Is Bush a Conservative?
By the end of 2003, after months of falling popularity and an unceasing barrage of criticism Democratic presidential aspirants, George W. Bush suddenly seemed to be leading a charmed life. His surprise visit to U.S. troops in Baghdad over the Thanksgiving holiday introduced a note of high confidence and inspiration. Two weeks later, the world was treated to footage of a helpless and disheveled Saddam Hussein in American custody. Although attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq continued, their ferocity diminished amid promising signs that the battle to rebuild Iraq and fight terrorism elsewhere was on course. Within days of Saddam Hussein’s capture came the announcement that Muammar Qaddafi had agreed to open his program for amassing nuclear weapons to international inspection. That same week, France, Germany, and Russia, persistent opponents of the Iraq war, acceded to American requests to forgive a portion of Iraqi debts. By mid-December, a CBS poll showed 59 percent of Americans approving of the way the President was handling Iraq—the highest level since early July.
At home, there was still more good news for the White House. In late November, the Commerce Department reported that the economy had grown at a startling 8.2 percent in the third quarter—the highest level in nearly two decades and a figure that exceeded even the most optimistic projections. There followed a cascade of other positive economic announcements. Inflation and interest rates were at their lowest point in decades. Productivity was historically high. Housing starts were soaring. Manufacturing, only recently thought to be disappearing from the America landscape, hit its highest level in twenty years.
Congress, meanwhile, had passed a bipartisan overhaul of Medicare that, while highly controversial, was clearly a political victory for the President. Flush with this legislative success, in late December the White House released word that it was considering an overhaul of Social Security—and possibly re-establishing manned flight to the moon.
Is everybody happy, then? Hardly. For one thing, not since Richard Nixon has there been a Republican occupant of the White House who has provoked such naked antipathy from his political enemies on the Left. Bill and Hillary Clinton generated their own fevered response from the angriest and most conspiratorial corners of the Republican Right. But what is striking about today’s liberal hatred of George Bush is not how shrill it is, but rather how even the most extreme outbursts have been fully embraced by mainstream Democratic politicians and journalists.
But criticism of the President has not been confined to Democrats or the Left. For the past year, a chorus of dissent has arisen as well among some conservative pundits and intellectuals—the very group one might have thought would rush to the defense of a President under assault by his liberal antagonists. In a particularly harsh and surprising condemnation, the talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh told his listeners in December that Bush’s legacy to the nation would be the greatest increase in domestic spending, and one of the greatest setbacks for liberty, in modern times. “This may be compassionate,” warned Limbaugh, playing on Bush’s 2000 campaign slogan, “but it is not ‘conservatism’ at all.”
To be sure, conservative discontent with President Bush is likely to have few if any political consequences in the short term; unlike his father before him, George W. Bush will win the Republican nomination unopposed. Despite grumbling among some conservatives in the House of Representatives, no splinter group of disaffected Republicans seems set to take on the cause of Bush’s Democratic opponent the way some embraced Clinton in 1992. Still, Bush’s ability to remain a popular Republican President while causing so much dismay on both Left and Right does demand an assessment of the direction in which he has been taking the GOP and the country. Should he be reelected this fall, he will remain not only a controversial figure but possibly one of the most consequential Presidents we have had in the modern era.
That Bush should engender so much antipathy among liberals and Democrats is hardly surprising. Among activists, for whom the fundamental legitimacy of the Bush presidency remains in doubt to this day, the bitter, prolonged battle over Florida ballots in November 2000 still deeply rankles. Never mind the thorough study of the 61,000 disputed ballots by USA Today and the Knight Ridder chain, with its ringing conclusion that “Bush would have won by 1,665 votes—more than triple his official 537-vote margin—if every dimple, hanging chad, and mark on the ballots had been counted as votes.” Despite such findings, Democratic leaders have continued to treat the Florida vote as a monumental act of injustice. As recently as December 2003, Terry McAuliffe, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, declared that “Al Gore won the state of Florida in 2000, and we should never forget it.” “We had more votes. We won,” chimed in Senator John Edwards at a party rally last month.
