Politics & Policy

George W. Bush, Preservative

Has government become the answer?

AUTHOR’S NOTE: The following G-File is a version of a talk I gave Tuesday night to the Conservative Party of New York State. It was delivered before the State of the Union.

It’s good to be here in New York. And it’ll be good to be in New Hampshire, and in South Carolina! And Oklahoma! And Secaucus! Yeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhh!!!!!!

Sorry, I had to do that.

So, President Bush is giving his State of the Union tonight. Considering the inconvenient timing of having him speak the same night as me, I figured I might discuss an inconvenient aspect of his presidency.

So, this guy’s in the hospital and the nurse gives him a hot-tea enema. The patient screams, “Yeeaahhhh!”

“What!?” exclaimed the nurse. “Is it too hot?”

“No!” replied the patient, “It’s too sweet!”

I bring this up because it captures a certain dynamic to the discussions of the Bush presidency.

For more than a year, we’ve heard one leftist after another complain that President Bush is the most radical president in modern history. I don’t just mean in foreign policy–where more than a little radicalism has been long overdue–but here at home as well. Harold Meyerson actually compares George W. Bush to Jefferson Davis, because they both share such a fundamental opposition to progressive government. We’re told that Bush has gutted education, health care, and protections for the elderly. He’s declared that puppies with thorns in their paws will just have to suffer, and that John Ashcroft plans on confiscating balls of yarn from kittens across America.

In short, they say he is doing at home what his harshest critics claim he’s doing abroad: tearing down the established order which has long served to protect us and keep us secure.

I have no idea where they got this idea.

It’s as if they showed up for algebra class and started reading from their French textbooks. Not only do I have no idea what page they’re on, I really have no idea what they’re talking about.

A few quick facts. George W. Bush has:

‐ increased federal spending on education by 60.8 percent;

‐ increased federal spending on labor by 56 percent;

‐ increased federal spending on the interior by 23.4 percent;

‐ increased federal spending on defense by 27.6 percent.

And of course he has:

‐ created a massive department of homeland security;

‐ signed a campaign-finance bill he pretty much said he thought was unconstitutional (thereby violating his oath to uphold, protect, and defend the constitution);

‐ signed the farm bill, which was a non-kosher piñata filled with enough pork to bend space and time;

‐ pushed through a Medicare plan which starts with a price tag of $400 billion but will–according to every expert who studies the issue–go up a gazillion-bajillion dollars over the next decade;

‐ torched Republican–and American–credibility on trade, in both agriculture and steel;

‐ got more people working for the federal government since the end of the Cold War;

‐ not vetoed a single spending–or any other bill, and he has no intention of eliminating a single department;

‐ sold out like a fire sale at Filene’s on Title IX, a subject I know a little about because my wife is the foremost expert in the universe on it;

‐ pushed to send more Americans to Mars while inviting a lot more illegal immigrants to hang out here in America.

And that’s all before Bush went into reelection mode. Read Tuesday’s lead editorial in the Wall Street Journal, and you’ll find that this is the spendiest (yes, that’s right, “spendiest”) president in American history, second only to LBJ.

Maybe there’s something about presidents from Texas–they like everything big down there, including their government.

All of this pandering reminds me of H. L. Mencken’s comment about Harry Truman. He said that if there were a sizable number of voting-aged cannibals in the U.S., Truman would promise each a Christian missionary in a boiling pot.

So spare me this mindless blather about how George Bush’s radicalism runs too hot. This guy is too sweet.

Of course, this is all just another way of saying he is a “compassionate conservative.” I’d prefer “conservatism with a human face”–but that reference is probably too obscure, and makes the inherent insult of compassionate conservatism too obvious.

Regardless, as my colleague Ramesh Ponnuru–who’s done a lot of serious thinking about all of this–rightly points out, you can’t say we weren’t warned. Ronald Reagan declared in his first inaugural that “government is the problem.”

George W. has never said anything of the sort. In fact, he even said last Labor Day, “We have a responsibility that when somebody hurts, government has got to move.”

The Gipper would have spontaneously burst into flames if he’d said something like that.

Another example: During his first campaign, Bush would say at nearly every event “the hardest job in the world is to be a single mother…” No doubt this is true, or at least defensible. But to make this assertion begs the question, “So what?” If I were to declare that the toughest job in the world is “roadkill taxidermist,” would that necessitate government intervention? But since Bush was running for president, it was clear that he meant to do something about the single moms’ plight. And, considering the very serious social and psychological consequences of single-parent families, one could argue that making their jobs easier–and therefore making single motherhood more attractive–was neither compassionate nor conservative. Regardless, Bush was letting us know that compassionate conservatism was going to be what Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard calls “Big Government Conservatism.”

