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Learning from the Bush Legacy

Conservatives sold their soul to back George W. Bush. Eight years later, can they get it back?

By From the November 2008 issue

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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 his 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 for targeting the state sponsors of terror rather than merely individual terrorists. Much like Harry Truman was maligned during his time only to be later vindicated 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 has 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 about which Kennedy spoke. 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, making it difficult 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 for 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, I 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 Act, and in September, he asked 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 recount debacle in Florida, they came to Washington and created the impression that grown-ups were again in charge, ones who would restore dignity to the Oval Office that the Clintons had dragged through the mud. To economic conservatives, Bush 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 its president, and Bush’s approval rating shot up to 90 percent—the highest ever recorded by Gallup. When he stood on the rubble at 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 the euphoria, criticism of Bush from 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, he must be one of their own. Part of this hearkens 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. This 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 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 “mis underestimated.” Many conservatives excused this as an endearing characteristic that was evidence of his anti-elitist nature.

However, Bush’s weaknesses as a communicator proved damaging to his presidency and crippled opportunities to advance a conservative agenda. The memorable wartime leaders all had the ability to inspire and convey the nature of the conflict to the general public, but not President Bush. He avoided press conferences that would have allowed him to confront his critics, and he couldn’t perform well when he did hold them, often falling back on stock phrases and talking points rather than refuting misinformation with details. This weakness made it easier for his opponents to fill the vacuum with false narratives, such as the idea that he lied the nation into war in Iraq, which later manifested itself in the farcical Valerie Plame saga. And when he admirably decided to take on Social Security reform, Bush’s weaknesses as a communicator left him ill equipped to explain the crisis and to fend off attacks from liberal demagogues.

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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Philip Klein is The American Spectator's Washington correspondent. You can follow him on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/Philipaklein