For the first time in his presidency, George W. Bush faces a widespread conservative revolt. Nothing he has done before – not McCain-Feingold, not steel tariffs, not his failure to veto excessive spending, not even last year’s proposed amnesty for illegal immigrants – has provoked as hostile a reaction on the right as the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court.
Republicans on Capitol Hill are also beginning to assert their independence. The occasional GOP senator questions the administration’s happy talk on Iraq. The Senate ignored a veto threat and voted 90 to 9 in favor of standards for the humane treatment of detainees. The legislation was advanced not just by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) but also Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). We are witnessing the accelerated depreciation of the president’s political capital.
Yet if Bush is becoming a lame duck, it signals an opportunity rather than an ending for conservatives. It is time to contemplate life after Bush and to rethink our movement’s independent identity.
Bush has been extremely popular among conservatives, who have been bereft of beloved national leadership since the retirement of Ronald Reagan. Like Reagan, this president has a keen sense of Middle American cultural sensibilities. His swagger, his perceived toughness in the face of foreign enemies and his evangelical religious sensibilities have won him admirers on the right.
These same characteristics have earned him the enmity of the American left. Bush has been more thoroughly despised by liberals than any other political figure in recent memory, including Reagan, Newt Gingrich and perhaps even Richard Nixon. In a country closely divided along partisan and ideological lines, this too has rallied many conservatives to the president’s side. To them, Michael Moore, Al Franken and the New York Times editorial board are simply the right enemies to have.
There is of course more to the story than personality and red-blue political competition. Bush has identified, however imperfectly, with certain broad goals of the conservative movement: a culture of life, a constitutionalist judiciary, the ownership society versus the redistributive state, the provision of charity by churches and civil society rather than bureaucrats.
Unfortunately, Bush has also corrupted many of these causes. Even the partial privatization of Social Security now appears unlikely. Other potential free-market reforms were transformed into traditional big-government largesse. Medicare is in even worse financial condition following the addition of an unaffordable prescription-drug benefit. No Child Left Behind has increased spending, but done little to promote school choice and in the long term may prove similarly ineffective at raising standards. The faith-based initiative subsidizes religious charities as much as it unshackles them.
The president’s failures share a common root: the belief that big-government means can serve conservative ends. This error is central to Bush’s politics. His presidential bid was being planned in Austin during the Gingrich meltdown, when it seemed that voters had recoiled from the most aggressive Republican assault against big government since Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign. Aping Bill Clinton rather than Gingrich, Bush boosters ambitiously decided to try their own hand at a Third Way.
John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge of the Economist call this marriage of big government and putatively conservative values Bushism. Yet results speak louder than theory. Most of what Reagan left undone remains undone. Government is growing and deficits have replaced surpluses. Bush has failed on entitlements, surrendered on racial preferences and is on the wrong side on immigration. As the red ink rises, even his tax cuts are at risk.
Bushism threatens to discredit conservatism by undoing its reputation for fiscal soundness and foreign-policy realism. Many voters see profligacy rather than budgetary discipline, secrecy rather than accountability, cronyism and fealty to business interests rather than a principled defense of free markets and a foreign policy that looks more like Wilsonianism than Reaganism.
It is in this last area that Bush may have done the most damage to conservatism, if not the country. A successful foreign policy often pursues concrete national interests in the language of abstract American principles. Under Bush, we have formulated policy on the basis of abstractions and later reached for national-interest justifications. The war in Iraq represents a shift from peace through strength to the precautionary principle. By supporting that invasion, conservatives have identified themselves with nation-building, armed social engineering and occasionally even democratic utopianism.
They have also endorsed the idea that the war on terror is simply a replay of the Cold War or World War IV, with Islamists – or, if you prefer, Islamofascists – standing in for Communists and Nazis. This formulation mistakenly lumps together Baathists, Wahhabists and Sunni insurgents in Iraq as if there is no meaningful difference between the various groups.
Bushism is not conservatism. Making this fact clear is a more worthwhile project than reflexively defending the president. The time has come to let the White House staff do its job and for us to do ours, a task that will considerably outlast the Bush presidency.
Thank you, Harriet Miers.