A similar air of unreality, not to say irrationalism, hangs over much of the liberal and left-wing case against Bush. When Bill Clinton ran against the incumbent Bush, Sr. in 1992, the Democrats put together a partisan but compelling case: the economy was in recession; Bush was ignoring health care; and he had failed to be tough enough abroad, leaving Saddam Hussein in power and going easy on the Chinese leaders who had crushed dissent in Tiananmen Square. By contrast, today’s critics are conspicuous for their lack of sustained argument. Though all of the Democratic contenders want to repeal at least some of Bush’s tax cuts, none has offered a serious economic plan. Alarmed by the growing federal-budget deficit, they present no program to reform domestic spending; indeed, most argue that the country should be spending even more on education, the environment, and health care.
Democrats were divided last year on whether to support the war in Iraq. But, aside from mourning the loss of American life in Iraq, it is not clear what alternative policy Bush’s critics now have in mind. Nearly all speak of “increased security” and greater “internationalization” of the war on terrorism, but as the early Democratic debates attest, these have simply become liberal shibboleths, unsubstantiated by thought-out ideas.
More often, the case against Bush from the Left has degenerated into an exercise in name-calling and fear-mongering. Jonathan Chait, a journalist whose reputation has grown almost entirely on account of his loudly advertised hatred of the President, recently asserted in passing that “Bush is the worst President in the past 80 years.” Not to be outdone, Howard Dean has declared him our “most dangerous President” ever, and both he and Wesley Clark have publicly flirted with crackpot theories about the secret origins of the Iraq war. According to Harold Myerson, writing in the liberal quarterly, the American Prospect, Bush “is incomparably more dangerous than Reagan or any other President in this nation’s history.” To the New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, Bush is a radical who “wants to undo much of the Great Society and the New Deal.” Books announcing that Bush is a liar, an imbecile, or a dangerous brute have been published by established journalists and prominently reviewed in reputable journals. Al Gore has associated himself with MoveOn.org, an advocacy group whose website briefly featured a mock political ad depicting images of Hitler followed by images of Bush, with an accompanying text declaring that “1945’s war crimes” are “2003’s foreign policy.” The content of websites with flaky names like BushIsAMoron.org, WhoDiesforBushLies.com, or EvilGOPBastards.com seems little different from the material available at the official site of the Democratic National Committee.
In his new book, Bush Country, John Podhoretz has collected and carefully analyzed representative statements from the core liberal critique of Bush, maintaining persuasively that they have become so unmoored from the reality of the President’s policies as to take on “the paranoid style of American politics”—the phrase used nearly 40 years ago by the political scientist Richard Hofstader to describe the mentality of the John Birch Society and other fringe elements of the American Right. The result, Podhoretz writes, is an angry opposition that is no longer capable of participating constructively in political debate.
By contrast, whatever may be said of Bush’s critics on the Right, they do present a more reasoned set of contentions. Last summer, the columnist George F. Will suggested that, under Bush, American conservatism was undergoing an identity crisis, one that might well end by rendering it incoherent. The crisis, according to Will, was being caused by the policies of the administration and a series of decisions by the purportedly conservative Supreme Court; jointly, these were gnawing at the very foundations of limited government and the preference for market forces over governmental intrusion in economic affairs. In the months since Will raised these doubts about the conservative bona fides of the administration, the murmurs of discontent have turned into a din.
The critics are not Bush-haters; they would likely support his reelection over just about any conceivable Democratic nominee. Still, their discomfort is unmistakable. Speaking for many, Ramesh Ponnuru in National Review laid out the brief against the President as of last September:
Bush has increased the federal role in education, imposed tariffs on steel and lumber, increased farm subsidies, okayed federal regulations on campaign finance and corporate accounting, and expanded the national-service program President Clinton began. Since September 11, he has also raised defense spending, given new powers to law enforcement, federalized airport security, and created a new cabinet department for homeland security. No federal programs have been eliminated, nor has Bush sought any such thing. More people are working for the federal government than at any point since the end of the cold war.
