It is a truth universally accepted that the Republican party has moved to the right. Only—it is not true. At all. But strange how an untruth gets cemented, by repetition: and a bullying repetition at that.
We have had another outburst of “The Republican party has moved to the right” with Senator Specter’s leap to the Democrats. And that cry has undergone almost no examination. Shall we examine a little?
I hope you’ll accept that National Review is a pretty good barometer of conservative opinion. A lot of people consider NR the flagship journal of American conservatism. So, as an exercise, consider NR’s positions on George W. Bush and the Republicans. You will see that we steadily criticized them and opposed them—from the right.
Bush and the Republicans spent massively, especially in Bush’s first term. We opposed that, mightily. The president’s most cherished initiative, probably, was the Faith-Based Initiative. We opposed that. Then there was his education policy: No Child Left Behind. We opposed that (mainly on grounds that it wrongly expanded the federal role). He had his new federal entitlement: a prescription-drug benefit. We of course opposed that. He imposed steel tariffs—for a season—which we opposed. He signed the McCain-Feingold law on campaign finance—which we opposed. He established a new cabinet department, the Department of Homeland Security. We opposed that. He defended race preferences in the University of Michigan Law School case; we were staunchly on the other side. He of course proposed a sweeping new immigration law, which included what amounted to amnesty. We were four-square against that.
I am talking about some things that were very dear to Bush’s heart, and central to his efforts—and self-image, as a leader. NR, the conservative arbiter, opposed those things. The Republican party, by and large, supported them—with one glaring exception: the immigration push.
What on Bush’s domestic agenda did NR support? His tax-cutting, though we had some different ideas about what to do. His Social Security reform, which didn’t get very far. Etc. All thoroughly mainstream conservative stuff.
True, President Bush is against abortion and against gay marriage. The Republican party has been broadly anti-abortion since about 1980, though there have been many pro-choice politicians in the GOP. When did Bush say you could not be a Republican and for abortion rights? In all likelihood, he saved Arlen Specter’s Senate seat. As for gay marriage: Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Al Gore, and the rest of the Democratic establishment oppose it, too. Or at least say they do. The GOP, the Democrats, and Miss California: all on the same page.
Last year, the Republicans nominated for president the man who had been, for years, the Democrats’ and the media’s favorite Republican: John McCain. The 2008 general-election campaign sometimes seemed a question of who could out-squish whom: Would it be the Republican or the Democrat?
And yet we hear, incessantly, that the Republican party has moved to the right. You should ask people who say that how they justify the remark. In 2000, when he first ran for president, Governor Bush styled himself a “compassionate conservative.” Other conservatives did not like this, at all. For example, Bush’s fellow Texan, Phil Gramm, said, “Freedom is compassionate,” and you could almost hear him add, “dammit.” Bush was, indeed, a different kind of Republican—a kind that made National Review and traditional American conservatism grit their teeth.
Why do people think the GOP has moved to the right, when, more likely, the opposite is true? Tone. The opinion-makers know that Bush believes in God, and they know that he’s from Texas. They know that he has little respect for the New York Times and his alma maters: Andover, Yale, and Harvard. And then there’s the war—the broad War on Terror, and the particular war in Iraq. They are not very high on those.
And they give President Bush no credit for failing to move against Iran!
Anyway, I hope I have supplied some food for thought. People say “The Republican party has moved to the right” in the same way they would say “Two plus two equals four.” But they are really asserting more like five.