A debate has sprouted between Mark Levin and Pete Wehner over the relative conservatism of the Reagan and Bush 43 presidencies.
But while certainly having great respect and affection for President Bush, I have to say I think Wehner misses a key point.
First. President Reagan was… first. The first bona fide member of the modern conservative movement to reach the White House. This was no easy task. Republican moderates had controlled the party effectively since 1928. The structure of the party was filled with what Barry Goldwater would come to call proponents of the “dime store New Deal.” By the time Reagan challenged Gerald Ford in 1976 this was not simply a battle between two men over a job. This was, as it were, an Armageddon-style fight for the future of the Republican Party.
The Bush family was, famously, not on Reagan’s side. Indeed, one might argue that George W.’s genuine love of Texas was also a political necessity to help compensate for the Bush family image as “ruling class Eastern elitists.” This image was never entirely erased, Texas or not. As a matter of fact, in Angelo Codevilla’s Ruling Class comes this little jewel of an anecdote that underscores why the unease with things Bush:
Former Soviet dictator Mikhail Gorbachev tells us that in 1987 then vice president George H.W. Bush distanced himself from his own administration by telling him, “Reagan is a conservative, an extreme conservative. All the dummies and blockheads are with him…”
What this snapshot of an anecdote demonstrates is a mindset of going-along-to-get-along. As Codevilla described it:
Like a fraternity, this class requires above all comity — being in with the right people, giving the required signs that one is on the right side, and joining in and despising the Outs.
A mindset of comity that was very much the key to the Republican Eastern Establishment from which the Bushes — George W. included — sprang. In practical terms this meant an underlying acquiescence in the principles behind the progressive movement and the New Deal. In terms of the Bush 43 presidency this mindset was vividly illustrated with the Medicare prescription drug episode or the No Child Left Behind intrusion of the federal government into education (instead of, say, trying to get the Education Department abolished) and ignoring the hard-learned lessons of Reagan’s good-faith mistakes on immigration and effectively quadrupling down on this mistake.
Reagan, to his everlasting credit, spent his entire political career politely but forcefully opposing this idea of comity-as-government. As the world belatedly realizes, thanks to the work of former Reagan aides Martin Anderson and Annelise Anderson and Kiron K. Skinner, Reagan spent years giving serious thought to the issues of the day and their relationship to conservatism, writing his thoughts out in long hand for literally hundreds of radio broadcasts, columns and speeches. His presidency reflected this.
Were there mistakes along the way in Reagan’s eight years? Sure. But these mistakes — the TEFRA tax increase, for example or Lebanon or immigration, or the difference in conservatism reflected in Supreme Court appointments like Scalia versus O’Connor — came precisely because Reagan was the first conservative president since Calvin Coolidge to sit in the Oval Office. And certainly the first post-New Deal conservative to hold the presidency….Republican predecessors Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford all having been moderates on the job.
Bush had no such excuse.
A case in point, as my colleague Jim Antle points out below, was the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. After all the hard earned lessons in this area, how could President Bush possibly have thought her nomination a good idea? Fortunately, one of the real Reagan legacies was a thoroughly invigorated conservative movement — led by people like Mark Levin — who quickly swung into action to lead the anti-Miers fight and get her replaced with the solid Sam Alito.
But the underlying difference between Reagan and Bush — and indeed between Reagan and some putative GOP successors in the 2012 elections — was (and is) a fundamental understanding of conservatism. And a refusal to buy into the idea that comity meant going along to get along.
In some respects that simply should not have happened in a Republican post-Reagan presidency, the Bush White House seemed to not quite understand that a dime store New Deal was even more expensive then when the likes of Tom Dewey and Nelson Rockefeller were pushing it.
There is a reason Mark Levin sees Reagan as the gold standard for conservatives.
And he’s right in doing so.