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.
Interviews with an array of conservative thinkers and policy-makers reveal a rising disquiet on these matters among people who have spent most of their lives proudly identifying with the Republican Party and the philosophy for which they’ve long assumed it stood. At the root of their discomfort is a feeling not that the Bush Administration is too conservative but that it has forsaken the guiding principles of conservatism–prudence, caution, restraint–to pursue an agenda that is messianic and radical. To these dissenters, it is an agenda that seems less a fulfillment of classic conservative principles than an exercise in hubris reminiscent of the ideological excesses of another era, the 1960s, only with the shoe on the other party’s foot.
Reaganites, or Trotskyists?
Nothing has stirred up such feelings more than the war in Iraq, and the neoconservative foreign policy vision of which the war is an expression.
To hear neoconservatives tell it, the Bush Administration’s crusade against terrorism is the logical extension of the muscular, moralizing foreign policy that Ronald Reagan deployed to defeat the “evil empire” in the 1980s. In 1996 William Kristol and Robert Kagan co-wrote an article in Foreign Affairs calling for a “Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy” for the post-cold war world, a vision subsequently embraced by the Project for a New American Century and prominent neocons like Richard Perle.
But is neoconservatism simply Reaganism adapted to changing times? According to Stefan Halper, who served in the Reagan Administration, and Jonathan Clarke, a fellow at the Cato Institute, it is nothing of the sort. In the April 2004 issue of The American Spectator, Halper and Clarke argue that, contrary to the gunslinging figure neoconservatives invoke, Reagan was a conservative internationalist who structured his foreign policy around containment and diplomacy, an approach many neoconservatives dismissed as feckless at the time. (In 1981, for example, Reagan resisted pleas from hard-liners to place an economic embargo on Poland after Warsaw cracked down on the Solidarity movement, a decision characterized by the neoconservative Norman Podhoretz as “following a strategy of helping the Soviet Union stabilize its empire.”)
Of course, Reagan also pursued his share of aggressive actions, such as arming the Nicaraguan contras and invading Grenada, that neoconservatives cheered. But as Halper noted in an interview, Reagan balanced aggression with diplomacy, engaging in extensive arms control negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev. “The neocons edit history to extract and emphasize Reagan’s moral purpose, which he certainly had,” maintains Halper, “while ignoring the nuanced, multidimensional Reagan who found diplomatic solutions through pragmatic approaches–who had many arrows in his policy quiver, not just the arrow of military action.”
It’s notable that Halper and Clarke’s essay appears in The American Spectator, which, like most conservative publications, tends to support GOP foreign policy. If the editors there are experiencing second thoughts, they are not alone. National Review, which enthusiastically supported the Iraq war, recently published an editorial, “An End to Illusion,” that criticized the Bush Administration for its “underestimation…of the difficulty of implanting democracy in alien soil.” It’s a view that conservative columnist George Will has also voiced. “This administration cannot be trusted to govern if it cannot be counted on to think and, having thought, to have second thoughts,” wrote Will in a scathing recent column on Iraq. To these critics, the spirit behind the Iraq venture is not conservative but “Wilsonian,” a crusading internationalism inflected by overweening faith in military force.
All of which sounds familiar to Scott McConnell. The executive editor of The American Conservative, McConnell is a former neoconservative who broke ranks in the 1990s, when publications like The Weekly Standard were clamoring for a more belligerent US stance toward China, Iraq and Yugoslavia. This was a time when many liberals were calling for humanitarian intervention in places like Bosnia and Rwanda. The two strands converged, McConnell notes, in the peculiar alliance that formed over Iraq. “Actually, the neocons were originally liberal hawks,” he says. “When I first became a neocon I was a registered Democrat.” Prestowitz, author of the recent book Rogue Nation, echoes this. Today’s neocons are not conservatives, he told me, but “right-wing Trotskyists” who are every bit as determined as their counterparts on the left once were about revolutionizing the world. Clarke and Halper call them “Wilsonians with guns.”
Conservatives alienated from this expansive vision do not fall into a single ideological camp. Some, like Pat Buchanan, one of the founders of The American Conservative, are nationalists who, like the isolationist old right of the pre-cold war era, combine skepticism about foreign entanglements with opposition to immigration and free trade; others, like McConnell and John Mearsheimer, a professor of international relations at the University of Chicago, are realists who favor a hardheaded approach rooted in pragmatic rather than utopian considerations.
In October of last year, Mearsheimer, Ted Galen Carpenter of the Cato Institute and others came together to form the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, an organization that opposes “the move toward empire” in favor of a “restrained and focused foreign policy.” Mearsheimer acknowledges that some elements of the Bush doctrine–the faith in military force, the suspicion of multilateral institutions–have deep roots within certain segments of the American right. But in the past, he argues, Republicans have hewed more to the sort of realism articulated in 2002 by Brent Scowcroft, who warned that attacking Iraq would create “an explosion of outrage against us” and likely require “a large-scale, long-term military occupation.”
