February 23, 2006

Bush's Conservative Bona Fides

I heard a very interesting interview on NPR yesterday with Bruce Bartlett. Bartlett is an economist who worked in the Reagan and Bush (the Elder) administrations, was plugging his book, Impostor. The imposter referred to is George W. Bush; and Bartlett claims that Bush is impersonating a conservative.

I think he’s right; hear me out on this. Bush is a Republican, but “Republican” is not synonymous with “conservative.” I still consider myself a Republican, but I stopped considering myself a conservative about eight years ago. The reason was that what it means to be a conservative seemed to have changed – particularly if Bush the Younger is the definition of what it means to be conservative. Whether you want to say the President is conservative or not, Bartlett convincingly demonstrates that Bush is not made of the same stuff Reagan was in all but a few characteristics.

To evaluate this, I suppose you have to define what bein a "conservative," or more accurately, a "Reagan conservative," means. And doing that requires thinking back over a quarter century. When I came of age politically, Ronald Reagan was President. To me, Reagan will always define American conservatism. Its defining characteristics, in descending order of attractiveness to me, were:

  1. A healthy distrust of the exercise of governmental power and doubt as to the efficacy of the government to accomplish social objectives.
  2. Commitment to a robust military capable of projecting American power to anywhere in the world and sustaining major combat operations in two theaters of operation simultaneously.
  3. Engagement in the international arena with a goal of combating and defeating that brand of totalitarianism called “communism” by the Soviet Union and leaving the United States as the sole superpower in the world.
  4. Fiscal restraint, particularly with government social welfare programs (in part because they are largely ineffective if not counterproductive, see point #1).
  5. A dislike of deficit spending and a commitment to reduce, if not eliminate, the government’s borrowing money to finance its operations. (Note that Reagan singularly failed in this regard; he preached it but did not practice it. It took Bill Clinton, a tax hike, and a very robust economy despite the tax hike before a so-called “balanced budget” would be enacted).
  6. A desire to stimulate the economy through removing economic restraints on private enterprise. In Reagan’s day that meant a tax cut, but it also meant a devaluation of the dollar, re-directing governmental stimulus spending from social programs to defense, and a loosening if not outright deregulation of many major segments of the economy.
  7. Lower tariffs and greater economic engagement with foreign nations.
  8. Caution, if not outright aversion, to alteration of the social fabric of the country. Pay lip service to, but do not actually govern strongly in favor of, the social agenda of deeply religious people.

So how does Bush the Younger stack up on this list of conservative priorities?

