Aug. 30, 2004

Looking Back

Team Bush says it wants to look forward in this week’s Republican National Convention. Yet, one cannot look forward without taking at least a glance or two in the rearview mirror. I noted last week that the conservative movement in the United States has been thrown off balance by the events of September 11th and the unfolding realities of the Bush presidency. For all the nostalgia about Ronald Reagan, we live in a much different kind of world, one in which we stand as the great superpower and in which terrorism has supplanted communism atop the list of global security concerns. In addition, George W. Bush has made it clear that “compassionate conservatism” is expensive conservatism – a formula many Republicans consider oxymoronic (and others just “moronic”).

The president’s chief speechwriter, Mike Gerson, recently explained to a group of Washington conservatives that George W. Bush is “not a limited-government conservative.” He’s right, as David Brooks notes in a provocative, must-read piece in the August 29 edition of the New York Times Magazine. When it comes to spending, George W. Bush is the president who hasn’t said no. He has approved the most dramatic expansion of government activity and expense since Richard Nixon and unlike Nixon, or any other modern president, hasn’t vetoed a single bill in his first term of office.

Three factors explain the president’s behavior. First, George W. Bush never promised to make government smaller. The “compassionate conservative” label minted four years ago was designed to reassure those who measured compassion by the volume of federal spending. Second, the president also needed to buy votes to gain approval for the campaign against Saddam Hussein. He remembered the way in which Senate Democrats held out until the waning moments of the 1990 debate on Iraq. The resolution that enabled his father to push Saddam out of Kuwait passed by the slimmest of margins. George W. Bush didn’t want a repeat, and he knew that this time around, he not only had to hurl money at Democrats, but also at Republicans who, like every other Congressional majority in American history, have developed an unslakeable thirst for taxpayers’ money. Third, the president hoped and believed that tax cuts would fire up the economy, generate vast amounts of revenue and thus hold down federal deficits. September 11th put a crimp in those plans, but the tax cuts did indeed produce the promised results.

Not so long ago one could count on Republicans at least to defend the idea of limited government, but no more. This is the chief reason the Conservative Movement has shattered, like a broken mirror, into dozens of jagged, sharp and discordant pieces. (Democrats, by the way, have the same problem. One can trace much of this year’s campaign nastiness to the fact that the parties have hollowed themselves out through campaign finance reform, emptied themselves of content by outsourcing message-creation to pollsters and consultants, and encouraged squabbling by failing to craft ideologies to fit the times.) Other hot disputes – especially about immigration and social issues – have added to the strife.

This is the backdrop against which the president must deliver his acceptance speech. Unlike recent Republican nominees, including the George W. Bush of 2000, the president faces the challenge of redefining conservatism for the post-Reagan era. I’ll pick up that thread tomorrow.

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