I Know Conservatives, and George W. Bush Is No Conservative
George W. Bush is widely considered to be one of the most politically conservative presidents in history. His invasion of Iraq, his huge tax cuts, and his intervention in the Terri Schiavo case are among the issues where those on the left view him as being to the right of Attila the Hun. But those on the right have a different perspective–mostly discussed among themselves or in forums that fly below the major media’s radar. They know that Bush has never really been one of them the way Ronald Reagan was. Bush is more like Richard Nixon–a man who used the right to pursue his agenda, but was never really part of it. In short, he is an impostor, a pretend conservative.
I write as a Reaganite, by which I mean someone who believes in the historical conservative philosophy of small government, federalism, free trade, and the Constitution as originally understood by the Founding Fathers. On that basis, Bush clearly is not a Reaganite or “small c” conservative. Philosophically, he has more in common with liberals, who see no limits to state power as long as it is used to advance what they think is right. In the same way, Bush has used government to pursue a “conservative” agenda as he sees it. But that is something that runs totally contrary to the restraints and limits to power inherent in the very nature of traditional conservatism. It is inconceivable to traditional conservatives that there could ever be such a thing as “big government conservatism,” a term often used to describe Bush’s philosophy.(1)
Perhaps the greatest sin of liberals is their belief that it is possible for them to know everything necessary to manage the economy and society. To conservatives, such conceit leads directly to socialism and totalitarianism. At a minimum, it makes for errors that are hard to correct.(2) By contrast, conservatives like Ronald Reagan understand that the collective knowledge of people as expressed in the free market is far greater than any individual, government bureau, or even the most powerful computer can possibly have.(3) And in politics, they believe that the will of the people as expressed through democratic institutions is more likely to result in correct policies than those devised by Platonic philosopher kings.(4) Liberals, on the other hand, are fundamentally distrustful of the wisdom and judgment of the people, preferring instead the absolutism of the courts to the chaos and uncertainty of democracy.(5)
Traditional conservatives view the federal government as being untrustworthy and undependable. They utilize it only for those necessary functions like national defense that by their nature cannot be provided at the state and local level or privately. The idea that government could ever be used actively to promote their goals in some positive sense is a contradiction in terms to them. It smacks too much of saying that the ends justify the means, which conservatives have condemned since at least the French Revolution.
George W. Bush, by contrast, often looks first to government to solve societal problems without even considering other options. Said Bush in 2003, “We have a responsibility that when somebody hurts, government has got to move.”(6) A more succinct description of liberalism would be hard to find.
My main concern is with Bush’s economic policy because that is my field of expertise. But it doesn’t mean that I am content with the rest of his program. I am deeply concerned about the Iraq operation, which has more in common with Woodrow Wilson’s policy of making the world safe for democracy than with traditional conservative foreign policy, which is based on defending the American homeland and avoiding unnecessary political and military entanglements with other countries–a view best expressed in George Washington’s Farewell Address.(7)
I am also concerned with Bush’s cavalier attitude toward federalism and his insistence on absolute, unquestioning loyalty, which stifles honest criticism and creates a cult of personality around him that I find disturbing. As former Reagan speechwriter John Podhoretz, author of a sympathetic book about Bush, has observed, “One of the remarkable aspects of this White House has been the fanatical loyalty its people have displayed toward Bush–even talking to friendly journalists like me, it’s been nearly impossible to get past the feel-good spin.”(8)
For example, in 2002, the White House directly ordered the firing of former Republican congressman Mike Parker of Mississippi as head of the Army Corps of Engineers because he publicly disagreed with the administration’s budget request for his agency.(9) In 2005, it ordered the demotion of a Justice Department statistician who merely put out some data that the White House found inconvenient.(10) This micromanagement of such low-level personnel is extraordinary in my experience. Columnist Robert Novak referred to this sort of thing as the Bush White House’s “authoritarian aura.”(11)
In White Houses filled with high-caliber people, dissent invariably arises and becomes known. The apparent lack of dissent in this White House, therefore, is an indication to me of something troubling–an unwillingness to question policies even behind closed doors, an anti-intellectual distrust of facts and analysis, and blind acceptance of whatever decisions have been made by the boss.
