Several weeks ago, we posted a series of pieces on the “hot” question of whether (or to what extent or in what sense) President Bush is a conservative. In this piece, Fred Barnes first reveals that this question was even hotter than we thought, it caused some serious scurrying among Bush aides earlier this summer. Then, Barnes tackles the question itself.
He argues that President Bush is a conservative, but a different kind — a big government conservative. By this Barnes means that the Bush administration believes in using liberal means — activist government — for conservative ends. As I have pointed out, the lineage of this rationale for big government does not give much cause for comfort. FDR’s New Dealers justified their big government initiatives with the phrase, “Hamiltonian means for Jeffersonian ends” (I haven’t rreally thought this through, but I think I prefer Jeffersonian means for Hamiltonian ends). And even Marx promised that, under Communism, the state would eventually “wither away.”
These comparisons are clearly unfair, though. Unlike the New Dealers (not to mention the Marxists), Bush is almost surely sincere — his goal really is an increase in personal freedom and he really does view big government as a means to that end, not the end itself. The problem is that when government expands for the purpose of eventually increasing freedom, the means (government expansion) is certain, while the end (more freedom) is anything but. Two of the three government expansion programs Barnes cites — adding the prescription drug benefit to Medicare and the No Child Left Behind education reform act — seem quite vulnerable to this objection. The third, Bush’s faith-based initiative, is the only one that strikes me as genuinely conservative. It is no coincidence that this the only program of the three that Congress can’t get behind.
Ultimately, Barnes seems to attribute Bush’s big government conservatism more to realism and a desire to be on the political offensive than to any ideological breakthrough. I think that assessment may be close to the mark. But is this just another way of saying that, for good political reasons, Bush’s mixed bag of policies isn’t very conservative?
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