Commentary Magazine


The Bush Brothers and the Freedom Agenda

State of the Union has become the most interesting and best hosted Sunday talk show. Unlike ABC, CNN went for a down-the-middle, no-nonsense interviewer in Candy Crowley. Crowley is able to extract real news — in part because she listens to the answers and asks effective follow-ups. Sunday was no exception. She sat down with George W. Bush and then with Jeb Bush as well.

The newsiest tidbit was Jeb’s apparent openness to a presidential run — but not in 2012:

GEORGE W. BUSH: … I urged [Jeb] to seriously consider running for president, because I think he’d be a great president. But he’s chosen not to run this time, and I finally have believed him.

CROWLEY: See? So you’re getting some place. And you noticed “this time.”

JEB BUSH: You know what? You never say never about anything. I answer the questions forthrightly about 2012.

But just as interesting was the reminder that the so-called “freedom agenda” was central to Bush’s presidency (in obvious contrast to  Obama’s). Asked about the war in Afghanistan, Bush answered:

GEORGE W. BUSH: Well, there’s — first of all, Afghanistan was the site where extremists were able to find a safe haven to attack.

CROWLEY: But they’re mostly gone at this point in Afghanistan.

GEORGE W. BUSH: I wouldn’t make that assumption. Oh, in Afghanistan, yes, but it’s not to say they couldn’t come back if a regime that was welcoming them would give them safe haven again.

I would say that, put yourself in the position of a young girl in Afghanistan, and realize that her life will be incredibly brutalized and/or thwarted by people like the Taliban. And the fundamental question, is it worth it? That’s the question we’ve got to ask. Does it matter to our own national security, or does it matter to our conscience that women will be mistreated? I argue it does. And I understand it’s difficult.

On Iraq he sounded a similar theme: “I think somebody’s going to look back some day and say thank goodness the United States believed in the universality of freedom and liberated 25 million and gave the Iraqis a chance to have their own free — free society.”

Also evident is the devotion of both the Bush brothers to immigration reform:

JEB BUSH: Rick Scott got a majority of the Hispanic vote in Florida. We elected two Hispanic governors, Susana Martinez and Brian Sandoval. There were congressmen and women elected of Hispanic origin.

I think the problem is not just a West Coast problem, but it is a big-time California problem. And I think part of it relates to tone.

If you’re watching TV, and someone is kind of legitimately angry that we can’t control our border, and sending signals that it’s them and us, and, by the way, you’re not “us,” you’re “them,” it doesn’t matter what else people turn out. If they’re not — feel like they’re welcome, they’re not going to listen to the message.

CROWLEY: And how does the Republican Party sort of reach out on that? Because immigration reform, you tried.

GEORGE W. BUSH: I did. And I believe the best way to secure the border is to have a comprehensive approach, and said so during an Oval Office address.

The language got carried away though. I mean, people — the issue kind of spiraled out of control and sent bad signals.

I think the Republican Party can attract Latinos through good education policy, good small business policy, good policy toward our veterans. And there have been times when Latinos have voted Republican and times when they haven’t. And so we always need to learn from the past and be sensitive about the future. …

JEB BUSH: Yes. And at the same time, Latino, or Hispanic, as we call people of Hispanic origin in Florida, Hispanics want the border controlled. A great nation has to control its border for national security purposes, for all sorts of purposes. And so I don’t know anybody that says, yes, let’s just open up our border to create chaos.

So, once the border is controlled, and people view it that way, and there’s a perception, it’s benchmarked, and people say yes, then I think you’re going to find that there is common ground to change our immigration policy to help us grow faster as a nation and to welcome people that work hard and play by the rules to create prosperity for us.

None of the brothers got credit from the left for their efforts on immigration reform, while many on the right continue to savage the notion of comprehensive immigration reform — even the Bush formulation (border security first).

Likewise, Bush’s foreign policy was vilified by the Democratic party, which from FDR through JFK was in favor of a freedom-promoting foreign policy. But that’s a faint memory now. Bush’s emphasis on democracy promotion and human rights was the subject of such disdain, that it has taken the current administration two years to drop its aversion to even discussing these topics.

The Crowley interview is a timely reminder that Republicans should be wary of a cramped, batten-down-the-hatches form of conservatism. The political saleability of modern conservatism and its success domestically and overseas are not based solely, or even primarily, on an oppositional agenda (no to spending, no to foreign commitments, no to immigrants). Rather it is the quintessential freedom agenda — free markets, pro-growth policies, a robust assertion of American power and interests oversees, a beacon for and defender of victims of despotism, and a big tent GOP. As the Republicans ready themselves for the 2012 primary, they should not forget that limited government is not an end unto itself, but rather a necessary condition for our freedom and prosperity. Whether on defense spending, immigration, or the war against Islamic terror, conservatives would do well to keep that in mind.

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