Did Bush Waste His Conservative Moment?

Steve Bainbridge believes that President Bush’s recent humbler tone is a tacit admission that he has failed in his conservative agenda.

Peter Baker and Jim VandeHei contend on the front page of today’s WaPo:

The lessons drawn by a variety of Bush advisers inside and outside the White House as they map a road to recovery in 2006 include these: Overarching initiatives such as restructuring Social Security are unworkable in a time of war. The public wants a balanced appraisal of what is happening on the battlefield as well as pledges of victory. And Iraq trumps all.

From this, Bainbridge concludes,

We can debate whether invading Iraq was a necessary step in the War on Terror. What we can no longer debate is that the Iraq War has brought the larger conservative agenda to a crashing halt, wasting a moment for which many of us in the conservative movement have waited for decades, and if public perceptions of the GOP don’t improve soon, threatening to undermine the conservative realignment for which we long hoped.

The problem with that is that there isn’t much evidence that the Bush domestic agenda was likely to pass absent the war in Iraq. Baker and VandeHei again:

In the heady days after reelection, Bush and Rove sketched out an ambitious agenda to avoid the traditional pitfalls of second-term presidents. They settled on four domestic priorities for 2005: remaking Social Security, revising the tax code, cracking down on court-clogging litigation and easing immigration rules. As the year ends, only some litigation limits have passed, and Social Security, tax and immigration plans are dead or comatose.

Which of these were popular, let alone enough so to overcome the inevitable Democratic filibuster in the Senate?

Social Security? While I like the idea of privatizing it, it is a non-starter politically. This initiative failed, not because of Iraq–although, granted, an expensive transition was harder with a war on–but becuase most people don’t believe that Social Security is in crisis. People aren’t going to approve massive changes in a popular program until they have to.

The tax code? The president has had some success here but run into some bad luck. Yes, Iraq made this one harder but so did Katrina. The main problem, though, is that Bush has never offered up a vision beyond “tax cuts good” on this issue.

Tort reform? This, more than any other domestic issue, was repeatedly emphasized during the 2004 reelection campaign. Politically, it is a winner and I’m surprised we haven’t seen more on it beyond the controversial bankruptcy reform bill. There are still three years to go in the term, though, so there’s still hope.

Easing immigration rules? This one will divide the base, with most opposed to it. The debate alone would be rancorous and could well tear the party apart.

Beyond that, though, I reject the premise of the Baker-VandeHei assessment. The president has long understood that his legacy will be based almost entirely on Iraq and the war on terrorism. Sometimes, real life interferes with ones hopes and dreams.

Update: See “Conservative Bloggers Debate Bush” for an earlier debate with Bainbridge on this topic.

FILED UNDER: Terrorism, Uncategorized, , , , , , , , ,
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. Lee says:

    The RINO is the true Republican.

  2. Rodney Dill says:

    Steve Bainbridge believes that President Bush’s recent humbler tone is a tacit admission that he has failed in his conservative agenda.

    Sorta like how Clinton sold out his constituents and adopted the conservative agenda fed him by congress. Clinton did a better job of claiming credit for it though.

  3. jimbo says:

    The war in Iraq was more important than the rest of the conservative agenda. The outcome of Iraq will be Bush’s legacy. Unfortunately, the war made Bush so unpopular that his support for a domestic policy probably undermined it. Another consequence of the war, and of Bush’s inattention, is the leaderless GOP congress. Typically, they are more interested in their careers than in advancing a cause. Bush has left them free to spend as they wish, and he has allowed fascist demogogues like Tancredo to lead on policy issues. Clinton was a good president, but he was also very lucky. He was lucky in that he had a GOP congress to work with and that no one cared that he ignored the Islamist threat.

  4. Lew Warden says:

    Peter Baker and Jim VandeHei use the term “overarching” in describing the reasons for George Bush’s falling flat on his face. “Overreaching” would have been a more accurate term. Not content with having won a squeaker victory–virtually entirely on the strength of nation’s concern with the Middle East conflict–over the pitifully flawed JFKerry, Bush squandered all of his “capital” pushing his crabbed domestic notions. I hesitate to call such nonsense a “philosophy” because the Republicans long ago abandoned their principles in their desperate drive for power. And thus doth “vaulting ambition o’er reach itself and fall upon the other.” “Sic Semper.” As Thomas Jefferson wrote, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”
    The tragedy is that we may just lose the war in Iraq and elsewhere because of Bush’s overreaching. Public confidence, once lost, is often hard to regain.
    And I’m sorry if I altered your page format. Your assumption that your readers understand about “proper” HTML tags is also unwarranted. Join the Howard Beale Memorial Society. Fight back. http://www.networkcentralca.net/

  5. odograph says:

    Bush as a conservative President?

    I think you have to start by saying what the first goal of conservatism is, and then look at how hard he worked to acheive it. If it was to reduce the role of federal government in people’s lives … he talked the talk, but never walked the walk.

    On Social Security, there are two issues:

    1. Would “private” Social Security just be structured to bleed off commissions to wall street firms? If I know wall street and lobbyists, the answer is yes.

    2. Do people remember that Social Security is not just to provide for their future, it is to keep everyone else running as happy consumers, and to fuel the economy? If I make good choices in my private plan, but my neighbors do not .. I end up paying for them anyway: through welfare and a falling economy.

    I think MY retirement is safer with a Social Security that prevents OTHER PEOPLE from making foolish mistakes.

  6. James Joyner says:


    Leaving aside whether “the first goal of conservatism . . . was to reduce the role of federal government in people’s lives,” your argument strikes me as self-contradictory.

    If that’s your goal, having the government run people’s post-work economic lives is hardly the way you’d go about it.

  7. odograph says:

    I’m a moderate Republican, rather than a moderate Democrat.

    What that means to me is that I start with the conservative principle, and only adjust it for reasons of practicallity. I’ll start with free choice and the market every time, and only shift away when I must.

    Most old-time Republicans do that, really. They’ll start with the market, but recognize the need for government customs inspectors, & etc.

    The question for Social Security is whether the goal can be accomplished with a pure market mechanism, and if not, what adjustment you make.

    I’d sumbit that if the market were enough, there would be no Social Security at all.

  8. odograph says:

    Put another way, there are core functions for government, and I’d put Social Security on that list long before “bridges to nowhere” and the rest of the pork parade.

  9. James Joyner says:

    The market failed during the late 1920s with the combination of the Great Depression and radical changes in the economy and society, requiring a government bailout. Unfortunately, people got hooked on it and counted on SS as the entirely of their retirement income. AARP and the politics of rational choice soon kicked in.

    I agree that there needs to be a government component, mostly in terms of forcing people to save money and also as a safety net for those who didn’t earn much during their working years for whatever reason. Politically, privatization is almost a non-starter, of course.

  10. odograph says:

    I think we’re on the same page then. My two concerns about “privatization” would be the bleed-off to cronies and the opportunity for people to make high-risk investments.

    If the safety net is there for a Great Depression scenario .. everbody in mutal funds is not the way to do it.