Conservatives have not been happy with George W. Bush. For each brand of conservatism, there is a different critique. Not so with Ronald Reagan, whom conservatives uniformly praise for various reasons. Seventy-nine percent of those in attendance at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference said they would prefer a candidate who is a Reagan Republican. Three percent would go for a G. W. Bush Republican. One gets the impression that Bush isn’t even considered a conservative.
I argue with Joseph Bottum in the most recent First Things over whether President Bush should be seen as a disaster for conservatism. I think not; Bottum thinks so. Chief among his criticisms is that, while Bush may be conservative in principle, in practice he has been simply incompetent. Bush may have wanted to advance the conservative cause, but instead has just made a mess.
Bottum’s criticism has been knocking around in my mind since I tried to respond to it, and I just don’t think it holds up. There are numerous accomplishments by Bush that belie Bottum’s claims. Yet Bush has also been a conservative in a more fundamental way, as he has changed the way in which government gets things done.
Some say that Bush’s budget deficits prove he is not a conservative. It is true that under his watch the federal government’s debt has grown, but the enormous expenses incurred after September 11 must be taken into account. That autumn, the whole U.S. economy took a powerful hit — airlines, restaurants, business meetings, banking, investments, jobs, monetary values. It took more than three years to restore the transportation, banking, and investment systems to pre-9/11 levels. Bush deserves at least some credit for leading the country from a severe trough to almost unprecedented prosperity.
Also, the war against jihadists in Afghanistan and Iraq required huge financial outlays. These war-expenses have been sound investments in the nation’s future, since the nation’s survival depended on them.
Nevertheless, a swollen federal budget is not a conservative practice. Admitted.
Yet perhaps there are better indicators of how conservative this president has been. There must be some reason why he maddens liberals to the frothing point.
Many call attention to the president’s eight substantive tax-cuts. I especially value the lower taxes on venture capital expended to establish new industries. These new capital funds have created millions of new jobs. That is the best bottom line when it comes to political economics: the number of new jobs created.
No president has ever been so strongly conservative on the pro-life front as President Bush. He has consistently labored to protect the human rights of the unborn, and has acted similarly when it comes to other important pro-life matters.
Bush signed the Partial Birth Abortion ban and the ban on funding abortions through UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund). He also restored and expanded the Mexico City agreement.
He capped, by executive order, federal funding for embryonic-stem-cell research and vetoed legislation that would have violated this boundary. (He did not prohibit private embryonic stem-cell research, but, rather, he acted according to the Jeffersonian principle that it is odious to tax people for actions that they morally abhor.)
He dedicated unprecedented funds to abstinence education through the Department of Health and Human Services.
And on family legislation?
Bush endorsed the Federal Marriage Amendment, which defines marriage as a contract between one man and one woman.
He repeatedly speaks of the family as the “unseen pillar of civilization.”
He was the first president to sign a school-choice bill to give parents greater freedom in deciding where their children will be educated.
He has committed his administration, through the Departments of Justice and State, to halting sex trafficking and modern forms of slavery throughout the world, and he has appointed an ambassador to oversee such reforms.
He has dedicated funding to prepare prisoners for productive lives after they leave prison.
And on big domestic issues?
He signed the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, which will curb Medicare/Medicaid spending by $11 billion over the next five years.
He braved the “third rail” of American politics in his attempt to reform Social Security.
He implemented deregulation across all government agencies.
He ordered every department of government to assess points of cooperation with faith-based initiatives.
He signed into law prescription drug assistance for the elderly — the first and only health-care reform in modern history to win a nearly 90-percent approval rating and to come in substantially under budget.
This prescription-drug reform also pioneered a new way to include the disciplines and incentives of market mechanisms in federal programs. This signal success should help pave the way for similar reforms throughout the health care, welfare, and Social Security systems. Such methods work to maximize personal responsibility and freedom of choice, while providing people with the support of a compassionate government. Some object that this “compassionate government” bit is not conservative, but it is in accordance with Ronald Reagan’s modified acceptance of the welfare state.
And with regards to the courts, in just six years President Bush has nominated and seen confirmed 30 percent of all sitting federal judges, as well as two very intelligent and solid conservative jurists on the Supreme Court, Justices Roberts and Alito.
President Bush has defined a new kind of conservatism. It is legitimate to criticize it, even to oppose it vigorously. But to do so honestly and accurately, one must note the change in method that President Bush has quietly and successfully been enacting. As often as possible, in as many ways as possible, he is using as the dynamo of personal choice and the methods of the market, not direct state-management, in order to make government programs more effective and more efficient. That is why Democrats, both of the old New Deal-type and of the new Clinton-type, oppose him so fiercely. They seem to see what he is up to better than many uneasy conservatives do.
Try to imagine the conservative future as Bush is trying to: Old-age assistance is mostly achieved by personal tax-exempt pension accounts. Medicare and other health expenses are paid for by means of personal, tax-exempt medical accounts (partly used for catastrophic insurance, mostly for ordinary health spending, and with a new incentive to watch over normal expenses carefully). Parental choice and market mechanisms help to weed out failing schools, replacing them with better ones.
Note that these new pension, medical, and school mechanisms deeply affect families, not simply individuals. This greater reliance on familial choice re-introduces a reliance on family, rather than on the state, as the chief agent of health, education, and welfare.
Bush has begun a major turn from the state toward the “little platoons” once celebrated by Burke, the “mediating institutions” that Peter Berger and Richard Neuhaus emphasized twenty years ago. This is a profoundly conservative impulse.