Commentary Magazine


Conservatism and the Search for Apostates

During a recent interview on NBC’s The Today Show, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush was asked whether the Republican Party should put revenue increases on the table in order to reach a grand bargain.

Governor Bush said it’s hard to imagine that, after the tax increases that went into effect earlier this year, one could argue we have a revenue problem. When pressed by Matt Lauer, however, whether there was any “wiggle room,” Bush said, “There may be [room for revenue] if the president is sincere about dealing with our structural problems.” And he went on to speak about the importance of growth as a way to increase revenues.

It didn’t take long for Bush’s critics to strike. As a story  in the Washington Post put it:

[Bush] drew a sharp critique from anti-tax activist Grover Norquist… Norquist likened Bush’s comments to “throwing marbles at the feet” of GOP lawmakers. “If you’re trying to introduce yourself to the modern Republican Party outside of Florida, probably best not to start with a discussion about how much you could be talked into a tax increase,” Norquist said. “People are looking for someone who’s tough, and you’re saying, ‘I’d fold.’”        

Craig Shirley, in the context of a broader attack on Bush writes, “A Bush speaking at the Reagan dinner [the annual Conservative Political Action Conference dinner] is for True Believers mind-boggling.” Shirley goes on to say, “Jeb Bush might also explain his call this week for even higher taxes on the American worker.”

Now both Norquist and Shirley have, in different ways, made useful contributions to the conservative cause–Norquist on policy and Shirley through his fine book on the 1980 Reagan campaign. I’ve had cordial communications with both; but in this instance their criticisms strike me as misguided.

For one thing, Jeb Bush was a highly successful conservative governor. To therefore characterize an invitation to Bush to speak at CPAC’s annual dinner as “mind-boggling” is itself a bit mind-boggling. (It’s worth noting that Bush spoke last week at the Reagan Library where he was warmly welcomed.)

In addition, Bush was not calling for higher taxes on American workers; he was saying that if Barack Obama was serious about dealing with our structural problems–meaning our unsustainable entitlement system–there may be room for an increase in revenues, which could be done by closing loopholes and deductions instead of increasing tax rates. Bush wasn’t saying he expected the president to tackle entitlements in a serious manner; he was merely answering a hypothetical in a reasonable way.

But the main point I want to underscore is the danger to conservatism when someone like Jeb Bush (or Mitch Daniels, or Bob McDonnell, or Chris Christie) is considered an apostate.

Let’s consider Bush’s record as governor. While Bush never signed an anti-tax pledge, he never raised taxes. In fact, he cut taxes every year he was governor (covering eight years and totaling $20 billion). 

Ronald Reagan, by contrast, signed into law what his biographer Lou Cannon called “the largest tax hike ever proposed by any governor in the history of the United States”–one four times as large as the previous record set by Governor Pat Brown–as well as the nation’s first no-fault divorce law and legislation liberalizing California’s abortion laws, which even people sympathetic to Reagan concede “led to an explosion of abortions in the nation’s largest state.” (Reagan didn’t anticipate the consequences of the law and deeply regretted his action.)

Now imagine the Norquist and Shirley standard being applied to Reagan in the 1970s. If Jeb Bush’s comments unleashed heated attacks, even given his sterling anti-tax record, think about what Reagan’s support for unprecedented tax increases–including higher taxes on top rates, sales taxes, bank and corporate taxes, and the inheritance tax–would have elicited. The Gipper would have been accused of being a RINO, a pseudo-conservative, unprincipled, and a member of the loathsome Establishment. Fortunately for Reagan (and for America) the temptation to turn conservatism into a rigid ideology was not as strong then than it is now.

To be clear: I consider Reagan to be among the greatest presidents of the 20th century and a monumental figure in the conservative movement. He shaped my political philosophy more than any other politician in my lifetime, and working in his administration was a great privilege. I’m just glad he was judged in the totality of his (conservative) acts, which were enormously impressive, and not marked out as unprincipled or a heretic because of his transgressions against conservative orthodoxy. 

What is sometimes forgotten about Reagan, I think, is that he was not only a man well grounded in political theory; he was also a supremely great politician who made thousands of decisions and compromised throughout his career, usually wisely but sometimes not. And on those rare occasions when he was criticized by movement conservatives, he was known to complain about those who wanted to go “off the cliff with all flags flying.”

It tells you something about the times in which we live that some of those who consider themselves to be the torchbearers of Reaganism are now employing a standard of purity that Reagan himself could not have met and would never have insisted on.

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