Before he became president, George Bush was asked by journalist Tucker Carlson, what activity don’t you excel at? He responded, “Sitting down and reading a 500-page book on public policy or philosophy or something.” Like his father, Bush suffers from an unwillingness to engage conservative political philosophy seriously. While his political attenae is keener than his father’s and he has more access to common sense than his father on certain issues, he, too, stumbles on the “vision thing” and struggles to stake out philosophically rigorous positions. The media are quick to note Bush’s laziness of thought, but they are reluctant, lest it screw up their right/left narrative, to note its principal characteristic: borrowing heavily from liberal rhetoric and uncritically accepting many foolish assumptions of liberalism.
“Compassionate conservatism,” Bush’s unwarranted nod to the liberal critique of conservatism as mean, has a great deal of conventional liberal wisdom, otherwise known as political correctness, built into it. PC-infected thought has been the besetting problem of Bush’s presidency: a few commendable conservative instincts can take it only so far before it runs aground in the absence of a well-conceived conservative political philosophy capable of confronting the fallacies underlying political correctness.
Bush’s Supreme Court judicial nominees are like every other area of his presidency — a mixed bag. Even if Harriet Miers turns out to be a principled conservative jurist, it will have happened more by accident than by design. Bush had signaled last week that his criterion for his second choice was fundamentally unserious: he lamely accepted the left’s “diversity” expectation even though this obviously belied his simultaneous insistence on strict interpretation of the Constitution. The role is either apolitical or it isn’t. That Bush succumbed at some level to the left’s baldly political demand for proportional representation on the court suggests that he too accepts the Democratic Party’s understanding of it as a political job.
Bush drifts easily into contradictory positions — conservative attitudes coexisting unconvincingly with liberal assumptions — because one of the organizing principles of his presidency has been: How can we present positions that anticipate, and if politically possible given our base, incorporate elements of a likely liberal critique? This inferiority complex about liberalism, which defined so much of his father’s presidency, has driven much of his: from education (“standards” and “accountability,” conservative themes, are coupled in Bush’s mind with a leftist understanding of the federal government’s role in education) to taxes (Bush resorted at one point to Keynesian garble to justify tax cuts that could have been justified on a straightforward understanding of limited government alone) to the war (as Bush ran into a buzz saw of unpopular opinion in fashionable circles, he placed greater and greater emphasis on a Wilsonian justification of war for “democracy” and “women’s rights”).
The left is so far to the left that Bush, even though he almost always hovers near the center, and is smart enough never to cross it clumsily like his father, appears to leftists as “radically conservative.” Would that it were so. Even in areas where Bush has stuck his neck out culturally, he doesn’t question the liberal premises of the debate. During the bogus stem cell debate, for example, he never said: remind me again why the federal government is involved in this area? He took a different view of what’s acceptable research for the federal government to do than the Democrats but he never questioned that the federal government should be doing research in that area.
Last week’s utterly gratuitous White House statement condemning Bill Bennett illustrates how much time it spends on nonsense designed to impress liberals and how little time it spends on advancing serious principles. Bush’s instinct for leadership has been stunted by a now-habitual ideological hesitancy, a complacent acceptance of preexisting lines of a debate drawn by the left.
Bush can lead, but he too often follows the left’s cue. If the left talks about affirmative action, he will, in a me-too way, talk about “affirmative access”; if the left proposes a prescription drug plan, he will propose one of his own. That he doesn’t dare pick up his veto pen shows he is even unwilling to lead Republicans in his own party.
A bold and radical presidency? No, it is looking more and more like his father’s — leading the world abroad, following liberals at home.