But it was Bush’s decision to sign the Medicare-reform law passed by Congress just before Thanksgiving that pushed even quietly skeptical conservatives into open opposition. The new law, projected to cost as much as $2 trillion over the next two decades, is surely the greatest expansion of entitlement spending ever endorsed by a Republican President. The Wall Street Journal, in a harsh criticism, called the bill “too expensive a gamble for principled conservatives to support.” The supply-side economist Bruce Bartlett described himself as “apoplectic.” Major conservative think tanks from the Heritage Foundation to the Cato Institute and the National Center for Policy Analysis all vigorously lobbied against the bill’s passage.
By year’s end, Bush had become the target of dismissals once reserved by conservatives for the likes of Tip O’Neill or Bill Clinton. “He’s a champion big spender,” said Stephen Moore of the Club for Growth, while Edward Crane of Cato accused him of causing the “philosophical collapse of the GOP.” Andrew Sullivan, a staunch supporter of the President on foreign policy, wrote in Time that when it came to domestic affairs, he was “fast becoming a deadbeat dad, living it up for short-term gain while abandoning his children to a life of insecurity and debt.” Announcing a new online publication, Conservative Battleline, the veteran conservative activist Donald Devine wrote caustically that “The Republican President and party in Congress clearly have no interest in reducing the stifling burden of national government bureaucracy in peoples’ daily lives. Someone must represent them.”
The noisy sound of ranks breaking ought to be placed in context. Conservative opposition to an incumbent Republican is hardly new. Bush, Sr. was famously confronted by Patrick J. Buchanan, who actually beat him in the New Hampshire primary. Although Buchanan’s attempted revival of pre-World War II nationalism never evolved into a potent electoral force, he did help create a small but vocal movement of cultural conservatives who have long been uncomfortable with the modern GOP’s affinity for free trade, military intervention abroad, a relatively open immigration policy, and support for Israel. Their views, published regularly in periodicals like the American Conservative and Southern Partisan, have failed to have a discernible impact on either the Bush administration or the larger conservative movement.
The new critique, though, is closer to the center and more intellectually sophisticated. Does it signal an end to the conservative electoral coalition that, with whatever internal fissures, has existed as a force in the country since the days of Ronald Reagan? In the opinion of Kevin Hassett, a free-market economist who served as a close adviser to Senator John McCain during the latter’s 2000 presidential run, it certainly should. “Conservatives might shudder at the thought of ‘President Howard Dean,’ ” Hassett has written, “but it is hard to see exactly what has been gained if the strategy employed to keep him out of the White House is to adopt all of his [big-government] policies in advance.”
Some Bush supporters have taken a more sanguine view. Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard, for one, argues that Bush is to be understood as a “big-government conservative”: that is, one who wants to use the resources and imprimatur of the federal government to advance conservative ends. In Barnes’s judgment, Bush has simply recognized that Americans do not mind big government, and has adjusted accordingly. More important, Barnes thinks, is that Bush is personally very conservative. Unlike his father, he has no history of association with moderate or liberal (“Rockefeller”) Republicans, is comfortable with cultural and religious conservatives, and has never shown any eagerness to find common ground with liberal Democrats.
Barnes is on to something, but his terms may be too narrow. The real question is not whether Bush is betraying the conservative movement but whether he is redefining the meaning of conservative governance—and if so, in what direction.
Obviously, the events of September 11, 2001 confronted Bush’s presidency with a new set of priorities, both foreign and domestic. Partly in response to those events, Bush has no less obviously departed from the trajectory of traditional conservative thinking, and in a manner that goes beyond such touchstones as balanced budgets and governmental minimalism. Nevertheless, it is impossible to ignore the ways in which the sometimes surprising and unorthodox politics he has been advancing, albeit unevenly, have created a new type of conservative agenda.