  1. Bush created the Department of Homeland Security – reorganizing governmental agencies and creating a whole new layer of bureaucracy on top of them. He authorized warrantless monitoring of communications between U.S. citizens and is a strong advocate of the USA PATRIOT Act. Conservatives do not expand governmental power at the expense of individual liberties; they restrict governmental power to preserve individual liberties because they don't like the government exercising any more power than is absolutely necessary. Bush pushed for, and got, a tremendous expansion of Medicare in the part "D" coverage for prescription drugs. Whether it was a good idea or not, whether it was needed or not, is not the point -- the point is that expanding a welfare program is not a conservative thing to do, and this is the most massive expansion of welfare since Medicare was invented.
  2. Bush has failed to expand U.S. military capability upon assuming office, despite an attack on U.S. soil taking place less than eight months after he took office. It is debatable if the U.S military needed expansion, but it is clear that the regular military cannot operate in Iraq without substantial assistance from state National Guard and Reserve units. At the same time, we have restricted our operations in Afghanistan to little more than airstrikes and special operations; we have sunk thousands of soldiers into the endless job of babysitting people in the Balkans who can’t wait until we’re gone to start killing each other wholesale again. We have no apparent ability to respond to military aggression by China against Taiwan or North Korea against South Korea (with whom we have nuclear defense treaties) and we have vacated ourselves from Europe (where we are not really needed anymore, it is true).
  3. The U.S. no longer looks like it either can be or deserves to be a superpower. Strike the prefix "super" and you've got a better picture. Geopolitics has created a multipolar world, not unlike Metternich's Concert of Europe created in the wake of Napoleon’s defeat. The U.S. is now one of several roughly co-equal centers of military and economic power, which also includes China, Russia, the European Union, and India; we may have to make room at the table for Iran soon. The “nuclear club” includes a lunatic in Pyongang. Still, we could have kept the ability to pretty much call all the shots up until 2003, when we squandered our international reputation by invading Iraq on what apparently turned out to be bad intelligence.
  4. Bush the Younger has turned in budgets with record deficits since taking office. Social welfare programs remain effectively unaltered from the Clinton Administration, which singularly failed to end “welfare as we knew it.”
  5. Chinese and European banks now own more of our government’s interest payments than ever before. There seems to be no way out of deficit spending at this point, thanks in large part to the Bush Administration's willingness to spend money the government does not have.
  6. In 2001, Bush rammed through Congress a tax cut of debatable wisdom, but this has been the extent of his “stimulus” to the economy. The tax cut was not targeted to achieve any particular economic or social goal; it was intended only to buy Bush some badly-needed political capital after a razor-thin election in 2000.
  7. Bush’s significant actions with respect to foreign trade were imposition of tariffs on Canadian timber and Asian steel. Both proved remarkable failures – Asian steel manufacturers and Canadian timber suppliers are now selling more of their products in the U.S. than before, for lower prices than they were before. All these measures achieved were short-term profit spikes for the U.S. industries at home (in 2004, when Bush again needed help with his campaigning).
  8. Bush, unlike Reagan, does walk the walk with the religious – even more than he talks the talk, it seems. We’ll have to see how his two Supreme Court appointments turn out, but keep in mind that he picked two darlings of the social right, both of whom had substantial experience working under Attorney General Ed Meese.

Bush is no liberal, that's for sure, but he is also certainly not carrying on the political legacy of Ronald Reagan. Either that, or there has been a significant re-alignment of issues and interest groups and both the “right wing” and the “left wing” of American politics have been changed from what they were in the 1980’s.

I’m not entirely sure that the second possibility is the case, though. Liberals seems to still want now what they wanted in the eighties – more social spending to relieve problems, intervention in private economic decisions to achieve social goals, guaranteeing the right of access to abortions, joint operations with our allies overseas but a restriction in military power, and higher taxes to pay for it all.

That’s one set of priorities, and it’s more or less internally consistent. Whether that agenda would work out in practice or not is an entirely different consideration. Conservative priorities, outlined in list above next to Reagan's picture, also are more or less internally consistent, and demonstrated an ability to achieve most (not all) of its objectives after being attempted in the 1980's and early 1990's (it failed to restrain the deficit but succeeded in bringing down the Soviets and creating a monopolar world). What the “W” is doing, though, is not internally consistent. You can’t a) cut taxes, b) not expand the military, c) maintain fiscal responsibility, d) fight foreign enemies in admittedly protracted military conflicts, and e) implement protectionist policies – and still call yourself a “Reagan conservative.”

I’ve thought this for a long time and considered debating it with others, even before I heard Bartlett on the radio today. Bartlett beat me to the punch, but that’s OK; he was there when it was all happening and I was just a kid. I’ll have my opportunities down the road. In the meantime, I’ve already gone on record as saying that I’ve ceased giving even lukewarm support for the Bush Administration. There’s Republicans who are on the team because of ideology, and that’s not me anymore since the only ideology left over from the Reagan era is one of social control, which I never bought into in the first place. There’s Republicans who are on the team because it’s “their” team, which rationally makes as much sense as my affection for the Green Bay Packers. So that leaves only Republicans who are on the team because there’s something in it for them if the team wins. That kind of corruption has no place in my ideology – in part because I’m not “in” the circle that profits and in part because I think profiting from the public benefit is not the right reason to be in public service in the first place.

The only arenas in which Bush is solidly conservative are social issues like abortion, religion, and opposition to same-sex marriage. Issues upon which I find myself solidly at odds with contemporary conservatives. I can't remember why I voted for this guy six years ago. Oh, wait... it was because Al Gore was at least equally repugnant.

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