Monday, February 20, 2006

W vs. Reagan

The Corner has been discussing over the weekend the difference between conservative reaction to the deficit under Reagan and the deficit under President Bush. There are two critiques of W that are particularly harsh. The first comes from Jonah Goldberg. :
There is also the philosophical problem. Bush has done real violence to the principle of limited government with all of his talk about how the government has to move when someone is hurting and his aim to leave no child behind. Some of his programs are, I think, easily defended on the merits. But that doesn't change the fact that as general philosophical issue, Bush has conceded that the government is there to help in a way Reagan never would have. Sure, Reagan made exceptions to his general anti-government position. Sometimes they were pragmatic, sometimes they were legitimate exceptions (conservatives aren't uniformly opposed to all government interventions), and some times his deviations were hypocritical, at least in the eyes of some. But such hypocrisy was the tribute conservatives must sometimes pay to politics. Bush has conceded much of the fundamental ground to liberals when it comes to the role of government. Now the argument about governmental problem solving is technical -- "will it work?" -- rather than principled, "is it the government's job?"
Whereas Jonah emphasizes the philosophical problems with Bush's conservatism, John Derbyshire has what I think is a more devastating of President Bush:
At the time of the Roberts and Alito nominations, and especially when Harriet Miers was put forward, the following point was much made: That the modern American conservative movement, by arguing, publishing, educating, and persuading across many years, had nurtured a cadre of conservative judges ready to be called on when vacancies appeared on the Supreme Court. Much of the unhappiness about Miers arose from a belief that all this careful husbandry was going to waste.

I think there's something of the same feeling with GWB. Reagan came out of an America whose commanding heights, cultural and political, were held by liberals. Yet he was a true conservative, of great principle and conviction. In the later America from which GWB emerged, conservative ideas were much more accessible & widespread, and there was a wider, deeper pool of real conservative from which the GOP might have chosen its presidential candidates. Yet here is a guy from that much-improved background, who is insouciant to, perhaps (I wouldn't personally rule it out) ignorant of, two of the most fundamental principles of modern conservatism: fiscal restraint and government limitation. He is also distressingly naive on some key points of foreign policy, apparently believing, for example, that Vicente Fox is a friend of the USA, that Palestinian Arabs "yearn for freedom," and so on.

That GWB put forward Harriet Miers as a plausible candidate for SCOTUS is bad enough. Worse is the suspicion, among many of us limited-govt, national-issue, and fiscal conservatives, that GWB is Harriet Miers, and that Bill Buckley and the other great nurturers of US conservatism over this past half century may have labored in vain.
I think Mr. Derbyshire is onto something, though I think they are both basically correct. I have debated on this blog and many others that George Bush is not a conservative in the traditional sense, though he is certainly to the right. He does not qualify necessarily as a neo-conservative, though he reflects some of the quasi-utopianism of that branch of conservatism. Bush has almost established his own branch of conservatism, one that will hopefully not be repeated by any future Republican president.

But while we hope for another more pure conservative in the future, it's hard to wonder who will be a truly ideal candidate. John McCain has been credited by some as being an anti-big government type, but he is hardly disagreeable to large amounts of governmental regulation. Rudolph Giuliani is a tough law and order type who is much more socially conservative than some give him credit for being, and may actually be a truer example of a conservative than we realize. But there are obvious difficulties with his candidacy, not the least of which are his opinions on abortion, gay marriage and gun control. And though Senator Allen comes closest to being in the mold of Reagan, he might not be the surest choice. In fact, when all is said and done, the closest any right-wing political figure might be to being both a true conservative and someone who also possesses the intellectual gravitas is Newt Gingrich. Newt is one of the most intellectual politicians of the recent era, and he seems to be the kind of person that could restore the right to its traditional roots. But there's this whole thing about his character and the hostility the public might feel - for right or wrong - towards him. In the end, it's a challenge to think of any prominent conservative - either among the intellectual class or among the political class - who might satisfy the bulk of the right.

Though George W. Bush might be a disappointment in many respects, Andrew Stuttaford notes this little tidbit from Andrew Sullivan:
It will take a generation to undo the damage that Bush has done to conservatism, America's fiscal health, and the whole idea of limited government. My prediction: we will see huge tax increases soon after Bush leaves the scene. He will insist they are a betrayal of his legacy. They will, in fact, be the logical consequence of everything he has said and done. Once they get past their loathing, big government liberals may well look back on the Bush years and wonder at the miracle of how he did what they spent two generations failing to do.
I have my issues with President Bush, but this is horescrap, and for two reasons. For one thing, I think Sullivan greatly exaggerates the future threat of tax increases. Yes, the deficit is a great problem, and one made worse by President Bush's big government conservatism. There is the potential for a weak-kneed President attempting to over-compensate for this deficit problem, but we can also hope that a true conservative will take the reigns and realize that the solution is not saddeling us with a larger tax burden, but in actually cutting back our obscene spending ways.

The second problem with Sullivan's statement is that he is the one issuing it. Andrew Sullivan critiquing President Bush's conservative bona fides is a bit like, well, Andrew Sullivan calling out someone for not being a true Catholic. Years from now we will consider the pro-abortion (in the first trimester), pro-gay marriage, pro-stem cell, etc. ad infinitum Andrew Sullivan as the greater betrayer of fundamental conservative principles than George W. Bush.


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