Neoconservatives are well aware that events on the ground have lent credibility to such views, which is perhaps why the editors of The Weekly Standard recently felt compelled to publish an article about the need to resist “the realist temptation”–i.e., diplomacy and engagement–vis-à-vis Iran. The problem for the neocons is that many conservatives realize that imperialist ventures don’t come cheap; implanting “freedom and democracy” on foreign soil requires just the sort of “big government” they are supposed to be against. As Leon Hadar of Cato observes, “A conservative administration is now suggesting that all you need is, yes, government–a few days and nights of aerial bombing, 140,000 US troops, bureaucrats with good intentions and economic aid from Washington–and, voilà! we have ‘nation building.'” Halper and Clarke note the irony of the Wall Street Journal‘s “waxing enthusiastic about using taxpayer money for electricity and water services in Iraq,” a spectacle that horrifies other conservatives. “Many traditional, mainstream Republicans see America’s most vital juices being expended in Iraq,” says Halper. “They see an outflow of tax dollars and think of all the local services they will not have, all the unfunded state requirements, all of that not happening, and they worry about very large deficits saddling their children with debt.”
‘Deficits Don’t Matter’
Well, at least some are worrying. When it comes to deficits, the architects of the Bush Administration’s economic agenda have largely averted their eyes from a problem conservatives are supposed to care about. Recall how, a decade ago, Newt Gingrich and Republican members of the 104th Congress pledged, in the Contract With America, to pass a series of bills that would restore citizens’ faith in their leaders. Topping the list was “The Fiscal Responsibility Act: A balanced budget/tax limitation amendment and a legislative line-item veto to restore fiscal responsibility to an out-of-control Congress.”
By 2003, the party that spent the Clinton years singing this tune had turned a projected surplus of $5.6 trillion into a projected deficit of $4 trillion–in two years. As the London Financial Times observed after Bush’s second round of tax cuts was passed, this was not conservatism but madness. “On the management of fiscal policy, the lunatics are now in charge of the asylum,” the paper commented. “Reason cuts no ice; economic theory is dismissed; and contrary evidence is ignored. But watching the world’s economic superpower slowly destroy perhaps the world’s most enviable fiscal position is something to behold.”
In this regard, at least, the Bush Administration can legitimately claim to be the heirs of Ronald Reagan, whose own supply-side policies led to the crippling deficits of the 1980s. But as Charles Kolb, a Republican who served in the Reagan Administration and as deputy assistant to the first President Bush for domestic policy, noted in an interview, many fiscal conservatives view the circumstances today–with a record number of Americans about to retire and the nation at war–as different. Testifying recently before Congress, Kolb pointed out that, at current trends, government debt will rise to 69 percent of the economy in 2020 and 250 percent in 2040–a level typically associated with developing nations on the verge of bankruptcy.
Kolb’s concerns are echoed by Peter Peterson, chairman of the Blackstone Group and Commerce Secretary under Richard Nixon. A graduate of the University of Chicago and a devotee of Milton Friedman, Peterson views Bush’s measures not as tax cuts but “deferred tax increases on our children and grandchildren,” since at some point future generations will have to foot the bill for the gifts now being lavished on the wealthy. “I’m rather offended that fat cats like me are getting tax cuts which over the long term will only serve to increase taxes on my own children and grandchildren at a time when our entitlement programs are underfunded,” says Peterson. Back in the 1960s, he notes, conservatives took liberals to task for their reckless fiscal policies. “LBJ got pilloried [by conservatives] for guns and butter. It’s now guns and butter and tax cuts all put together.”
Warren Rudman, the former Republican senator from New Hampshire who now co-chairs the Concord Coalition, likewise sees a role reversal under way. Watching the Republican Party drown the country in a sea of debt, and hearing Democrats like John Kerry promise to remedy the situation, Rudman says he feels like he’s watching “a version of the movie Trading Places.” It’s a reversal that has at least one group of traditional Republican backers deeply concerned. In a recent Fortune magazine survey of 1,000 CEOs, roughly half said they were “extremely or very concerned” about the ballooning deficits.
Then again, there’s no need to worry if one’s faith in supply-side economics is sufficiently strong. “This administration clearly has an unfettered belief that the more you cut taxes, the more the economy is going to grow,” says Rudman. “It’s based not on fact but on faith.” What’s odd is that many people close to the President have expressed similar skepticism in the past. It was the President’s father who famously dubbed supply-side theory “voodoo economics.” N. Gregory Mankiw, the Harvard economist who now serves as head of the Council of Economic Advisers, dismissed supply-side theory as “fad economics” peddled by “charlatans and cranks” in an academic textbook he wrote. This heretical section of the textbook has since been removed, which is not surprising when one considers the fate of people like former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, who earned the wrath of the President’s inner circle for not accepting the view that, as Dick Cheney evidently believes, “deficits don’t matter.”
“It’s shameful the way the Republican Congress has retreated [from fiscal conservatism],” Joe Scarborough, an alum from the GOP class of ’94 who now hosts MSNBC’s Scarborough Country, commented recently. “In the end, it’s all about getting re-elected, staying in power…. It’s disgusting.”
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.”