Conservatives Attack President Bush

The Los Angeles Times yesterday run a set of four editorials by putative conservatives, all arguing that that President Bush is a failure and/or not really a conservative. Steve Bainbridge rounds them up and provides brief summaries.

Three of the pieces are fine in their own right and make some valid, if familiar, points. Dan Drezner writes that, “Republicans like me are angry at Bush because he has frittered away one of the party’s greatest assets — the belief that when it came to international relations, the GOP was the party of competence.” Daniel Casse points out that, “This tension between the modern conservative agenda of promoting accountability, competition and individual choice on the one hand and the Reagan vision of small government on the other is rarely acknowledged by Republican leaders. But it is at the heart of many of the disputes between Bush and his conservative critics.” Bruce Bartlett, who is trying to make a career on the “Bush is no conservative” meme tells us, “George W. Bush is not one of us and has never been. There can be no denying that he has enacted policies contrary to conservative principles on far too many occasions.”

All well and good. I agree with Casse almost entirely, have only minor quibbles with Drezner, and think Bartlett misses the point because he doesn’t understand the difference between ponticificating and governing. All three of the piece, though, are worthy of publication and debate. But packaging these pieces together under the collective title “Conservative Crackup” is simply disengenuous. Drezner would not claim to be a conservative. And even though there is a lot of disillusionment with the president, he still enjoys overwhelming support among conservatives. The LAT couldn’t fine one conservative to defend Bush?

The fourth piece, Jeffrey Hart‘s “He’s a right-wing ideologue, not a true conservative” is sheer nonsense. The former Reagan speechwriter criticizes Bush for lacking “realism” in claiming that “Human cultures can be vastly different. Yet the human heart desires the same good things, everywhere on Earth,” a phrase right out of the Reagan hymnal.

He says Bush isn’t a conservative because,

Since Republican Theodore Roosevelt created our national parks, every president has worked to protect them. Free-market ideologue Bush neglects them except as a playground for more snowmobiles. He wants to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He talks about fuel-efficient cars but does nothing to encourage their production.

This is nonsensical. First, TR was many things but certainly “conservative” isn’t one of them. It is simply juvenile to argue that Bush “ignores” the national parks because he has sided with those who want to be able to enjoy the vast acreages by riding snowmobiles (an issue on which I’m agnostic) or because he wants to allow drilling for oil in one tiny corner of a hardly visited park larger than most of our states. It’s especially ironic to chastise Bush for being an ideologue while taking a hard core ideological stand that zero use of national parks is permissible. Understanding that life requires trade-offs is the first step toward “realism,” after all.

Bush is a privatization ideologue. Not surprisingly, his scheme to privatize Social Security sank like a stone. Who wanted to attach the social safety net to stock in such companies as Enron and WorldCom? And Bush’s Medicare prescription drug plan, another privatization scheme, has been a disaster.

Privatization is a cornerstone of the modern conservative movement. Certainly, Reagan was a huge proponent. That the Social Security proposal did not go over well politically is not evidence of Bush’s lack of conservatism but in the public’s love of the nanny state when they are the beneficiaries. And Bush did not advocate investing in single companies but in broad based annuities–which any realist will tell you outperforms government IOU’s over any long period.

And, while I opposed the prescription drug plan–which was not a product of conservative ideology but rather nanny state pandering–I would like to see more than mere assertion that it “has been a disaster.” How so?

As for me, I’m in favor of treating disease and avoiding unnecessary death.

Stem cell research promises to do that. But not long after his inauguration in 2001, Bush greatly hampered stem cell research by severely limiting federal support for it. Why?


Bush puts it this way: “It’s wrong to destroy life in order to save life.”

That works only if you think a dozen cells is the equivalent of an infant diagnosed with diabetes or an adult with Parkinson’s disease. If you believe that, you will believe anything. In actuality, the supposed “culture of life” is a culture of disease and death.

Opposition to abortion and the sanctity of human life are cornerstones of conservativism. I’m largely agnostic on stem cells but lean toward the pragmatic “aborted fetuses are a sad reality, so it’s better to do research with them than throw them in a landfill” side. But then I don’t claim to be a “conservative” in the traditional sense of the word (although I accept the label under most circumstances because swimming against the linguistic tide is usually pointless). Regardless, though, his argument makes clear Hart is simply not a conservative in any sense of the word.

Bush would like to abolish abortion. No one likes abortion. But a demand for it exists today that did not exist in 1950, let alone in 1920, when U.S. women got the vote. Today, look at a university campus. Half women. They are represented in all professions. They demand the right to decide if and when to have children. Criminalizing abortion would be folly, a disaster — and would fail, like that other prohibition. That’s the actuality.

All likely true. So what, though? Bush is a conservative. He ran on this position, as have Republicans (and some Democrats) going back to Richard Nixon. Reagan made abortion and the “culture of life” fundamental pieces of his campaign and his speeches.

Bush is not a conservative. He has bushwhacked the term. He is a right-wing ideologue.

The fact that someone who is demonstrably not a conservative vehemently disagrees with Bush does not mean that Bush isn’t a conservative. Bartlett’s thesis, that Bush is not conservative because he does not hold the line on spending, is at least plausible given that conservatives give lip service to fiscal responsibility. But holding to traditional social values is at the heart of conservatism, indeed, it defines the term.