The only alternative is something equally bad–fear of telling Bush something he doesn’t want to hear. When asked whether he ever disagreed with him, Mark McKinnon, Bush’s chief campaign media adviser in 2004, said, “I prefer for others to go into the propeller first.”(12) This is the sort of thing that has gotten many big corporations like Enron in trouble in recent years, and I fear similar results from some of Bush’s ill-considered policies, especially the disastrous unfunded expansion of Medicare.
In thinking about Bush, I keep coming back to Ronald Reagan. Although derided as an amiable dunce by his enemies, it is clear from recent research that his knowledge and intellect were far deeper than they imagined. Articles and speeches drafted in his own hand leave no doubt that Reagan was exceptionally well read and had an excellent grasp of both history and current issues, including highly technical matters and complex statistics.(13) This knowledge was honed by decades of reading the classics of conservative thought and having spent much of his life publicly debating those whose views were diametrically opposed to his.
By contrast, George W. Bush brags about never even reading a daily newspaper.(14) Having worked in the White House, I know how cloistered the environment can be and how limited its information resources are–much of what White House staffers know about what is going on in the White House actually comes from reporters and news reports rather than inside knowledge, which is frequently much less than reporters imagine. It’s distressing to contemplate the possibility that the president’s opinion about the worthlessness of outside information sources is widely held within the White House. Unfortunately, I know from experience that the president sets the tone and style for everyone in the White House, suggesting that it is more likely than not that this view does indeed permeate the West Wing–a suspicion confirmed by the memoirs of those who have worked in this White House.(15)
Reagan, on the other hand, had a conservative distrust of his own ability to know all the facts and arguments before making important decisions. That is one reason why he was so tolerant of leaks from the White House during his administration. Reagan knew that this was an important safety valve that allowed dissenting viewpoints to reach him without being blocked by those with their own agendas. Deputy Chief of Staff Dick Darman, who controlled the paper flow in and out of the Oval Office, for example, was often accused of preventing Reagan from seeing memos that argued against positions Darman favored.(16)
I was involved in one very small effort to get around Darman myself. One day early in the Reagan Administration, while I was still working on Capitol Hill, a midlevel White House staffer whom I knew called me. He had written a memo to the president that he couldn’t get through the bureaucracy. Knowing that Reagan was an avid reader of Human Events, the conservative weekly newspaper, my friend suggested that I take his memo, put my name on it, and publish it as an article in Human Events. I did, thereby getting the information and analysis to the president that my friend thought he needed.(17) Others in the White House frequently did the same thing by leaking memos to the Washington Post or the New York Times that appeared as news stories.
By contrast, the Bush White House is obsessive about secrecy, viewing leaks of even the most mundane information as the equivalent of high treason.(18) Ironically, this attitude can be self-defeating, since “leaks” are a very effective way of getting one’s message out–as the Clinton White House often demonstrated. Think of it as giving an exclusive story to a reporter who has no choice but to accept the leaker’s “spin.” In this way, a leak can garner more and better press for a White House initiative than more conventional means like press releases. Leaking, in short, is not a moral issue, but can be a useful public relations technique.
