Conservatives can overdo the Bush-bashing thing too

I missed this piece by Dartmouth professor emeritus Jeffrey Hart when it appeared in the Washington Monthly late last year. Professor Hart’s thesis is that President Bush is the antithesis of a conservative because he “has taken the positions of an unshakable ideologue: on supply-side economics, on privatization, on Social Security, on the Terri Schiavo case and most disastrously, on Iraq.”
While I don’t consider Bush a true conservative either, the matter is far more complex than Hart allows. Ronald Reagan, for whom Hart wrote speeches, took unshakable positions too. He was a supply-sider, as well as an unshakable anti-Communist. His ideology caused him to flout Congress and seek to overthrow a Central American government. Yet Hart identifies Reagan as conservative because he “recognized the world as it is.” In doing so, Hart does Reagan a disservice — Reagan’s signature accomplishments stemmed from his unwillingness to accept facts on the ground and in his resulting transformative role. Hart’s construct also runs into trouble when he praises FDR as someone who responded to the world as it is. Does this mean that Roosevelt, who radically increased the power of the state over the economy, is a conservative too?
Richard Nixon, for whom Hart also wrote speeches, was the quintessential non-ideologue. Nixon’s pragmatism led him to impose wage and price controls on the economy and to introduce the imposition by the government of racial quotas. These were radical, not conservative programs. An ideological bent would have caused Nixon to shun them.
Hart is also wrong in claiming that Bush’s beliefs are unshakable. They changed dramatically on 9/11, as Hart concedes in his first paragraph. They have also shifted during the second administration (in fairness to Hart some of the key changes occurred after his article went to press, but the general trend was already visible at that point). Bush has fired Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and set out on a new course in Iraq. He has agreed to talks involving Iran and Syria, which the administration previously rejected out of hand. He has become significantly more “pragmatic” in terms of his willingness to pressure Israel to grant concessions to Palestinian interests. He has stopped pushing for social security reform, one of the issues Hart listed as evidence of Bush’s intractability.
Hart argues, however, that Bush’s beliefs are “disonnected from reality.” Unless Hart is careful, this can become just another way of saying that he disagrees with Bush on the merits of various policies? That’s not much of a working definition of conservatism.
Hart tries to be careful. He focuses on two strands of Bush’s thinking that he considers especially disconnected from reality. The first is Bush’s religious beliefs. They produce in Bush a set of moral beliefs that have informed some of his positions — e.g. what types of stem cell research to fund federally and whether to sign a bill passed by Congress to give Terry Schiavo access to federal courts (as I recall the issue). They have not caused him to anything much with respect to the issues of abortion and gay marriage. In any event, it is far from clear that possessing, and sometimes acting consistently with, moral beliefs based on religious principles is antithetical to being a conservative.
Hart’s other example of Bush’s alleged disconnect from reality is Iraq. Hart doesn’t appear to contend that it was inherently non-conservative to invade an extremely hostile country thought to have WMD in the aftermath of 9/11. Nearly everyone who answers to the term “conservative” favored doing so at the time. Instead, Hart asserts that the evidence pertaining to whether Iraq had WMD was “twisted to fit preconceived notions,” a non-conservative thing to do. But Hart presents no evidence for this accusation. All major European intelligence services, including France’s, shared our belief that Iraq had WMD. Was France, which bitterly opposed the invasion and had significant economic dealings with Saddam, twisting the evidence?
Finally, Hart finds it non-conservative of Bush to believe that human nature is such that “freedom and democracy will always and everywhere have greater appeal than the slogans of hatred and the tactics of terror.” But is this view fundamentally different than Reagan’s confidence that the human preference for freedom would bring down the Soviet Union’s evil empire? A distinction could be drawn if Bush were invading countries or toppling regimes indiscriminately in the name of freedom and democracy, but Bush hasn’t been doing that. Under Bush we have invaded one country because the administration (and almost everyone else) thought it posed a threat to our security. Bush has left the rest of the world free to choose its own forms of government, his audacity extending not much further than suggesting they give democracy a try. That doesn’t sound radical to me.
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