Has Bush Killed Conservative Movement?

Mike Tomasky sees 2008 as a defining election that could signal the end of the Conservative Movement as we have known it in America. The country threw out the Republican Congress in November 2006 and the polls overwhelmingly show that Americans think President Bush is doing a lousy job.

But what lesson will they take? That conservatism itself is exhausted and without answers to the problems that confront American and the world today? Or will they conclude that the problem hasn’t been conservatism per se, just Bush, and that a conservatism that is competent and comparatively honest will suit them just fine?

Conservatives and the Republican presidential candidates hope and argue that it’s the latter. They largely endorse and in some cases vow to expand on the Bush administration’s policies – Mitt Romney’s infamous promise to “double” the size of the detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, notably. Like Bush, they vow that tax cuts, deregulation and smaller government will solve every domestic problem. Where they try to distinguish themselves from Bush is on competence. Romney talks up his corporate success, Rudy Giuliani his prowess as mayor of New York.

The Democrats aren’t as full-throated in opposition to all this as one would hope – they dance away from the word “liberal” and they don’t really traffic in head-on philosophical critiques of conservative governance. That said, though, all the leading Democrats are running on pretty strongly progressive platforms. On healthcare, energy and global warming, all promise a very different direction for the country. Hillary Clinton has even inched to her husband’s left on trade issues. Even given her innate caution and rhetorical hawkishness on foreign policy, it’s fair to say that Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards are making a forceful case for a clean ideological break.

The rubber will hit the road next summer and autumn. Then the Republicans will tell voters that the Democratic nominee has proposed trillions of dollars’ worth of new programmes and will inevitably raise taxes to pay for them. The Democrat will need to stand her or his ground and, while obviously not being cavalier about taxes, present a vision of a different kind of society. There are signs that 51% of the voters may be ready to embrace it.

This presumes, of course, that the election will be over social policy rather than foreign policy. If so, Democrats will undoubtedly win, as free stuff is awfully hard to resist, especially when the counter-argument has to be made in 20 second sound bytes and the Republicans have lost any credibility when talking about fiscal responsibility.

If the debate remains on the foreign policy agenda, though, the GOP has a chance. This may seem counterintuitive with polls showing roughly 80 percent of the public is tired of the war in Iraq and blames the incompetence of Republicans for our problems. Still, tough talk on terrorism and national security almost always wins out when the voters feel there’s a legitimate threat.

The Democrats will certainly nominate a slightly more liberal candidate in 2008 than it has since 1988, most likely Hillary Clinton. The Republican field is wide open, although most of the plausible nominees are somewhat less socially conservative than any since 1976; arguably ever. It’s rather unlikely that it will be a referendum on conservatism.

Regardless, however, it’s incredibly unlikely that one election will seal either party’s fate. Years of drubbings in presidential campaigns forced the Democrats to reform themselves into a more centrist party. The result was two terms for “New Democrat” Bill Clinton and a narrow and controversial defeat for a follow-on by his vice president and follow DLCer Al Gore. Republicans tacked more to the center in response, nominating “Compassionate Conservative” George W. Bush in 2000. That’s the nature of American democracy and has been for decades.

American politics is, as columnist George Will described it long ago, akin to a football game played entirely between the 40 yard lines. The amount of ideological variation within the mainstream is narrow, indeed, by the standards of Western democracies. Indeed, by European standards, we’ll almost certainly elect a conservative in 2008.

FILED UNDER: 2008 Election, Climate Change, Congress, Democracy, Terrorism, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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. Dave Schuler says:

    I think that the conservative movement (which is distinct from the Republican Party) does have problems but at least some of them are built-in problems, born from the internal contradictions of the movement. As it’s been constituted for the last 20 or so years, the conservative movement has had three major factions: the social conservatives, libertarians, and the paleocons.

    The paleocons, those in the stamp of William F. Buckley, are old. They’re not as active a force in the country as they used to be and, consequently, mostly irrelevant to the conservative movment as such. That leaves the social conservatives and the libertarians and, honestly, they don’t play nicely together.

    But there’s another issue, too: right libertarians tend to be mistrustful of government. That usually doesn’t give one the inclination and, frankly, the patience to run for public office, especially higher public office. That leaves the social conservatives seeking office which has tended to blunt the liberatarians’ enthusiasm for movement conservatism.

  2. Triumph says:

    The first thing conservatives need to do is emphasize that Bush is probably the LEAST conservative president in the post-War era.

    His Wilsonian foreign policy and LBJ-insipred spending sprees make him one of the more big government presidents we have had.

  3. laura says:

    I don’t think that conservatism, no matter how defined(social, paleo etc) is a philosophy, although it might be a movement.

