Politics & Policy

Is He One of Us?

Wondering about Bush.

The bile accumulating on the Right toward the White House has reached China Syndrome proportions and is starting to melt through the floor.

Suddenly, conservatives are starting to question whether George W. Bush is even a one of them at all. One of my heroes, Robert Bork, recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “George W. Bush has not governed as a conservative. This George Bush, like his father, is showing himself to be indifferent, if not actively hostile, to conservative values.” Conservative columnist Bruce Bartlett opines: “The truth that is now dawning on many movement conservatives is that George W. Bush is not one of them and never has been.” Even at National Review Online–where I hang my hat most of the time–several of our contributors have echoed these concerns.

I think this goes too far. Two factors contribute to this misdiagnosis: confusion and disappointment.

Let’s start with confusion. Contrary to most stereotypes, conservatism is a much less dogmatic ideology than modern liberalism. The reason liberals don’t seem dogmatic and conservatives do is that liberals have settled their dogma, so it has become invisible to them. No liberal disputes in a serious philosophical way that the government should do good things where it can and when it can. Their debates aren’t about ideology, they’re about tactics. Indeed, the chief disagreement between leftists and liberals over the role of the state is almost entirely pragmatic. Moderate liberals think it’s not practical–either economically or politically–to push for a dramatic expansion of the role of the state. Leftists think it would be a good idea politically and, despite all the evidence to the contrary, think it would work economically.

Within conservatism, however, there are enormous philosophical arguments about the proper role of the state. This debate isn’t merely between libertarians and social conservatives. It’s also between conservatives who are “anti-left” versus those who are “anti-state.” Neoconservatives, for example, are famously comfortable with an energetic, interventionist government as long as that government isn’t run by secular, atheistic radicals, and socialists (I exaggerate a little for the sake of clarity).

Think of it this way. One line of conservative thought says that public schools are bad because they are run by inefficient government bureaucrats who drain resources. Moreover, they might say, running schools is simply not the proper function of the government. Another line of conservative thought says that public schools are fine (and they’re not going anywhere anyway). But they shouldn’t be teaching crazy left-wing stuff about how America, traditional religion and capitalism are the unholy trinity of the world’s problems. Don’t get rid of public schools, they say, just make sure they get their values and priorities in order.

Now, no conservative can be a full-blown statist, and very few conservatives subscribe to one of these lines of thought to the exclusion of the other. Some libertarians probably don’t mind government funding of museums but take offense at the idea of taxpayer-funded pornographic blasphemy. And, there are certainly many social conservatives who’d love to privatize the U.S. Postal Service. But the relevant point is that Bush is definitely more of an anti-left guy than an anti-state guy (his valiant efforts at Social Security reform notwithstanding). He’s comfortable with a conservative welfare state, hence his expansion of Medicare. Recall that he famously declared that “when someone hurts, government has to move.”

Libertarians spontaneously burst into flames when they say things like that.

What has so confused liberals, meanwhile, is that they are still talking about Bush like he’s primarily an anti-state guy, a la Reagan or Gingrich, even as he’s spent lavishly on education, labor and regulation.

Then there’s disappointment. I don’t think it violates my moratorium on writing about Miers if I say that her nomination was a letdown for many conservatives. And, while I don’t think it’s true of Bork himself, I do think many conservatives are using their legitimate anger about Miers and Bush’s overspending as an excuse to jump ship from a lame duck presidency at its low point. If Iraq were a huge success right now and if Bush had picked a conservative stalwart for the bench, how many conservatives would be suggesting Bush isn’t one of us?

I have been critical of Bush’s big-government conservatism for years. So I’m not entirely displeased by the venom being unleashed at that aspect of his presidency. However, Bush ran as a big-government conservative. And it’s not fair to call our own buyer’s remorse a betrayal by the seller.

(c) 2005 Tribune Media Services


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