Bush Ruining Conservatism?

Steve Bainbridge, guesting for Andrew Sullivan, has a longish post claiming that George W. Bush has “set back the conservative movement for years, if not decades, by betraying conservative principles,” most notably by a lack of fiscal discipline and a wasteful war in Iraq. Interestingly, the vehicle he chooses for this is a Russell Kirk speech about George H.W. Bush referring to the first Gulf War, which seems simply bizarre in its original context but prudent in the present.

Russell Kirk 10 Conservative Principles PollThis follows on the heels of another post, an oldie-but-goodie, which puts up Kirk’s famous “10 principles of conservatism.” I subscribe to 7 or 8 of them, demurring only on Custom, Prescription and, depending on how it’s construed, Enduring Moral Order. (There’s a lot of redundancy in the list; he was apparently straining to come up with a neat list of 10.) Then again, those are the first three listed principles.

While I can’t vouch for his heart or his mind, I would argue that George W. Bush is a conservative who emphasizes those first three principles but seems not to care so much about most of the remaining seven. He has a strong sense of morality but, unlike traditional conservatives, believes in perfectability especially — and quite oddly — in foreign policy.

Most obviously, he’s deficient in this one:

Conservatives are guided by their principle of prudence. … Any public measure ought to be judged by its probable long-run consequences, not merely by temporary advantage or popularity. Liberals and radicals, the conservative says, are imprudent: for they dash at their objectives without giving much heed to the risk of new abuses worse than the evils they hope to sweep away.

And, motivated by his strong belief that he’s right, he often turns a blind eye to this one:

The conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions. … It is characteristic of the radical that he thinks of power as a force for good—so long as the power falls into his hands. … A just government maintains a healthy tension between the claims of authority and the claims of liberty.

Now, whether all this has caused long-term harm to the conservative moment is debatable. For one thing, “conservative” is a moving target, Kirk’s devotion to an idyllic past notwithstanding. The United States, and the West generally, has been moving inexorably toward a welfare state for decades now and our standards of morality constantly evolve, too.

Still, Bainbridge is right:

We controlled the White House, the Senate, the House of Representatives, and (more-or-less) the judiciary between 2002 and 2004, but what was accomplished? Did government get smaller? Did we hack away at the nanny state? Were the unborn any more protected? Did we really set the stage for a durable conservative majority? No on all counts.

Still, given the razor thin majorities in Congress and the polarization that accompanied the 2000 election aftermath, it’s doubtful a Ronald Reagan could have achieved those things. On the other hand, Bush didn’t much try, except perhaps on abortion.

Recall that Bush campaigned on a platform of “compassionate conservatism,” applying a modifier to persuade people that he wasn’t a heartless meanie like Newt Gingrich. Partly out of lack of conviction, partly out of crash electoral politics, partly because he stepped into a budding recession, and partly because of the fallout of 9/11 Bush presided over a massive expansion in the size of government. Still, few people are complaining about the increased federal involvement in education and health care; indeed, they’re clamoring for more.

Bush has certainly harmed the Republican Party, contributing mightily to the loss of both Houses of Congress in the most recent midterm election (with plenty of help from his counterparts in the legislature) and making it much harder for a Republican to win the White House in 2008. It’s not clear, however, that conservatism per se has suffered any long term damage.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. floyd says:

    Oddly left out above, Bush has harmed the Republican party and alienated true conservatives most with his attitude toward illegal immigration
    and international trade policy.
    Let’s keep in mind that it is not purely capitalism that drives conservatism but liberty with a touch of the now hated word nationalism.
    Not jingoism[for those prone to hyperbole].

  2. Stormy70 says:

    I guess Steve missed the whole Supreme Court thing.

    Anyone who calls themselves conservative, but blogs at Sullivan’s site, is suspect in my opinion. Steve has hated Bush for a while now, and like Sullivan, it colors everything he writes.

    I blame Congressional Republicans for the loss in 2006. How easy it is to forget that Bush carried them to victory in 2002 and 2004. Congress squandered their majority, yet somehow it is Bush’s fault that Cunningham and Foley were corrupt? I am not buying it.

    Steve has a version of Conservative BDS. He should be addressing Congress’ actions.

  3. Bithead says:

    First of all, let’s at least be honest enough to note Bush is no conservative. Never has been. I’ve been saying that since the late nineties. Then again, neither was his father. Most conservatives, however, signed on with them, because he was the most conservative of the lot that was running at the time.

  4. Andy says:

    First of all, let’s at least be honest enough to note Bush is no conservative. Never has been.

    He sure is a Republican though.

    And almost all of the Republicans were extremely devoted followers of his glorious crusade to, um, spend a ton of money on government handouts, invade the wrong country, and fail at protecting American cities.

  5. Bithead says:

    He sure is a Republican though.

    If, by “being republican” you mean the sticking to republican principles, I argue he has not. Therefore, he is not.

  6. carpeicthus says:

    I think we can all agree that Republican ≠ conservative. There’s a passing allegiance, using conservatism as a cloak over raw ambition (much the same way Democrats use progressivism), but Bush has surely stuck to Republican principles, because there are none other than what Republicans say they are, and they stuck by Bush as long as they thought there was advantage in it.

