Conservatives sold their soul to back George W. Bush. Eight years later, can they get it back?
(This article first ran in the November 2008 issue of The American Spectator.)
IN HIS EXCELLENT BIOGRAPHY of Abraham Lincoln, David Herbert Donald recalls a meeting he had with John F. Kennedy in February 1962, in which the young president complained about the way scholars ranked his predecessors. “No one has a right to grade a president — not even poor James Buchanan — who has not sat in his chair, examined the mail and information that came across his desk, and learned why he made his decisions,” Kennedy said.
With President Bush’s days in office coming to an end, the inevitable debate about his legacy is upon us. To critics, his record of failure is self-evident: a costly and unnecessary war launched under false pretenses, an economy in tatters, and the protection of civil liberties eroded. To his defenders, Bush deserves credit for keeping America safe after the September 11 attacks by treating terrorism as part of a broader war rather than a criminal matter, and targeting the state sponsors of terror rather than merely individual terrorists. Much like Harry Truman was maligned during his time only to be vindicated later for his early leadership during the Cold War, in this view, Bush will be remembered as the president who set the stage for the long struggle against Islamic extremism, and who toppled tyrants in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Despite the mountain of words that have accumulated over the two terms of the Bush presidency, journalists have not had the time, perspective, or access to key documents that would allow them to conduct the type of thorough examination that Kennedy spoke about. And the historical assessment of Bush’s time in office will be influenced by factors that may not be known for decades. For instance, if Iraq is a reliable, democratic, U.S. ally 20 years from now, Bush will be remembered a lot differently than if it is an unstable nation state posing a threat to American national security. But Iraq has made fools of too many smart people on both sides of the debate to predict with any degree of confidence how things will turn out.
While the benefit of hindsight will be required to assess the Bush presidency in its broadest sense, this is nonetheless an important time for conservatives to reflect on what the past eight years has meant for conservatism itself. Part of this has been done already. Conservatives have applauded President Bush for his tax cuts and the appointments of Supreme Court justices John Roberts and Sam Alito, but have been mostly disappointed by the tremendous expansion of government under his watch. Bush’s remaining defenders will try to pin the blame for his spendthrift ways on increased defense spending in response to September 11, but in reality, non-defense spending grew at a faster rate under Bush than it did during the Clinton administration. Though Congressional earmarks soared out of control, Bush did not use his veto pen until late in his second term. While he led a charge for Social Security reform, in the end, his only contribution to entitlements will have been the largest expansion of them since the Great Society in the form of the Medicare prescription drug plan. He leaves office just a few years before the first Baby Boomers start to retire, and now the long-term entitlement deficit has soared to $53 trillion. Bush also expanded the role of the federal government in education through the No Child Left Behind law and in September, he was asking Congress to fork over $700 billion to avert the collapse of the U.S. financial system as part of an unprecedented government intervention into the private market.
WHILE IT HAS BEEN important to keep a ledger of the good, the bad, and the ugly aspects of the Bush years, it is now time for the discussion to move a step further, so that conservatives can begin to examine their own behavior during this time, and thus draw lessons from their own mistakes and false assumptions. This will be a critical part of the broader conversation about what’s in store for the future of conservatism — a conversation that will be necessary no matter who succeeds President Bush.
President Bush, for starters, was able to win over conservatives for the simple reason that everybody likes to be on the side of a winner. Back in 2000, conservatives had endured two terms of the Clinton presidency, and were eager to return to power and to keep Al Gore out of the White House. After the Bush-Cheney team made it through the debacle in Florida, they came to Washington and created the impression that grown-ups were again in charge who would restore dignity to the Oval Office that the Clintons had dragged through the mud. To economic conservatives, he offered tax cuts; to social conservatives, he offered faith-based initiatives and a promise to promote the culture of life; and to national security conservatives, he promised to rebuild a military that had been depleted during the 1990s in the name of the post-Cold War “peace dividend.”
Although Bush came to power as a polarizing figure, in the wake of the September 11 attacks, the nation rallied around their president, and Bush’s approval rating shot up to 90 percent — the highest ever recorded by Gallup. When he stood on the rubble of Ground Zero and declared, megaphone in hand, “the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us real soon,” he emerged as a wartime leader.
In the years that followed, this initial support eroded as the Iraq War dragged on and controversies erupted over civil liberties, executive powers, and the treatment of detainees, all of which were rooted in the underlying question: How far is the United States willing to go in the name of fighting terrorism?
With the media on the attack and liberal criticism of Bush degenerating into visceral hatred that in some quarters prompted absurd comparisons to Hitler, conservatives naturally rallied behind their wartime president, and more tempered criticism was tossed aside as anti-American.
In 2004, President Bush delivered another victory over the forces of liberalism by beating John Kerry and helping to build a solid Republican majority in the Senate. In the days that followed, Dick Cheney declared the election results a “mandate,” and with a renewed swagger, President Bush boasted that “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.” There was talk of a permanent Republican majority, and Bush was dubbed “Rebel in Chief” by the Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes. In all of the euphoria, criticism of Bush among other conservatives was hard to find.
ONE OF THE BIGGEST mistakes conservatives made was to assume that just because Bush appealed to their own cultural sensibilities and angered liberals so much, that he must be one of them. Part of this harkens back to the experience of Ronald Reagan.
Liberals and their allies in the media routinely savaged Reagan for being an intellectual lightweight, a lazy man who spent a year of his presidency at his ranch, and an actor who bluffed his way through office. Of course, over time, Reagan was credited with winning the Cold War, and the subsequent release of his personal diaries and correspondences left little doubt that he was a thoughtful man, something that would have been apparent to anybody paying attention to the substance of his speeches dating back to 1964, or the radio commentaries that he personally wrote in the 1970s.
Neither Bush’s rhetoric nor his interviews demonstrated any similar understanding of conservative philosophy, but because so many of his liberal critics attacked him in similar ways, conservatives reacted by insisting, “they said the same things about Reagan.” Just because Reagan ended up proving his critics wrong, however, it didn’t logically follow that those who were criticizing Bush were necessarily mistaken.
As it turns out, in many cases, President Bush’s critics were proven correct in their assessments of his flaws as a leader. Bush was lampooned for his poor communication skills — an inability to pronounce “nuclear,” statements such as “is our children learning,” and mangled words including, “misunderestimated.” Many conservatives excused this as an endearing characteristic that was evidence of his anti-elitism.
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