Foreign policy is the starting point. Over the previous decade, the prevailing contention among most Republicans and conservatives had been that the United States could not be the world’s policeman but must choose its involvements carefully. The so-called Powell doctrine, according to which military engagement should be pursued only with overwhelming force and with a clear exit strategy in mind, had become the accepted view among most leaders on the Right—including George W. Bush. Throughout the 1990’s, Republicans joined Democrats in persistently and aggressively cutting the Pentagon budget.
Faced with different realities after September 11, Bush and his advisers have effectively crafted a new American posture, one that tacitly rejects the Powell doctrine, broadens the definition of the American national interest and hence the criteria of intervention, and has developed a reliance on the sophistication of our weaponry rather than on the number of men on the ground.
The simplistic shorthand adopted by the media to characterize (and/or demonize) the Bush approach is to call it a triumph of “neoconservatism.” And it is true enough that, like today’s administration strategists, neoconservative thinkers in the late 1970’s and 1980’s strove to redefine the role of American power at a time of retreat and growing isolationism; it is also true that a number of neoconservatives hold policy positions in the Bush administration itself. That said, it is necessary to add that Bush’s policy choices have been driven less by ideology than by the clear-cut need to combat terrorism and the states that sponsor it, and to confront rogue regimes whose very existence represents a threat to freedom and security. In so doing, Bush and his team have devised a policy that breaks with almost every single tenet of yesterday’s prevailing model of liberal multilateralism, and that exhibits an energy and coherence missing during the Bush, Sr. and even during the Reagan administrations.
Of course, many conservatives distinguish between Bush’s muscular posture toward the world, which they applaud, and his deviation from the dogma of balanced budgets. But here Bush is less out of step with conservative practice (as opposed to conservative theory) than his critics contend. Writing in the Washington Post this past November, the libertarian analyst David Boaz complained that the administration’s domestic agenda is “a far cry from the less-government, ‘leave-us-alone’ conservatism of Ronald Reagan.” Yet this is what the same David Boaz was writing in August 1982 about the “ ‘leave-us-alone’ conservatism” of the Reagan administration:
Soaring military spending for overseas commitments and the refusal to make significant cuts in most major domestic programs have created the worst deficits in American history. . . . People around the country seem to understand what no one in Washington will admit: the budget is out of control. The growth of government is out of control. . . . Spending in FY [fiscal year] 1983, the first real Reagan budget, will be about $100 billion higher than President’s Carter’s last full budget.
Nor was Boaz alone at the time. The late Norman Ture, a father of supply-side economics, left his Treasury Department post in protest at what he took to be Reagan’s deviation on taxes in 1981. Reagan’s own budget director, David Stockman, was similarly shocked into resigning by the President’s unwillingness to make steep cuts in spending, a failure of leadership that to Stockman explained, in the subtitle of his 1985 book, “how the Reagan revolution failed.”
But what Reagan recognized, and George W. Bush after him, is that, conservative rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding, balanced budgets and cuts in federal spending are far less important to economic health than is the promotion of growth. This lesson, explained repeatedly over the decades by the Wall Street Journal‘s late editor Robert L. Bartley is still regularly forgotten by some conservatives.
In the early 1990’s, the obsession with deficit reduction led the first Bush administration to a short-sighted deal with a Democratic Congress to raise taxes. Five years later, Newt Gingrich squandered the authority of his new Republican majority in the House of Representatives by insisting on a showdown with Bill Clinton over cutting spending—a goal that Gingrich held to be so vital and urgent that it necessitated a shutdown of the federal government. Within a few years of Gingrich’s disastrously unpopular move, the budget “crisis” of the mid-1990’s was completely eliminated by means of economic growth, a booming stock market, and entrepreneurial breakthroughs that were flooding the federal treasury with new revenues.
