents in our history.

What I would dispute is Levin’s characterization of Bush as “marginally conservative” or worse. Bush’s record, based on objective conservative yardsticks, stacks up quite well against Reagan’s. If people insist on making the comparison, then a disinterested analysis of the record is not a bad way to proceed.

I served in the Reagan administration and the Bush White House. Both men were principled and, when necessary, tactically flexible; impressive and imperfect; and people of dignity and decency. I have enormous respect for both presidents — and so, I would submit, should all conservatives, including my friend Mark Levin.



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