Conservatives sold their soul to back George W. Bush. Eight years later, can they get it back?
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WHEN, AS A CANDIDATE FOR PRESIDENT, then Governor Bush bungled a pop quiz on foreign leaders, many conservatives dismissed it as an unfair “gotcha” session. Unfair though it may have been, in hindsight, it demonstrated that Bush did not bring a strong base of knowledge of foreign policy to the presidency. This forced him to rely on others, with mixed results. Condoleezza Rice proved indecisive in her roles both as national security advisor and secretary of state, and by the end of Bush’s second term, national security-minded conservatives were exasperated, because State Department bureaucrats had taken over the administration’s foreign policy, leading to capitulation to Iran and North Korea that prompted the once-loyal former UN ambassador John Bolton to declare the presidency “in total intellectual collapse.”
Bush’s isolation and detachment also became a problem over the course of his presidency, most notably in his handling of Hurricane Katrina. While in the wake of the September 11 attacks President Bush had the benefit of a competent local government led by New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, when state and local officials were utterly inept in their response to the Katrina catastrophe, Bush’s slow reaction and his notorious flyover left the impression that nobody was in charge, and that the president didn’t grasp the magnitude of the tragedy.
The crisis also highlighted the disturbing cronyism in his administration, immortalized by his support of FEMA’s director: “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.” Bush’s emphasis on loyalty over competence was also evident when he made Scott McClellan White House press secretary, tapped Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court, and appointed Alberto Gonzales (whom he also wanted on the Supreme Court) to be attorney general.
While critics accused Bush of stubbornness, conservatives celebrated President Bush’s firm “stay the course” policy in Iraq as evidence of his strength of conviction. Unfortunately, this also translated into an unwillingness to entertain legitimate criticism of his war strategy, or even to acknowledge that things weren’t going well in Iraq. Even though many military analysts had been calling for more troops both before the initial invasion and during the occupation in order to bring stability, the administration resisted. Only after Republicans were thrown out of Congress as a result of the Iraq War was the successful surge strategy implemented.
All these weaknesses added up to Bush’s overall failure to see his policy dictates properly executed by appointees within his own administration. Conservatives have often defended Bush by saying “he got the big things right,” but his inability to make sure all the little things were getting done correctly had disastrous consequences. Because of Bush’s management failures, conservative governance has become associated with incompetence for a generation of Americans. This is especially ironic because when he came into office, Bush was touted as the first MBA president.
IT WASN’T UNTIL PRESIDENT BUSH’S SECOND TERM —his political fortunes were reversed—that conservatives mounted an active opposition to his agenda. In the first term, while conservatives grumbled about No Child Left Behind and the Medicare prescription drug plan, they weren’t able to successfully thwart the administration. Some conservatives were reluctant publicly to undermine a Republican president, especially during wartime; others bought into the spin that the legislation would take away Democratic advantages on health care and education, and spare us from liberal legislation that would be even worse. By his second term, conservatives were much more willing to be combative with the administration and were able to claim victories by torpedoing the Miers nomination and comprehensive immigration reform.
Whatever one can say about President Bush’s imposition of big-government conservatism during his presidency, it isn’t really fair to call it a “betrayal,” as some critics on the right have. To anybody paying attention, it was pretty clear from the outset that Bush had no interest in limiting the size and scope of government.
Bush accepted the idea that congressional Republicans had gone too far with anti-government rhetoric in the 1990s and decided that the only path to victory for a Republican was to co-opt liberalism. As a candidate, Bush was clear about his idea of “compassionate conservatism,” and he proposed to give prescription drug coverage to senior citizens and to expand the role of the federal government in education. Conservatives, understandably, supported Bush over Gore and Kerry, but often deluded themselves into thinking they had more in common with the man than they actually did.
Bush was able to buy off many economic conservatives with tax cuts, but another lesson that the right should take away from his presidency is that politicians should be rewarded for cutting spending more than for reducing taxes. The Bush tax cuts were not made permanent, and by letting spending get out of control, he made it a lot easier for Democrats to scale back the tax cuts or eliminate them when they are set to expire in 2011. Liberals can now point to the record deficits of the Bush years and argue that lower taxes, rather than runaway spending, was the culprit.
The bottom line is that for too long, conservatives treated President Bush as one of their own, defended him ferociously, and as a result often gave him a free pass even when his policies and job performance warranted criticism. The distinction between the conservative movement and the Republican Party became blurred, and consequently Bush’s failures came to be identified as failures of conservatism even though they were nothing of the sort.
AS THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION comes to an end, the right would be wise to embrace what my TAS colleague W. James Antle has dubbed “arm’s-length conservatism.” In other words, conservatives should maintain a healthy distance from the Republican Party, and stop allowing the party leader to become the de facto head of the conservative movement, a habit left over from the Reagan years. While conservatives should by all means make the case for policies that are consistent with their principles, they need to be more intellectually honest about the flaws of leaders who claim to be conservatives, and more willing to oppose them vigorously when they stray off course.
However tempting the lure of electoral politics, conservatives need to balance pragmatism with a renewed understanding that the only way to advance their cause in the long run is to win the battle of ideas. Political victories naturally follow. Welfare reform was signed into law by a Democratic president because conservatives had spent decades successfully indicting the welfare state and the culture of dependency. The years and decades to come will be dominated by debates over the future of American health care and the looming entitlement crisis at home, as well as by the threat of Islamic extremism, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and the rise of China abroad. To succeed, the conservative movement will have to be able to apply its core ideas to these challenges.
Looking back to George W. Bush’s 2000 acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, one line stands out as particularly prescient: “We will write, not footnotes, but chapters in the Ameri can story.” For better or worse, this era will be studied and debated by historians for a long time to come. Whether the end of the Bush years marks the end of conservatism—as some have asserted—or a new beginning will largely depend on whether conservatives themselves use this moment to engage in sober self-reflection.
Philip Klein is a reporter for The American Spectator.
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