There are legitimate definitions of “conservative” that permit a lot of spending on national defense and social programs; there are none that include an indifference to cultural values.

Elsewhere: Amy Ridenour liked this collection less than I did.

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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. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Rachel says:

    I am a liberal and I hate these ant-Bush articles. Hart et al are arguing based on selective amnesia. Reagan WAS the father of the current Republican movement. Under him our defense budget increased (with him using “the enemy” as an excuse), many social programs were reduced, he fought with Koop about how AIDS should be treated in the public forum, AND the deficit ballooned. Now how is this different from W? These Reps just want to distance themselves from an un-fashionable President.

  2. Bithead says:

    I’ve been saying since before he was elected in 2000 that Bush is not a conservative. Bush, at best, and like his father before him, is a centerist. To the extent I have been in support of the man is because as compared to Gore, and then Kerry, he’s simply the lesser of two evils.

    All of which makes the efforts to label Bush as the new Hitler all the more laughable.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    I’m in substantial agreement with Bithead here. I don’t believe that Bush the Younger is a conservative, either, nor do I believe he ran as one. Remember �compassionate conservatism�? That’s a center-right populist.

    In 2000 Bush ran as the regular Republican candidate and it’ll be rough for regular Republicans to get shed of his shortcomings. I take a certain amount of satisfaction in this since I’ve been speculating for the last 5 years that both Republicans and Democrats would be trying to run against Bush in 2008.

    Two years ia a long time (heck, 8 months is) and a lot can happen in that time. What’s going on now strikes me as hyperventilating. Bush could look a lot better by November. If he looks much worse, he won’t be president.

  4. James Joyner says:

    Bithead and Dave: I would disagree slightly. I would contend that Bush is a conservative but does not govern as one. A distinction without meaning in some senses. But the same could be said for Ronald Reagan.

    Unlike his dad, Bush is a genuine cultural conservative and born again Christian. His judicial appointments and his stances on those issues are rock solid. Otherwise, he hasn’t done much to actually promote the social conservative agenda beyond lip service to religious based initiatives and the like. But, then, the country isn’t really with him on those issues, let alone a filibuster proof majority in the Senate.

    He is decidedly not a fiscal conservative but then he doesn’t claim to be.

  5. Bithead says:

    No argument that on social issues W swings a bit further right, at least publicly.

    And again, no argument that neither of them have been particularly rooted in fiscal conservatism.

    And your point about being one not equalling governing as one is well taken. To this point, I’d point out that this is not so much where they’re coming from as what they’re willing to sacrifice to go along/get along. They’re both certainly more fiscal conservative than any Democrat in the field… however, that tends to get dumped more easily than I’d like for expedience.

    Which of the two is more the fiscal conservative is hard to judge, given the elder didn’t have nearly the problems requiring money, that the younger has. Thereby, apples and bowling balls get compared directly.

  6. ken says:

    Opposition to abortion and the sanctity of human life are cornerstones of conservativism.

    This is so patently untrue James I am surprised at the audacity of the lie.

    The Catholic church, which introduced the concept of the sactity of human life, opposes the death penalty, opposes the war in Iraq, opposes the nuclear arms race and opposes the benefit cuts, all of which are cornerstones of conservative ideology.

    You cannot pick and chose which human life is sanctified James, you don’t have that priviledge. And you risk your immortal soul by holding such immoral beliefs.

  7. James Joyner says:

    ken: I don’t believe in souls, immortal or otherwise, so shall take my chances. Further, the views of celibate old men in funny hats are not a primary source of wisdom.

    The idea that human life is special predates Catholicism. Indeed, Protagoras said that “man is the measure of all things” long before Christ’s time.

    Most, although certainly not all, American conservatives believe in limited government including a very minimal welfare state and that the most vile criminals deserve the ultimate punishment.

    And even the Catholic church, whose theologians did invent the just war theory, believe that going to war to achieve just aims is morally right. That the pope disagreed with this one is just one man’s opinion.

  8. Herb says:

    I really don’t care how Bush is characterized, conservative, or whatever. I don’t agree with him on many issues but one thing for sure, I sure as hell want him in this time of fighting a terrorist movement, over either Gore or Kerry. Both of those guys would have thrown their hands in the air and surrendered long ago and let this country fend for itself without the help and aid of our military or any other government assistance.

    The amazing thing to me is we see many here on OTB who praise the likes of both Gore and Kerry demonstrating their complete lack of the mental capacity to know the difference between winning and surrender.

  9. Dave Schuler says:

    That’s why I characterized Bush as a center-right populist, James. Or as Walter Russell Mead put it, he’s a Jacksonian. He fits that characterization to a ‘T’ from the social conservativsm to the strength on defense to the fiscal irresponsibility.

  10. The “Bush is not conservative” bit is complete and utter nonsense.

  11. Bush isn’t a conservative; he’s a right wing populist. Just because the populists in the Republican party want to confuse the distinction, the two aren’t the same thing.

  12. Bithead says:

    If Bush is right wing, Fidel Castro is a centerist.

  13. Jack Ehrlich says:

    Ken, why did you change the subject from what James was writting on? Oh thats right, you are a lefty. Catholics and Born Again Christians are two seperate things. That may escape you, but in any case, who are you do discuss someone elses religious beliefs? The only time you people on the left do so is when it suits your arguement. Why is it you try to complicate truth. The truth is not complicated.