    If the people who call themselves and are called conservatives are judged by their actions and the policies they promote, then the common denominator is an egocentric approach to politics. The fundamental belief is in “small government” , meaning a government that serves them and noone else. To social conservatives that means a governnment that hates the people they hate and panders to their fear that other people might make choices of which they disapprove. They want to use the governnment to impose their sense of order on the world so that they can feel more secure. To hawkish conservatives the purpose of government is to make them feel more powerful and less fearful by winning military victories. Who, what, and where we fight is not as important as the thrill of feeling victorious. Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran! Fear the Enemy! Smite the Enemy! If there isn’t an outside enemy to fear, then this sort of conservative has to dream up an inside one, hence the Red Scare and similar phenomena. To nondoctrinaire ordinary conservatives the purpose of government is to fund those programs which help them, defund programs of interest to others, and cut their taxes so someone else can pay for the programs which support the conservative. This is the red state phenomenon where recepients of all kinds of special interest money–loggers, ranchers, farmers,– bitch about taxes, brag about how indepedent they are while living (for three generations now) on governnment subsidies. This is also thhe so-called fiscal conservative mindset and the thought pattern of the moderate Republican. Their philosophy is that it is important to spend tax money on what serves them, not important to spend on anything else,and that thhe money for their needs should come out of someone else’s pocket. And then you have the conservative politician who really believes in nothing except the acquisistion of power for himself or herslf, sucks up to special intersts for campaign funds, and panders to the fears, hates, and self-deceptions of the base to get votes.

    Take, as evidence, the conservative reaction to global warming. It’s a selfish, cowardly reation: first denial that there is a problem, then grudging admission that there might be a problem but denial of the size of the problem and denial of the need to do anything about the problem. Only when individual conservatives (farmers first, probably) feel the effects, will individual conservatives decide that the governnment has a responisbility to help, and then they will only support help for themselves.

    What it amounts to is that conservatism isn’t a philosophy, just a tendency on the part of a porportion of the population to view government power as an extention of their ( and only their)own needs, fears, and hates. It’s selfishness.

    That’s why, in the last hundred years of American history conservatives have exactly noting they can point to as a positive conservative accomplishment of governnmet. It’s also why, despite their role as self-serving obstructionists, that conservatism is always with us. Selfishness is part of human nature and will always manifest iiself in politics.

  4. Patrick T McGuire says:

    There is an important point about poplarity ratings that has been missed. They are being portrayed as some kind of competition between Bush and Congress as to which one gets the worst ratings. It is not relevant that Bush’s approval ratings are higher than Congress, or that Congress’s approval is the lowest in recorded history. What is being missed here is that Americans are fed up with the federal government in its entireity.

    And I see this as being driven by the conservatives in this country. Bush scores higher than Congress because he is more conservative, but in whole, the population is not satisfied and is looking for a change.

    That sounds to me like a conservative movement that is growing in strength.

  5. Sam says:

    American politics is, as columnist George Will described it long ago, akin to a football game played entirely between the 40 yard lines. The amount of ideological variation within the mainstream is narrow, indeed, by the standards of Western democracies. Indeed, by European standards, we’ll almost certainly elect a conservative in 2008.

    Too true. So why is the political rhetoric in our country so poisonous? Perhaps this is a characteristic of democracy itself?

  6. James Joyner says:

    So why is the political rhetoric in our country so poisonous?

    Henry Kissinger once remarked that, “University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.” The same may be true in American politics generally. Internecine debates can be quite savage.

  7. Tano says:

    “If so, Democrats will undoubtedly win, as free stuff is awfully hard to resist…”

    Huh? Seems to me that that is the Republican strategy. Starting with Ronald Reagan, who claimed that we could massively increase defense spending, cut taxes, and balance the budget.

    Continuing with George Bush, who also sold the supply side snake oil.

    Pay less, get the same or more. That is the Republican mantra.

    Meanwhile of course, Reagan and Bush have between them added 8 trillion dollars to our children’s inherited debt. But thats there problem,,,apparently.

  8. JohnG says:

    Cutting taxes is letting people keep what they already own, not giving people free stuff. Giving people free stuff would be for example national public health care for all.

  9. rwb says:

    “Has Bush Killed Conservative Movement?” Depends on what you mean. If conservative means the old meaning, e.g., small gov’t, fiscal responsibility, the Republican party killed that movement years ago. If you mean does a republic party candidate have a chance to be elected as president in 2008 – you bet they do – it is almost a lock because as idiotic as repubs are, the dems are even stupider.

  10. mannning says:

    Let the fiscal and social conservatives together form a modern conservative agenda that is informed by the timeless tenets and ideas of conservatism. It is time for the fiscal conservatives to unmask themselves and to champion their traditional values over the irresponsible actions and flood of very useless spending of the past 20 years.

    As a trivial example, we continue to throw money at education, only to find out that our students rate very low, our education bureauocracy is massively bloated, and we spend far too much per student, to no avail whatsoever. Time for a change.

    The Republican Party seems to have been infiltrated with leftwingers, and their idiologies, to the point that one has a hard time sorting out the truly conservative Republicans today. One sees lots of RINOs, and near RINOs, or turning RINOs. Witness Trent Lott’s, and others, vote YEA on cloture for the Dream bill. It seems very difficult for our Congressmen to stand on principle (Conservative principle!) as opposed to really dirty compromises with the unprincipalled Devils on the other side of the aisle. The immigration votes are a full case in point too: it should not have been close to begin with!

    How is it that Reid can maneuver bills against the rules of the Senate? He must have tacit or open support from some of the Republicans to use these tactics.