Most Americans long ago stopped believing that George W. Bush is what he claimed to be during the 2000 presidential campaign: a compassionate conservative.
But is George W. Bush a conservative at all?
The answer might seem self-evident to progressives who have spent the past four years recoiling at the reactionary agenda the Bush Administration has advanced on everything from the environment to the courts, global warming to gay marriage. But while few people would confuse George W. Bush for a liberal, whether the policies he’s championed qualify as traditionally conservative is by no means clear.
“Historically, conservatism in the United States has meant support for small government, balanced budgets, fiscal prudence and great skepticism about overseas adventures,” notes Clyde Prestowitz, a former Reagan Administration official who back in the 1960s was among the young Republicans supporting Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, a conservative standard-bearer. “What I see now is an Administration that’s not for any of these things.”
While there are plenty of Republicans who would take issue with Prestowitz’s definition of the term, a growing number of conservative thinkers and policy-makers have begun to echo this view, as thumbing through the pages of the conservative press makes clear. Hungry for hard-hitting criticism of the Iraq war? You’re as likely to find it these days in publications like The National Interest, a conservative foreign affairs quarterly, and the recently launched American Conservative as in publications on the left. Want a rundown on the billions in government subsidies that the Bush Administration has lavished on corporations even as it claims to champion laissez-faire economics? Look no further than the website of the libertarian Cato Institute, which bristles with such information. How about sober analyses of the multibillion-dollar budget deficits the Administration has overseen? There’s no better source than the staid, conservative business press.
Of course, disagreement among conservatives in America, a term that encompasses everyone from followers of Pat Robertson to admirers of Milton Friedman, is hardly unprecedented. Yet the fissures that have emerged of late are different, pitting not only social conservatives against economic ones (a familiar rift within the GOP) but realists against neoconservatives, supply-siders against deficit hawks, proponents of limited government against defenders of what looks to some like a curious form of Big Government Republicanism. In some ways, moreover, these fissures cut deeper, for they are rooted not merely in tactical disputes about how to advance a shared agenda but in basic disagreements about what being a conservative in America actually means.
Does it mean fighting messianic wars to spread America’s values into the far corners of the world? As the body bags continue to pile up in Iraq, a growing number of establishment conservatives have begun to voice doubts. Does it mean ramming through tax cuts at a time when the nation faces an array of new threats and challenges? Not to those conservatives who take the notion of fiscal responsibility seriously.