Given this very recent history, it is remarkable that hysteria over looming deficits should reappear among conservatives as if nothing had been learned. At the end of 2003, the federal deficit was approaching $500 billion, including $50 billion spent on the war in Iraq. Although, numerically, that is the largest deficit in our history, it represents only 4.2 percent of the nation’s GDP. Under Reagan, the deficit ran as high as 6 percent of GDP, and it stood at 4.7 percent into the early 1990’s. Historically, it is in line with post-recession deficits under both Republican and Democratic administrations.
Nor should the deficit be looked at without reference to the significant pro-growth tax cuts Bush championed and signed last year. Part of this 2003 package was designed to accelerate the reductions in personal income-tax rates passed in 2001; but, by reducing the capital-gains tax rate and the rate on dividends as well, the new Bush package deliberately aims at boosting the fortunes of investors who now make up close to 50 percent of American households. In short, Bush has not merely recapitulated the pro-growth cuts of the Reagan era but greatly expanded their reach. The decision to cut dividend taxes alone, by encouraging companies to return more profits to their stockholders rather than spending on acquisitions, may have contributed significantly to the market surge during 2003.
Is it possible to extrapolate from Bush’s record on spending to his other domestic initiatives? While granting that many of the administration’s budget decisions were made on the basis of pragmatic necessity, Ramesh Ponnuru warns that conservatives “should not try to dress up this necessity as a coherent philosophy.” But there may be a more constructive view to be taken.
The Medicare bill is a case in point. Without doubt, it represents a massive expansion in spending and, with the addition of prescription-drug coverage, amounts to a new entitlement for seniors. No one, however, seriously doubts that this coverage had to be added—even free-market conservatives agree that inclusion of prescription drugs was long overdue. The real issue is whether the legislation permits a fundamental shift in the debate over how a government entitlement like Medicare ought to operate.
To Grace-Marie Turner, a veteran champion of free-market health-care reform, the bill is well worth its high cost. “Tucked away in this huge and hugely expensive legislation,” she writes, “are seeds that can lead to transformative changes in the health-care sector.” Two such “seeds” are Medical Savings Accounts and experiments to allow private providers to compete for Medicare. The inclusion of such provisions, coupled with the fact that the bill’s final draft attracted the support of leading Democrats and the AARP, means that liberal opposition to genuine reform of Medicare has finally been broken.
In this large sense, the bill is a turning point in conservative efforts to challenge the entitlement status quo. For nearly twenty years, Senator Edward M. Kennedy Congressman Henry Waxman, and other Washington champions of government-run health care have made increased spending levels the only yardstick by which to measure a President’s concern for Medicare; in the process, they have successfully quashed any serious discussion of introducing market forces into Medicare or providing seniors with choices of coverage in the private sector. The Bush legislation hardly resolves the issue, and the reform elements in the bill are too small and are postponed too far into the future; but, going forward, the debate will center at last on whether we are advancing toward market reform quickly enough. This is something conservatives have long argued for but, until now, never achieved.
A similar assessment can be entered for some of Bush’s other domestic initiatives, starting with education. The No Child Left Behind legislation, passed during his first year in office, is extremely expensive and much flawed, but it, too, has succeeded in changing the terms of debate. For years, “progress” in education was measured by the expenditure of ever more federal dollars and the appeasement of Washington-based pressure groups—the organizations that former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett called “the blob.” The new legislation emphasizes performance standards and school autonomy. As Bennett and Chester E. Finn, Jr. recently summed up the bill’s achievements so far, it has done well on standards while leaving much to be desired on school autonomy. Still, today’s discussion is surely healthier for education itself, and more in tune with conservative ideals, than the mindless argument over spending levels that dominated federal education policy for so long.