Traditional conservatives had grave doubts about George W. Bush since day one. First, he was his father’s son. George H. W. Bush ran as Reagan’s heir, but did not govern like him. Indeed, the elder Bush signaled that there would be a sharp break with Reagan-style conservatism in his inaugural address, when he spoke of being “kinder” and “gentler.” Conservatives immediately asked themselves, “Kinder and gentler than whom?” To them, the answer was obvious: Ronald Reagan. In effect, Bush was accusing his predecessor and the philosophy he stood for as being the opposite of kind and gentle–nasty and brutish, perhaps. As columnist George Will later put it, Bush was determined “to distinguish himself from Reagan by disparaging Reagan.”(19)
George H. W. Bush’s break with Reagan quickly became apparent in other ways as well. For instance, he fired virtually every Reagan political appointee in the federal government just as thoroughly as if he had been a Democrat. Of course, the Reagan appointees all knew that they were liable to be replaced at some point, but the suddenness and thoroughness of the purge caught them all by surprise–there had been no forewarning before Inauguration Day. It created a lot of ill will that came back to haunt the elder Bush when he got into political trouble later on. Most of the Reagan people sat on their hands rather than come to his aid.(20)
I was spared the purge only because Reagan had appointed Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady in the last days of his administration, knowing that he was a close friend of then—Vice President Bush. Since Brady stayed on, that spared Treasury the “transition” that other departments underwent and thus avoided a purge. Within a year or so, most of the senior political appointees moved on anyway and Bush had his chance to appoint their successors. The same thing would have happened in all the other departments, too, thereby saving Bush a lot of unnecessary antagonism from the Reagan crowd. It would have helped Bush govern as well, since many of the purged positions remained vacant for some time for various reasons and were often filled with less competent and experienced replacements. Moreover, many of the so-called Bush people turned out to have no meaningful connection to him and were nothing more than friends of friends, serving in government just to get a line on their résumés and not because they had anything to accomplish in terms of policy.
One of the first things I noticed when the new crowd came in in 1989 was that they would very seldom mention Ronald Reagan’s name. When necessary, they always referred to the “previous administration.” And it was quite clear that they viewed Reagan’s “hard-line” conservatism as passé and counterproductive to governing. They, on the other hand, thought themselves to be much more politically astute and believed that they would be far more effective by jettisoning Reagan’s ideological baggage.
The problem was that having abandoned Reagan’s principles, they had nothing to replace them with except political expediency. This culminated in the infamous abandonment of the no-new-taxes pledge in 1990. The Bush people thought they were being so clever by simply posting a notice in the White House pressroom on June 26, 1990, which said that budget negotiations with congressional Democrats would take place and include discussion of “tax revenue increases.” They seem to have thought that no one would notice this fundamental reversal of Bush’s position on taxes. Needless to say, it was noticed instantaneously, causing an almost immediate decline in Bush’s poll ratings.(21)
I was told by one of the key participants in this decision that they never intended it as a repudiation of the pledge, but merely as an acknowledgment that in a growing economy taxes automatically rise.(22) If this is true, it certainly is not evidence of political sophistication, but rather its opposite. Being the only Reaganite left in the Treasury Department, apparently I was the only one who knew how negatively Bush’s concession would be perceived by the Republican rank and file.(23) Unfortunately, no one asked my opinion before the decision was made.
I bring all this up because when George W. Bush first came on the radar screen as a potential presidential candidate, all that most conservatives knew about him was that he was the son of a president who had abandoned a successful conservative governing philosophy in favor of what they saw as squishy moderation, and was appropriately punished by voters for his sins. So when the younger Bush started talking about “compassionate conservatism,” therefore, traditional conservatives immediately were suspicious of another Bush betrayal. As Richard Miniter wrote in the conservative Manchester Union Leader, “Bush’s ‘compassionate conservatism’ strikes some as insulting and signals a return to his father’s ‘kinder and gentler’ conservatism, which led to tax hikes and the loss of the White House.”(24)
As National Review’s Andrew Stuttaford later put it, compassionate conservatism is an idea that should have been “strangled in the cradle.” To even call it an idea is “flattery,” he said. For the most part, it is little more than “pork wrapped up in schmaltz.”(25)
Right from the beginning, George W. Bush made it clear that he was not a conservative in the Reagan mold. In a speech in Indianapolis on July 22, 1999, he called the idea that our problems would be better solved if government would just get out of the way a “destructive mind-set.” Government is “wasteful and grasping,” Bush said, but “we must correct it, not disdain it.”(26) Commenting on this speech, Cato Institute president Ed Crane said it could have come straight out of the Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank allied with the Democratic Party.(27)
Even in front of explicitly conservative audiences, Bush continued his theme that government was not the enemy, but just wasn’t being used for the proper ends. In a speech to the Manhattan Institute on October 5, 1999, Bush put it this way: “Too often, my party has confused the need for limited government with disdain for government itself.” He went on to complain that the government was too weak to do what was needed. It was “grasping” and “impotent,” he said.(28)