Even Conservatives Are Wondering: Is Bush One of Us?
The Party of Big Government
Of course, there's a more cynical way to interpret the Administration's tax-cutting agenda: Punching holes in the budget is a good thing, since it will eventually force Congress to begin slashing federal programs (Social Security, Medicare) that are politically untouchable right now. This is the long-term vision of people like Grover Norquist, who believes Republicans can begin "starving the beast" (the federal government) once they lock in a majority in the House and Senate and cement their control over a one-party state.
There's only one small problem with the theory: It assumes that, if given the chance, Republicans actually would shrink the size of government. Over the past three and a half years the Bush Administration has shown itself to be anything but principled in this respect. It has instead turned the GOP into what Arizona Senator John McCain has aptly termed the party of "out-of-control spending"--a party addicted to pork and massive subsidies for its corporate benefactors.
"The Bush Administration is not against big government," says Kevin Phillips, a one-time Republican whose recent book, American Dynasty, chronicles the crony capitalism long practiced by the Bush family. "They're against the portion of it that regulates business and requires tax increases, against a welfare system. When it's the latter, they're against big government, but when it's big government that takes care of the oil industry or bails out financial institutions or pumps money into the Pentagon, then they tend to be in favor of that."
Indeed, for Pentagon contractors like Boeing, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, the era of big government is not over--it's never been more firmly entrenched. The same goes for the sugar, grain and cotton producers whose subsidies the Administration has assiduously protected, as well as the oil, gas and coal industries. The pattern has not escaped the notice of some conservatives, whose anger at Bush's profligate spending and disregard for free-market principles is growing. "This Administration has not been for small government at all," says Veronique de Rugy, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. "It's a big spending administration. Just look at the farm bill, which is pure corporate welfare. Bush's farm bill actually moved against the one signed by Clinton [in 1996], which at least tried to cut down some of the subsidies. It goes against every market principle you can imagine."
Jerry Taylor of the Cato Institute has described the Administration's energy plan in much the same way: "three parts corporate welfare and one part cynical politics...a smorgasbord of handouts and subsidies for virtually every energy lobby in Washington." McCain, whom the hard right views as a traitor to the movement, has proposed establishing a corporate welfare termination commission that would identify and eliminate tax breaks and subsidies handed out annually to the private sector. It's the sort of thing you would think an administration committed to the notion of laissez-faire economics (not to mention the virtue of self-reliance, preached incessantly to the poor) would rush to embrace, but of course, it hasn't.
To some extent, this departure from principle is nothing new: A tension has long existed within the American right between free-market ideology, which makes conservatives theoretically hostile to government, and fealty to big business, whose leaders frequently ask for (and receive) government's help. Yet the Bush Administration has taken things to new extremes, allowing industry to regulate itself to an unprecedented degree while not even pretending to keep an arm's length from companies like Halliburton.
When the tax cuts and the Iraq war are put together, along with the supplemental spending bills and the spiraling deficits, it's hardly surprising that some conservative thinkers have begun to voice dissent. Many of those interviewed told me that if the same policies were being pursued by a Democrat, conservatives across the country would be apoplectic.
Might this cost George W. Bush support?
Pete Peterson, for one, says he's undecided about what to do come November. "I've been a Republican all my life, but I'm going to wait and see," he says. "I think there's a considerable group of Republicans who think of themselves as fiscally responsible and are very concerned." Clyde Prestowitz, who has spent much of the past nine months traveling around the country to talk about foreign policy, says he has been "amazed by the frequency with which people come up to me after a speech and say, 'You know, I'm a Republican but I agree with you.' The number who have said, I voted for Bush last time and I can't do it again--it's happening."
But even if Bush manages to defeat John Kerry this fall, the question will remain what the legacy of his presidency will be for the movement he claims to represent. On one level, that movement has never been in better shape: As Robert Kuttner argued recently in The American Prospect, the vision of a one-party state that activists like Grover Norquist dream about is not so far from being realized. The GOP already controls both houses of Congress. Republican judges sit on a majority of the nation's federal courts. The right commands a network of think tanks, publications and Beltway lobbyists whose zeal, dedication and resources have no parallel on the left these days.
Yet, as liberals discovered in the 1960s, success can breed arrogance, blinding leaders to problems until it is too late. Back in 1969 Kevin Phillips famously predicted that a Republican majority was emerging on the heels of the growing backlash against a liberalism that had grown fat and arrogant, and that had come to be associated with grandiose policy initiatives that, in Vietnam as on the home front, came crashing up against reality. Today, at the very moment when Republicans seem more powerful than ever, Phillips sees the potential for history to repeat itself.
"Any ideology that enjoys success first fulfills itself and then indulges in some hubris," he says. "I found this to apply very nicely to '60s liberalism, and now I think it's happening again. There's been a drift toward extreme policy on the right in taxes, in the environment, in letting the lobbyists and contributors dictate things behind the scene. You had a movement toward the extreme with Iraq, with the religious right--it's kind of across the board."
Is the Bush Administration's agenda conservative, then? "I would say we're at a point where much of the conservative policy framework has been radicalized to an extent that I'm not sure what it should be called."