On still other fronts, the outlook is less clear. The creation of a mammoth Department of Homeland Security, for example, can hardly be reassuring to advocates of small government; but it does offer a much-overdue opportunity to reform the isolated and dysfunctional bureaucracies that have long been responsible for our border security, our immigration enforcement, and our public-health apparatus. As for the Sarbanes-Oxley bill launching an array of new regulation of corporate governance, this was something no President could face down in the wake of the Enron and WorldCom scandals; if nothing else, it serves as a barrier to Republican corporatism, an anathema to conservative ideology since the 1950’s.
Far more provocative to some conservatives was the speech by Bush in early January urging dramatic reforms to the country’s immigration policies. His proposals would make it easier for immigrants to enter the country to fill jobs and for undocumented aliens already here to stay legally. Such initiatives were almost guaranteed to create a firestorm in conservative ranks. For some time, populist figures on the Right like the talk-show host G. Gordon Liddy and the columnist Michelle Malkin have railed against any effort to grant amnesty to illegal aliens; others, including Peter Brimelow and John O’Sullivan (both immigrants themselves), have argued that future surges in immigration from Hispanic countries will unacceptably dilute the nation’s cultural unity.
But there is a strong economic case to be made for increasing immigration to the U.S. Despite the recent surge in productivity and the relatively high rate of unemployment, most economists believe that future growth will depend on the availability of both high- and low-skilled workers from elsewhere. There is also a moral dimension to the immigration issue. Is it really right to track down and oust workers and their families who, though here illegally, are otherwise law-abiding residents, who provide much-needed labor, and whose families and children are often deeply integrated into their communities? What is certain is that a new policy that attempts to promote immigration and legitimizes those who have come here illegally will force the conservative movement to grapple with an issue it has long swept under the rug, and will itself help to redefine Bush’s coalition.
Finally, there is a set of policy decisions that are hard to defend on any principled grounds. These include Bush’s support for the anti-market 2002 farm bill, the protectionist steel tariffs, the utterly ineffective campaign-finance reform bills, and the pork-laden energy bill of 2003. True, there is no evidence that Bush was passionate about any of them; but his willingness to support such policies, even for tactical purposes, is clear evidence that his conservative themes have yet to coalesce into an easily summarizable vision. Where Reagan had a simple message—stronger defense plus tax cuts—and Gingrich his Contract for America, Bush has yet to offer the country an equivalently streamlined philosophy.
What he has offered is something no less necessary: a very bold, and very ambitious, reordering of conservative priorities. The list alone is impressive. Bush has launched an unprecedented campaign against global terrorism and tyranny He has barely paused before using federal resources to reshape large swaths of our education and health-care programs. In the midst of a weak economy and in the face of unrelenting criticism, he has pursued and signed the third-largest tax cuts in history. He has significantly increased the scope of federal power to protect domestic security while, just two years after foreign terrorists attacked the country, contemplating a new openness to foreigners who want to live and work here. He has willingly entered fractious cultural debates on stem-cell research and homosexual marriage, making it clear that he believes government cannot be indifferent to such questions. He is entertaining the idea of remaking Social Security by offering individuals private accounts.
If this loose collection of initiatives and preferences is causing a conservative identity crisis, as George Will would have it, that may be because American conservatism has been in search of an identity ever since Ronald Reagan left the public stage. To most conservatives, George H.W. Bush, in raising taxes and in implicitly impugning his predecessor by calling for a kinder, gentler America, was not the best steward of the Reagan legacy. But by the early 1990’s, with the threat of Soviet Communism having disappeared, the purpose of conservative politics had become uncertain. The old mission so memorably defined by William F. Buckley, Jr.—that the job of conservatives was “to stand athwart history yelling ‘stop’ ”—was seeming insufficient in a world where, even after eight years of Reaganism, the government was continuing to grow and Democrats still dominated the Washington debate.
Newt Gingrich’s theory was that the purpose of the next Republican revolution was to undermine the welfare-state mentality of the Democrat-controlled Congress by reforming the rules that protected incumbents. He succeeded brilliantly in reforming the rules, but the new conservative-Republican majority in the House was soon at a loss about what to do next, especially with Bill Clinton in the White House as a still-popular and indefatigable adversary.
