Tuesday, May 15, 2007

How Bush Stayed True to Conservatism

CAMPAIGNING FOR HISTORY - Reflections on the American Presidency in A Political Season

May 15, 2007
By David Greenberg, New York Times

David Greenberg, an assistant professor of history and journalism at Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, N.J., is the author of three books, “Nixon’s Shadow,” “Presidential Doodles” and, most recently, “Calvin Coolidge.” He writes the “History Lesson” column for Slate.

For years now, Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, has been generating admiring news stories by publicly distancing himself from the Bush administration. Sunday morning he did it again by inching still further away from the hapless president.
Appearing on “Face the Nation” on CBS, Hagel said he was “not happy with the Republican party today. It has drifted from the party of Eisenhower, of Goldwater, of Reagan, the party that I joined. It isn’t the same party. It’s been hijacked by a group of single-minded, almost isolationist insulationists, power-projectors. That’s not what Eisenhower talked about.”
If interpreted as throat-clearing before an independent presidential candidacy, Hagel’s comments make sense. But as the core of an independent analysis of the conservatism today, they’re nonsense.

Hagel’s profession of unhappiness with today’s G.O.P. is not unique. Ever since the Iraq war turned sour and President Bush’s standing declined, a parade of right-wingers — journalists and intellectuals, activists and politicians — have asserted that this administration embodies neither true conservatism nor the real spirit of the Republican party. Yet these claims crumble under scrutiny, because, far from a subversion of modern American conservatism, Bush represents its fulfillment.

The dives that conservatives take as they jump off the foundering U.S.S. Bush are of a few different types. One strategy is to hearken back to some great conservative thinker — say, Edmund Burke (l.) or Adam Smith (r.), or even someone more recent like Friedrich Hayek — and demonstrate how this seminal philosopher would be appalled by the size of the federal government under Bush or the hubris behind the Iraq war.
But expecting Bush to govern as if he’d read “Reflections on the Revolution in France” is unfair — and not just because he once named as his favorite book “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.” It’s senseless to measure any president against a philosophical tract. For starters, the works that purists cite are typically products of an earlier day, and therefore apply only tangentially to today’s debates. (Burke, for example, championed the superiority of the propertied classes — an untenable position in American politics for the last 150 years.) Even contemporary treatises deal with current issues at a sufficiently abstract or idealized level as to disqualify them as governing blueprints.

If anti-Bush Republicans don’t accuse the president of betraying their favorite thinkers, they often say he’s forsaken a core conservative principle such as “tradition,” “humility,” or “small government” — or, more vapidly, “adherence to the Constitution,” “the wisdom of the Founders,” or “honesty in government.” The problem is that these general concepts — especially when proffered without much elaboration — are so elastic as to encompass any grounds for disowning a failed course of action. If you don’t like Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” education program, for example, blame it on the policy’s abandonment of small government (a conservative ideal) and ignore its reversion to old-fashioned learning methods (which is also a conservative ideal).

A third strategy for the discontented is the one Hagel pursued Sunday: invoking beloved G.O.P. leaders of yesteryear—in his case, dating to Dwight Eisenhower. But Hagel’s history here is confused. As president, Eisenhower championed “modern Republicanism,” which made peace with the New Deal, modifying rather than rolling back the welfare state. It was this rapprochement with liberalism that angered an ideologically extreme band of activists, who turned first to Goldwater (unsuccessfully) and then to Reagan (successfully) to transform their movement into a winning electoral coalition.
But even conservatives who stipulate Reagan, not Ike, as their beau ideal — which, as the last debate among G.O.P. White House aspirants suggests, includes almost all of them — are reading history selectively. Rhetorically, Reagan certainly hewed to the stance of small government, low taxes, and an aggressive military that has inspired his followers since. But in practice he frequently deviated from his line when politics dictated — or when, inevitably, different conservative ideals clashed.
The examples are many. Reagan’s skyrocketing budget deficits and multiple tax hikes violated the right’s notions of political economy as surely as any of Bush’s actions. His wars on drugs and pornography gave rise to intrusions on individual liberties similar to those that some libertarians now decry. Reagan’s foreign policy, notably in Central America, shared with Bush’s the assumption that America had to project more, not less, might around the globe. If Bush has abjured true conservative values, so did Reagan.

Republicans who grouse about Bush are forgetting two basic facts about American politics. The first is that in our two-party system, any majority party has to include factions that disagree on key points. Since the 1950s, the G.O.P. has brought together unlikely allies and allowed them to co-exist — big business together with the religious right, isolationists alongside militarists, virtuecrats next to libertarians. Certain policies, such as tax cutting and anti-Communism, glued them together, but under every Republican administration — Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, Reagan and George Bush Sr.— each group also had to swallow some pet items for the sake of unity.

The second key fact was summed up more than 40 years ago by the public opinion analysts Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril: that Americans are rhetorically conservative but operationally liberal. We like the Republicans’ talk about small government, low taxes and military strength, but we also like our Social Security benefits, our federal help when disasters strike, and even our earmarks (at least when they’re our earmarks). It’s therefore impossible in practice for any Republican leader to truly govern according to a Heritage Foundation blueprint.
Still, if any president has tried to implement conservative ideals , it’s Bush. Before Reagan, the so-called conservative movement had been an insurgent force within the Republican party. But starting in the 1980s, most of the liberals in the party left it, and for the last ten or twenty years, the party and the movement have been more or less congruent. From 2002 to 2007, moreover, the G.O.P. controlled not just the White House but both houses of Congress, the federal judiciary, and a majority of state governments, as well as more media outlets than ever before. They were thus able to impose a conservative agenda with little resistance.
Indeed, so few were the obstacles that conservatism was able to run amok. The result — in the assessment of not just liberals but also other observers — has been disaster: a mess of a war, the failure to plan for Hurricane Katrina, the erosion of the church-state wall, widening inequality, the loss of civil liberties including habeas corpus, and scores of other ills that readers of this column can list as easily as I. This was the fruit of modern American conservatism.
But now Republicans are deserting Bush. Businessmen and evangelicals, libertarians and social moderates are all astir. The reason isn’t that Bush failed to espouse their causes any more than Reagan did. From the Iraq War on down, after all, his policies have also been their policies — backed by their legislators, upheld by their judges, championed by their journalists.
No, the reason so many are complaining about Bush or today’s G.O.P. is that their policies haven’t worked out very well. Since the 2004 election, majorities of Americans have turned against them. What conservatives like Chuck Hagel and Bush’s other right-wing detractors fear in their bones — and not without reason — is that majorities of Americans will soon also turn against the creed of conservatism itself.

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