In the previous post I discussed some fundamental conservative ideas and their ramifications for government. Now I want to talk about some actual policies that grow from these ideas.
In general, I think Bush has good intentions and holds conservative beliefs but that political dynamics and a certain timidness undermines his plans.
Let’s start with something many conservatives, and others, applaud Bush for national security. Bush responded to the attacks of 9/11 with clear rhetoric and strong action. You can argue about the strategy and details but he acted decisively when the country was threatened. I will have to tackle the Wilsonian tendencies in another post, but if the issue is just foreign policy most* conservatives will take Bush hands down (*paleos will just have to wait for me to get to their issues later).
Taxes are another area where Bush does well. He makes the moral case for tax cuts very well even if he does mix supply side and neo-Keynesian rhetoric rather freely. In this area he has fought for his goals and won; and is poised to come back for more. This is no small feat. Bush should get credit for doing what he said and sticking with it.
Limited government, however, is an area where Bush is taking some heat and rightfully so. With GOP control of Congress (albeit tenuous) the thought was that fiscal discipline would still be in play. Instead we have had a White house unwilling to spend much capital on restraining spending, and whose rhetoric is even tepid at times, and a Congress who uses pork to arrange votes. Right now their seems to be no dynamic for less government action
Some of this is Bush and the GOP trying to triangulate issues. Prescription drugs, education, and other issues were reliable Democrat issues used to demagogue Republicans with in election cycles. Bush tried to take the issues on and look to turn them in a conservative direction. He felt that getting rid of educational programs was unlikely so he sought to insert accountability; he felt heat on prescription drugs so he tried to insert reform; he felt pressure on Medicare so he tried to insert savings accounts. You can argue that these “money for reform” maneuvers failed but they weren’t because Bush wanted a bloated federal government.
Some of this is simply pork. The energy bill was loaded with stuff people wanted in a vain attempt to gain passage when even Senate and House Republicans couldn’t agree. Bush simply wasn’t willing to put political capital and get down-and-dirty to fight against GOP pork. Instead he wanted to sign an energy bill so he could take the issue off the table.
In social programs, I think Jonah Goldberg made the best argument when he said Bush was a “preservative” rather than a conservative:
Personally, I’ve always been fairly pragmatic myself about using the government for conservative ends. But that’s really not “conservatism” when you think about it. A conservative ? by definition ? conserves what already exists. But what does a preservationist do? He devotes a lot of money and effort to restoring what is lost. There’s little point in conserving a condemned house. But there’s much utility in fixing up what is broken down. Problem is, it costs a heck of a lot more. Indeed, I still support this president largely because of his foreign policy, which is, at the end of the day, a preservationist’s approach. He’s knocking down walls, draining swamps, fumigating hives, etc. ? all in an effort to protect the West and fix up those parts of the world that pose the biggest threat to our quality of life.
Andrew Sullivan acts shocked when he “discovers” Bush isn’t libertarian but that is silly. Bush’s rhetoric was always towards action rather than restraint Jonah makes this clear as well). Bush seems to believe that since government spent so much time messing things up in the seventies and eighties that it should spend some time trying to fix those mistakes.
The motivation behind this desire, I believe, is the notion that government has come to play a large role in people’s lives and that rolling that back is a Herculean task. Rather than attack government, Bush seeks to use policy to reinforce societal norms and values. Bush honestly believes that his proposals properly balance order, freedom, and justice; that with a liberal establishment firmly entrenched the best he can do is throw his weight behind programs that shore up the family, defend marriage, and discourage things like drugs and violence that undermine stability. And let’s face it, the deficit is not the bogeyman it once was (if it ever was one). Bush honestly believes that the economy can turn around and ease the deficit as it did under Clinton. Again, he could be mistaken but his goal is not a massive federal government.
The reality is that federalism and limited government are the casualties of good intentions. The cold hard fact is that political and social realities seem to be trumping the deeper principles of conservatism right now. Prudence is one thing but flexibility can easily slip into surrender.
So what is to be done? Can we just let Bush spend away? Is limited government dead? I really don’t know, but let me offer two potential avenues of change.
First off, let me say that I don’t believe we can risk having a Democrat in office right now. From the federal judiciary to taxes and the crucial issue of national security, we simply can’t trust the opposition at this juncture. At the presidential level the choice is a broad one, and Bush is better than any alternative.
One area where progress can be made is in Congress. It would be nice if Bush would stand up to his party on budget issues but it would be even better if Congress would lead on this issue. Republicans can send a message in local elections and in primaries that limited government is an important issue. By recruiting a strong farm team and challenging RINOs in primaries, conservatives can effect the tone of Congress. The folks at the Club For Growth have made their presence felt. We need to broaden that message from tax cuts to smaller government. Republicans at the national level fear raising taxes in a serious way. Obviously they do not feel the same way about bloated spending. This strategy has an added bonus in that the GOP does best when in runs on this simple platform. If they focus on it they can take an issue off the table for the Democrats and allow President Bush to save his capital for broader issues. Heck if Congress gets tough, Bush might stiffen his resolve as well.
The other issue is less concrete. Conservatives must do a better job of explaining how limited government is in the best interest of average folks. And by this I don’t mean fear mongering about the Patriot Act. I mean explaining how freedom and justice are undermined by bloated government. Liberals have for to long been ceded the high ground on justice. They are allowed to speak as if stealing from one group to pay off another is really about social justice. They cover their pork with morality and insist that Republican pork is evidence of corruption.
Bush has bought into this a little bit. He wouldn’t have added the “compassionate” prefix to conservative if he didn’t think there was a disconnect there. Conservatives need to begin to develop a message that pushes back against the populism and faux compassion of the left. It worked with welfare reform and tax cuts to a degree, we need to make it work with pork.
Corporate welfare seems the logical place to start. This plays against the us versus them theme the D’s seem intent on trotting out again plus it will excite the conservative base and the libertarians. This is one issue John McCain and George Bush can agree on for Pete’s sake. Another issue that is being developed is trade. Republicans need to show how the market is not just better but that it can be moral. There are others out there.
Conservatives shouldn’t despair. Politics is an ugly game and I would take a big government conservative over a flaming liberal. But we don’t need to settle for an ever leftward tilt. Some prudent pushing in the other direction combined with a better matching of principle with rhetoric can make a big difference.