Bush’s own effort to reinvent the conservative alliance began, in his 2000 campaign, with the slogan of compassionate conservatism. To some, this signaled a reintroduction of his father’s kinder, gentler philosophy. To others, it captured who Bush said he was: a “reformer with results,” someone willing to use the power of government to advance conservative ends. But whatever the slogan, his first year-and-a-half in office was hardly encouraging. Proposals on taxes, education, and faith-based communities looked like compromises and half-measures. Compassionate conservatism was no replacement for the real thing.
As so many have noted, September 11 gave Bush a new sense of personal purpose. At the same time, it may also have given his brand of political conservatism a new lease on life. Today his conservative critics, focused on increased spending and larger government, do not see this. They are still measuring by the Reaganesque barometer of conservative purity. “Government is the problem,” Reagan proclaimed in one of the rhetorical high points of his first inaugural address. (The Reagan reality, as we have seen, was something else again.) Today, however, with the country at war and all of us highly dependent for our security on government intelligence, law enforcement, and even health-care monitoring, the blanket distrust of government no longer is an odd conservative rallying-cry.
Besides, in advancing conservative ends, the credo of small government also has its limitations. The welfare reform of the late 1990’s was a conservative victory—ending a pernicious federal entitlement and the corrosive disincentives to work that came with it. But most states ended up spending more than before on welfare, increasing payments and investing in the training of social workers charged with a smaller case load. The result was larger government; was the triumph any less a conservative triumph for that? Similarly, such conservative causes as school vouchers, modernized weapons systems, and privatized Social Security all require expanding the role of government.
Conservatives have long avoided acknowledging this tension, which is now at the heart of the conflict between Bush and his critics on the Right. What it comes down to is that, for Bush, there are conservative goals that take precedence over limiting the reach of government. Of course, this shift in priorities is easily misunderstood or distorted. In one of its rare efforts to explain the Republican party to its readers, the New York Times editorialized at the end of the year that “the two halves of Republican policy no longer fit together. A political majority that believes in big government for people and little or no government for corporations has produced an unsustainable fiscal policy that combines spending on social programs with pork and tax cuts for the rich.”
But there are more cogent and less demagogic ways of putting this. Michael Barone, likewise writing at the end of the year, suggested that Bush has successfully replaced the conservative touchstones of small government and spending cuts with the bolder, more inspirational ideas of choice and accountability. That these are also the values most cherished in the world of business, and by today’s consumers, is no accident. As the columnist David Brooks has observed, the “ownership society” is a hallmark of Bush’s politics, appealing to Americans who want to be rewarded for self-reliance and responsibility.
To these two themes of choice and accountability, I would add a third: not big government but strong government. The notion of a strong central government sounds like a bitter pill for conservatives to swallow; but strong government need not be intrusive government, or even all that large. Indeed, the central error of liberalism over the past two decades has been to make government both large and weak—that is, ineffectual and unworthy of public respect. By contrast, a primary goal of conservative governance ought to be to restore to government the power to defend the nation’s interests while providing citizens with the services they want in the most efficient manner possible. Liberalism has failed at that task, and economic libertarianism has little or no interest in it. Hence the opportunity for a new era of conservative leadership.
Looked at in this way, Bush’s focus on the global expansion of democracy, the ongoing war against terrorism, economic growth (rather than government spending levels), and deconstructing domestic-policy monopolies (Medicare, Social Security, teachers’ unions, etc.) does rise to the level of a new conservative approach to government. In his insightful memoir of working inside George W. Bush’s White House, David Frum remarks that “Bush was not a lightweight. He was, rather, a very unfamiliar type of heavyweight.” The same could be said for his politics: an unfamiliar type of conservatism, but one that will likely define the American political scene for some time to come.
—January 8, 2004