  7. just me says:

    I think Bush’s leadership (and I would also lack of conservative principals-or at least an over eagerness to compromise the ones he has) has harmed the GOP-although not so much conservatism.

    But I think congress did far more to harm the GOP and conservatism than Bush-after all it was congress that forgot their principals and decided to spend like drunken sailors, and pass bills like NCLB, the medicare drug bill, and so many others.

    I still don’t regret my vote for Bush-even if he hasn’t done much to please me-he is done in two years, but Roberts and Alito will be on the court far longer.

  8. Regarding Bainbridge’s rhetorical question, “what was accomplished? Did government get smaller? Did we hack away at the nanny state?” etc., one must ask another question: Is the president a cause or an effect? Put differently, a leading or lagging indicator? I would say more of an effect/lagging indicator. In other words, society is being transformed in numerous realms: education, art, music, morality, religion, and so on. This produces our culture and our mode of thought. Everything is set, and then in steps the president. Given a rotting society, it is unlikely that anything major could be turned around at that point. Only after society is transformed does it demand leaders and actions that are different.

    I am reminded of Tocqueville’s observation (in Democracy in America) that in extraordinary times, “the great personalities stand out like monuments that had been hidden by the darkness of the night, and that one sees taking shape all of a sudden against the backdrop of a raging fire. Genius no longer disdains reproducing itself, and the people, in shock over their own perils, forget for a time their jealousy. It is not rare at such a moment to see celebrated names arise from the electoral urns.”

    We tend to put too much emphasis on the formal political system as an engine of change. This is where the Left has us beat. They know that by the time an issue arrives in Congress, its fate has largely been determined by years of preparatory activity in the cultural realm.

  9. Bithead says:

    I think we can all agree that Republican ≠ conservative.

    No.
    What do you think RINO means?

    Examples:

    John McCain.
    Lincoln Chafee.
    Bloomberg
    And to a lesser degree, Mr. Bush himself.

    And so on.

  10. Bithead says:

    I wuld add to the list of examples,

    Arlen Spector. There’s somebody should have been removed from the party forcibly, some years ago. Similarly… Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, Christopher Shays, George Pitaki, ROmney (Sr and Jr), Michael Castle, Jon Leach, Jim Kolbe, ROb Simmons, Chuckles Hagel,John Warner, George Voinovich, Lindsay Graham, etc etc etc.

  11. Bithead says:

    Oh, and AWOL, when asking such questions, we must not ignore the biggest influence on our internal politics… Bainbridge’s question to my mind becomes moot, when we start talking about these things in the midst of a war, which by definition increases the size of government. A peacetime economy is vastly different than a wartime economy. Had we not been attacked on 9/11, his question might have been a fair one, as would be the comparison. As it stands, we have nothing to compare it to.

  12. spencer says:

    Bithead — check your data. We have increased the share of gdp going to government– the military — because of 9/11 by about one percentage point.

    Military spending as a share of GDP is near the lowest levels it has been since the 1930s. The US economy is less a wartime economy now than it has been since the 1930s.

    Your thesis that this is a war time economy is completely wrong.

  13. Dave Schuler says:

    George Bush is representative of a kind of politician that’s characteristic of the Texas-Arkansas-Louisiana area (but by no means limited to that region) that used to be called a “bidness Democrat”. LBJ was one; Bill Clinton has some aspects of a “bidness Democrat”. Much of what we’ve seen e.g. cronyism, stubbornness, lack of concern about debt, and so on are typical of the breed.

    Most of the “bidness Democrats” are now Republicans. Not much like the country club Republicans or libertarian Republicans of years gone by.

  14. MarkT says:

    Stormy70 at August 5, 2007 10:40

    Steve has hated Bush for a while now, and like Sullivan, it colors everything he writes.

    I think the BDS label is an easy way of avoiding a real critique of someone’s argument. It doesn’t advance the discussion at all.

    However, from the left, I admit to getting a chuckle when the right uses it to attack their own.

  15. Bithead says:

    Bithead — check your data. We have increased the share of gdp going to government– the military — because of 9/11 by about one percentage point.

    Military spending as a share of GDP is near the lowest levels it has been since the 1930s. The US economy is less a wartime economy now than it has been since the 1930s.

    Your thesis that this is a war time economy is completely wrong

    You’re ignoring, of course, non-military security spending.

  16. Andy says:

    You’re ignoring, of course, non-military security spending.

    Which, of course, is trivial in comparison to Bush’s tax cuts and non-discretionary spending.

  17. […] Outside the Beltway Bush has certainly harmed the Republican Party, contributing mightily to the loss of both Houses of Congress in the most recent midterm election (with plenty of help from his counterparts in the legislature) and making it much harder for a Republican to win the White House in 2008. It’s not clear, however, that conservatism per se has suffered any long term damage. […]

  18. floyd says:

    Andy; If you think the taxes are too low, here’s a flash……They accept donations!!