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Bush's Legacy

This column was written by Matthew Yglesias.


Laid up sick last week, I had as my company Imposter: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy, by Bruce Bartlett, destined to become every liberal's favorite conservative book of 2006, if not the entire Bush years. The book is a stirring indictment of the White House's economic policy, focused on the charge that the current president is a "pretend conservative," a highly partisan Republican with almost no actual commitment to free-market economics or to shrinking the size and scope of federal expenditures.

There's much truth to this critique, as even most conservatives who wouldn't phrase their criticisms nearly as harshly are happy to concede, but it strikes even this liberal as somewhat overdrawn. The pug-nosed nationalism and strident defense of traditional sexual ethics and gender norms that the Bush administration has offered in spades are conservative tropes in good standing and there's no reason to doubt the president's commitment to either of them. Even on the economic front, the Bush team has demonstrated a deeply conservative indifference to the question of inequality and has taken the traditional conservative line that poverty should be abated primarily through moral reform of the poor, rather than direct interventions, to improve their material well-being.

Nor do Bush's spasms of political opportunism notably distinguish him from any of his predecessors, either Republican or Democratic. True ideologues simply aren't going to succeed in presidential politics, and they never have. Even Bartlett's hero, Ronald Reagan, like Bush, was happy to step away from unpopular conservative economic-policy ideas ? swiftly abandoning a 1982 proposal to cut Social Security benefits, backtracking, beginning in 1983, from early attempts to unravel environmental regulation, and never daring to touch the two big Great Society health-care programs. Indeed, while conservatives can fairly criticize the Bush administration for burning a great deal of political capital on Social Security privatization ? while simultaneously failing to accomplish anything ? a lack of personal commitment to the cause isn't a plausible diagnosis of the problem.

The interesting question is not whether Bush has a higher commitment to his career than to conservatism ? all presidents do ? but why Bush's opportunistic instincts have rendered him, if not more liberal, than at least less conservative, than Ronald Reagan. Answering the question in detail would be difficult, but the broad answer is easy to see: Public opinion changed and became more friendly to the concept of activist government. Bush's immediate predecessors as conservative leaders, Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich, hewed much closer to the Reagan legacy and wracked themselves on the shoals of an electorate that no longer had an appetite for stern budget cutting or libertarian rhetoric. Fundamentally, most Americans agree that the federal government has a responsibility to ensure that people receive a decent education, adequate health care, and a secure retirement, and that government simply can't achieve those things with large cuts in federal spending.

Arguably, Bush has been attempting something ambitious and admirable ? an attempt to reformulate conservatism for an era in which the era of big government being over is over.

The real problem with Bushism has been that this White House simply doesn't do serious policy analysis, which, to Bartlett, is more of a secondary line of attack. That would be bad in an administration that was rigidly committed to cutting spending as much as possible, wherever possible. For an administration open to the idea of an activist state and high levels of spending, it's been catastrophic. Genuine innovation is always difficult, but in this case innovation is being spearheaded by a group that has no idea what it's doing and a president who's flying through clouds without instruments.

Special interests and corporate lobbyists have meanwhile rushed into the middle, all too eager to fill the void for an administration lacking clear principles and intelligent, substantive analysis. The results have been not only criminal, but a wholesale perversion of the legislative process, ending with a Medicare bill that Bartlett rightly regards as among America's worst pieces of legislation (he flirts with calling it the very worst, but I'll take a poorly designed entitlement over the Fugitive Slave Act).

Bartlett joins most of Bush's liberal critics in suggesting he'll be ill-remembered by history, but I have my doubts. What Bush is trying to do ? whether it be called "compassionate conservatism," "big government conservatism," "pretend conservatism" or whatever else ? is fundamentally the right direction for the Republican Party. Indeed, it's fairly common in Europe, where they call it "Christian democracy," a label that probably wouldn't fly in a United States that is simultaneously more religious and less sectarian than the Old World. He's made a hash of it, but one of these days someone will get it right. The salience of the policy details Bush doesn't care about will fade with time, and he'll likely be remembered as an innovator, like Woodrow Wilson a figure whose ideas may not have panned out, but did light an important path forward for the future.

Matthew Yglesias
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved

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