Fact-Checking the Liberal Narrative About Recent Conservative History

by David French

A common liberal narrative about recent conservative history goes something like this: The Tea Party and other like-minded conservative movements are less about principle than politics. Why? Because when George Bush was in the White House the Right hardly blinked at soaring deficits and swollen government — even vilifying the few, brave conservative dissenters. Where was the Tea Party then?

At least that’s the core of a recent Andrew Sullivan post, where he once again relitigates the history of his own break with the contemporary conservative movement:

In criticizing Obama, I’m joined by countless Democratic writers and outlets. When I took on Bush for over-spending at home and over-reaching abroad, I was effectively alone at the start. And over the years, only a handful of apostates joined me, as the right consigned me, and them, to the “raging lefty” category, without addressing our, you know, arguments. That ended with Obama’s election when all the debt Bush piled up could suddenly be blamed on the new guy. It’s as if the Tea Party could not believe in its own principles until a Democrat was in office.

But is this true? One measure of conservative dissent from President Bush’s agenda would be to examine House Republican (the most grassroots-focused Republicans on the Hill) voting records in the face of President Bush’s three “big government” domestic initiatives: Medicare expansion, No Child Left Behind, and TARP.  

The two earlier bills, No Child Left Behind (2001) and Medicare Expansion (2003), show big-government “compassionate conservatism” at its height, with Republicans backing No Child Left Behind by a 186–34 margin and Medicare expansion 204–25 (though it should be noted that passing the prescription-drug benefit required strong-arm tactics against reluctant Republicans). So, yes, there was a high degree of Republican consensus (though with some notable conservative dissent) around President Bush’s more big-government domestic policies. 

By 2008, however, the bloom was off the rose. Republicans killed the first iteration of TARP – voting against by a 133–65 margin — even in the midst of an economic crisis and in direct defiance of not only President Bush but also the Republican presidential nominee, John McCain. Even when TARP eventually passed, a majority of House Republicans voted no — 108-91. This bailout vote is still so toxic in conservative circles that it’s being used against Senator McConnell in the Kentucky Senate primary.

So it looks like, contra Sullivan, tea-party principles did exist in 2008. Obviously a burgeoning movement that was willing to defy a president and presidential candidate of the same party in 2008 would be fully ready to take on an Oval Office leftist in 2009. Simply put, tea-party conservatism (and the tea-party spirit) was born under President Bush. It was named under President Obama and given long and healthy life by Obamacare.


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