Some of you have probably heard me say this before, but since I’m giving this speech for free–deal with it.

I never liked compassionate conservatism.

I never thought conservatism needed an adjective. Maybe because I’m more of an Old Testament guy, I like conservatism filled with more smiting and wrath. Compassionate conservatism always struck me as the Republican version of Clintonism, rather than the Republican alternative to it.

Calling it “Big Government Conservatism” instead of “compassionate conservatism” hardly makes it more attractive.

Fred Barnes has come galloping to its defense, saying that it’s a simply a pragmatic form of conservatism which has made peace with the fact that the American people like Big Government so long as it doesn’t get in the way of the economy.

Barnes claims to have coined the phrase “Big Government Conservative”–and I take his word on that–but the idea has been around for a very long time.

In fact, there has always been a split in the conservative movement between two separate factions: anti-state conservatives, and anti-Left conservatives.

This isn’t merely another way of saying libertarian versus conservative, though that divide in many ways mirrors the split between the anti-statists and the anti-leftists.

[Note: for brevity’s sake I’ve cut my discussion on this point. But you can read my take on this divide here and here.]

What fused conservatism into a coherent ideology for much of the last half-century was a basic piece of dogma. Conservatives basically believed that a growing welfare state put us on the “road to serfdom,” as Friedrich Hayek wrote in, well, The Road To Serfdom. In other words, social planning at home lead to the very socialism we were fighting abroad. Obviously, this is a very glib summary, but that was the basic view. Now I think Hayek was largely wrong for reasons we can get into another time. But I’m grateful for his contribution, which may have warned us away from the fate he predicted.

But the important thing about dogma is that it frames important questions in important ways. As William F. Buckley noted, a nation which argues about whether it’s a good idea to privatize lighthouses isn’t even going to think about socializing medicine.

But here’s the problem. That dogma fell with the Berlin wall. Fred Barnes is right that “Big Government” conservatism has been around for a while, but conservatives used to feel shame or at least a little dirty when they threw money around like Baathists before the Saddam dinar was discontinued.

Now they call it “compassionate.” Using government to do good “wherever people are hurting” has gone from the occasional pragmatic deviation from conservative ideology to a new conservative ideology all its own.

If Bill Clinton had proposed spending over a billion dollars on marriage counseling, conservatives would have howled about how Clinton was a “social engineer” (and how he should probably have spent that money closer to home first). Well now conservatives are the social engineers. The content and aims of the engineering may be different; they may in fact be conservative, good, and necessary. But they don’t represent limited government by any stretch of the imagination.

And therein lies the best defense of George Bush. He’s not so much a conservative as, well, a “preservative.” I suppose I could call him a “preservationist,” but preservative has that nice Bush sound–like “strategery” or “misunderestimate.”

Personally, I’ve always been fairly pragmatic myself about using the government for conservative ends. But that’s really not “conservatism” when you think about it. A conservative–by definition–conserves what already exists. But what does a preservationist do? He devotes a lot of money and effort to restoring what is lost. There’s little point in conserving a condemned house. But there’s much utility in fixing up what is broken down. Problem is, it costs a heck of a lot more. Indeed, I still support this president largely because of his foreign policy, which is, at the end of the day, a preservationist’s approach. He’s knocking down walls, draining swamps, fumigating hives, etc.–all in an effort to protect the West and fix up those parts of the world that pose the biggest threat to our quality of life.

So, maybe the faith-based initiatives or the marriage counseling make sense. Maybe the federal government needs to weigh in from time to time on the side of strengthening traditional institutions and values that are in trouble. I’m open-minded about that.

But what troubles me is that we are replacing a dogma that says “government is the problem” with a new dogma, which says that government is the answer. When conservatives violated the old dogma, it was usually when the need was fairly obvious and pressing–and even then we got it wrong more often than right. Nixon created the EPA, implemented price controls, and imposed quota-style affirmative action all because “people were hurting.”

With this new “too-sweet” “compassionate conservative” ideology, the danger is we will fix things when they aren’t broken. George Bush is making this the new reflex position of the GOP, and that worries me. My guess is the president’s state of the union will elicit a Deanesque YEAARGH (or whatever it was). The liberals will no doubt say Bush’s ideas are too hot, but conservatives will recognize they are really too sweet. But we’ll both agree on the locus horribilis of the pain he’s giving us.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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