Conservative Crackup

Conservative Crackup

Bush’s lavish subsidies and reckless attempts to export democracy through the barrel of a gun violate conservative principles. Republican realists are finally catching on.


Religious conservatives and neocons furious about the nomination of Harriet Miers. Foreign policy realists blasting the Administration about Iraq. Libertarians irate about the explosion of government spending on the GOP’s watch. It’s open season on the Bush Administration, and lately some of the most heated salvos have been coming from the right. In a much discussed speech delivered in Washington recently, Lawrence Wilkerson, chief of staff at the State Department from 2001 to ’05, assailed the “Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal” that has hijacked US foreign policy, saying, “The case that I saw over four-plus years was a case I have never seen in my studies of aberrations, bastardizations, perturbations, changes to the national security decision-making process.” In the latest New Yorker former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft is no less damning, saying of Iraq, “This was said to be part of the war on terror, but Iraq feeds terrorism.”

Such comments would likely have been dismissed as treasonous by conservative pundits and right-wing bloggers a year ago, but the collapse of public support for the war coupled with George W. Bush’s plummeting approval ratings have prompted a very different reaction today. “I think that people in Congress and the Senate, especially those up for re-election, are looking very carefully at the polls and trying to determine where the tide goes,” says Scott McConnell, an editor at The American Conservative, a publication that has featured hard-hitting criticism of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy from both realist and isolationist perspectives. McConnell himself is waiting to see whether the toxicity of Bush on issues like Iraq has reached the point that Republicans will have no choice but to distance themselves from the White House next year. “I don’t think they’re at the point where they’ve decided that Bush/Rove/Iraq is a decisive liability,” he says, “but they are thinking about it every day.”

Whatever the fallout, it is clear that the Administration’s incompetence and detachment from reality, displayed so starkly after Hurricane Katrina, and its scheming, Nixonian governing style have reached the tipping point, to the extent that even people inclined to look favorably on the White House find it difficult to deny what they see. “Sometimes in my dark moments, I think he’s ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ designed to discredit all the ideas I believe in,” joked columnist David Brooks of the President recently. Of course, Brooks is among those who has decried liberal Bush-bashing, the sort now being meted out by people like former White House speechwriter David Frum and columnist George Will in response to the nomination of Miers, about whom Brooks himself wrote (upon wading through some of her published work): “I don’t know if by mere quotation I can fully convey the relentless march of vapid abstractions that mark [her] prose.”

There is, to be sure, an element of face-saving to some of this: Smart conservatives realize it might be a good idea to debark from what increasingly feels like a sinking ship. As a result, the tone of much conservative writing about Bush has lost its fawning deference and acquired an edge, even if it is true that some of the Administration’s right-wing critics, like Frum and William Kristol, still count themselves among its friends. But the mounting criticism also reflects a growing realization that the principles for which conservatism is supposed to stand–limited government, fiscal responsibility, prudence, restraint–are nowhere evident in this Administration’s record. As conservative economist and columnist Bruce Bartlett put it in a recent Washington Times editorial, “The truth is now dawning on many movement conservatives that George W. Bush is not one of them and never has been.”

Actually, as I reported a while ago, it has dawned on some people who hold conservative principles dear that Bush does not adhere to them [see Press, “Even Conservatives Are Wondering: Is Bush One of Us?” May 31, 2004]. Among them are realists who understood that exporting democracy through the barrel of a gun with little regard for history or cultural differences is messianic and radical, not conservative; deficit hawks who pointed out that cutting taxes during a war is the height of recklessness, not fiscal responsibility; and libertarians who watched in disgust as the Administration lavished subsidies on the energy, pharmaceutical, sugar and cotton industries while claiming it championed small government (a notion that in reality seems to be applied only to the poor and vulnerable). When people like former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill and former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke dared to point some of these things out, they were dismissed as traitors or closet liberals with axes to grind by the same conservative media that now make room for White House critics.

Which, in turn, made it possible for the Bush Administration to pursue an agenda that has come to be viewed as “conservative,” regardless of what some Republicans suddenly experiencing second thoughts might wish. That the C-word, conservatism, is increasingly associated with others, like “cronyism” and “corruption,” of course, might not seem to everyone to be such a bad thing.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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