Even George W. Bush's biggest fans will concede that their president isn't much of a political philosopher. So the thinking has been, especially among Bush's critics on the right, that the administration won't have a lasting impact on conservative ideas. Once this presidency comes to a close in January 2009, innovations like the Bush Doctrine and “compassionate conservatism” can be safely filed away alongside the “I Like Ike” memorabilia and bumper stickers advocating nuclear freeze.
Think again. Even if the president himself goes quietly into Crawford, members of the Bush brain trust are already working to define conservatism for the next generation. And both conservative institutions and the mainstream media have been eager to give them platforms from which to do so.
Karl Rove has made his debut as a 2008 campaign commentator for Newsweek, alongside the liberal blogger Markos Moulitsas. (An odd pairing, to be sure — how many successful presidential campaigns have been run by Daily Kos?)
Rove will mostly offer the kind of expert analysis usually provided by savvy insiders, but if his first column is any indication much of his advice to Republicans will be to follow some variation of the Bush model: Be authentic; grab domestic-policy issues away from the Democrats; court minorities; stay the course in Iraq.
If Republican candidates follow Rove's advice — do they have consultants on their own payrolls who can boast of better electoral track records? — the style of conservatism the Economist's John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldrige dubbed “Bushism” will have a longer shelf life than the Bush administration itself.
Other Bush alumni are more explicitly interested in systematic ideology as opposed to grand political strategy. When Peter Wehner ran the White House's office of strategic initiatives, he was as prodigious an e-mailer as any Viagra pitchman, though his target audience was Washington journalists and policy wonks. (Fred Barnes is a prominent fan of the missives.)
Wehner also turned out an impressive number of op-eds supportive of the Bush administration's policies. When William F. Buckley Jr. and George Will went off the reservation on Iraq, Wehner rebuked them. As the electorate's mood grew dour in the run-up to the 2006 elections, he sought to buck them up with good news.
Since leaving the White House for the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Wehner hasn't let up. He has
Former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, now a scribe for the Washington Post and Newsweek as well as a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, may be the most ambitious (or imperious) in his instructions to fellow conservatives. Gerson takes his conservatism “heroic,” because, he argues in his new book, traditional conservatism “has a piece missing — a piece shaped like a conscience.”
In place of the “anti-government” and presumably anti-poor ideologies of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, Gerson proposes a “vision of compassion and freedom.” In his prose, he lacks Rove's sense of humor and Wehner's generosity toward older-school conservatives. But Gerson is poised to become a visible spokesman for compassionate conservatism long after the president identified with that phrase has left Washington, even if much of the rest of the country presently seems unpersuaded of its heroism.
After every administration, some alumni develop outsize roles in the parties and movements to which they belong. On the Republican side, Bill Bennett emerged from the Reagan Department of Education as an influential conservative voice. Bill Kristol went from being Dan Quayle's chief of staff — talk about a Republican officeholder who wasn't seen as an intellectual — to playing a major role in GOP policymaking and intra-conservative debates in the 1990s and beyond.
Over the next few months, former figures from the Bush administration will increasingly immerse themselves in the intra-conservative debates of the next decade. Wehner and Gerson, whether separately or acting in concert, are sure to be among them.
Conservatives hoping for a return to pre-Bush normalcy, you have been warned.
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