Commentary Magazine


Big Government

 

To the Editor:

I was interested to see that Daniel Casse agrees with me: George W. Bush’s conservatism is one that tries to implant choice and accountability in government programs and not one that tries to reduce the size and scope of government [“Is Bush a Conservative?,” February]. This has been apparent since candidate Bush began unveiling his domestic-policy platform in May 1999. Still, many conservatives are disappointed with the small amount of choice and accountability Bush has extracted from Congress. School vouchers were dropped from the education bill with not so much as a whimper. The Medicare bill contains too little choice and too much government authority.

What these conservatives need to keep in mind is that Bush has had to work with Congresses with very narrow Republican majorities—and with a Democratic majority in the Senate from June 2001 to January 2003. House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Leaders Richard Armey and Tom DeLay have done a brilliant job delivering majorities for legislation in a House that has had no more than 229 Republicans—just eleven more than a majority—and a Democratic caucus almost totally united on the other side.

To hold together that majority, the House leaders and the President have had to accept higher spending levels than they would have liked and a Medicare bill they considered far from ideal. They also had to accept a farm bill tilted toward cotton and other Southern crops because Larry Combest, the chairman of the Agriculture Committee in 2002, was from a cotton-growing Texas district. Combest resigned from the House in early 2003. Had he left a year earlier, the chairman when the farm bill was marked up would have been Bob Goodlatte, who represents a Virginia district with little in the way of subsidized crops, and the bill would have looked quite different. Of such accidents is public policy sometimes made.

The sudden revulsion of conservatives at spending levels makes it likely that the House will hold spending down, perhaps even more than in the President’s budget. If so, Bush will surely go along. He may veto some bills, but he is under a political imperative to hold the House Republican majority together, since without it the legislation he gets will be even more unpalatable. Bush’s father had to deal with a Democratic House and ended up with a legislative record that most conservatives considered liberal: changes in the Clean Air Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the 1990 tax increase. Maintaining a Republican majority in the House and keeping it happy have been necessary in order for Bush to get legislative results. Given the narrow Republican majorities he has enjoyed, these results represent impressive advances toward choice and accountability.

Michael Barone

U.S. News & World Report

Washington, D.C.

To the Editor:

Daniel Casse quotes me accurately in his article, but I fear he inadvertently leaves a misleading impression of my views. Mr. Casse writes: “Speaking for many, Ramesh Ponnuru in National Review laid out the brief against the President as of last September.” There follows a passage I wrote listing the various ways President Bush has expanded the federal government, from his imposition of steel tariffs to his defense build-up to his approval of new law-enforcement powers.

That list was not meant, however, as an indictment of the President. It was, precisely, a list of ways he has expanded the government, with no intended implication that all such expansions are wrong. A few sentences later, I wrote: “Conservatives are, of course, inclined to tolerate, indeed cheer, most of the government’s efforts to wage the war on terrorism.” I myself support the new money for defense and the new powers for law enforcement, and I have defended the latter against the mostly ignorant and foolish criticisms of self-styled “civil libertarians” of both the Left and the Right.

Ramesh Ponnuru

National Review

New York City

 

To the Editor:

No matter which word one uses, it remains true even on Daniel Casse’s own showing that President Bush has presided over an expansion in the size, influence, and regulatory power of the federal government, coupled with a corresponding decrease in private choice, the like of which we have not seen since at least the days of Lyndon Johnson. This trend, apparent since the first month of the administration, has become more evident since 9/11.

Still, given the overwhelming importance of how our foreign policy is conducted, the question of nomenclature is irrelevant. If we do not win the war on terrorism, if we show weakness and back away from our position, what happened on 9/11 will be nothing as compared with what will be brought against us. The only issue that will count in November is the resolve of the candidates on this point.

Richard Durant

Grosse Pointe, Michigan

 

To the Editor:

Daniel Casse offers a compelling analysis of the brand of conservatism President Bush actually practices. Bush’s vindication, in the face of the media’s often hysterical criticism, lies in the decimation of al Qaeda, the liberation of Iraq and Afghanistan, the capture of Saddam Hussein, the disarming of Libya, and an economy restored to vigor.

Ed Hardiman

Arlington, Virginia

 

To the Editor:

In “Is Bush a Conservative?” Daniel Casse writes that “Bush, Sr. was famously confronted by Patrick J. Buchanan, who actually beat him in the New Hampshire primary.” This is incorrect. Although Buchanan did well in New Hampshire, Bush won the state by eighteen points.

Noah Williams

Princeton University

Princeton, New Jersey

 

Daniel Casse writes:

I am grateful for Michael Barone’s insights into how the closely divided House of Representatives has shaped the Bush administration’s legislation, a topic I did not sufficiently address in my article. But as he knows, Presidents are not simply creatures of the Congress they deal with. What is impressive to me about Bush is that he has launched new directions for education, health care, law enforcement, and foreign policy despite the narrow majorities in the House and Senate.

Ramesh Ponnuru is right to distinguish himself from critics who believe that every increase in government spending is a retreat from conservative principle. His list of the ways in which Bush has expanded government, which I cited in my article, reinforces my point that the size and scope of government may no longer be the best way to measure the achievements of a conservative president.

I agree with Richard Durant that the fight against terrorism ought to be the main issue at stake in the November election. Alas, recent polling suggests the public may not share this view.

Finally, I thank Ed Hardiman for his concurrence and Noah Williams for pointing out my error in stating that Patrick J. Buchanan won the New Hampshire primary in 1992. He in fact won it in 1996.

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