Is President Bush an accidental radical?

In this article from the National Journal (courtesy of Real Clear Politics) Jonathan Rauch offers perhaps the most thought-provoking analysis of the Bush presidency I have seen. The thesis of Rauch’s lengthy piece is contained in this passage”
“George W. Bush has been compared to a number of other presidents, such as Ronald Reagan, Harry Truman, and even William McKinley. It may say something, however, that at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner earlier this year, when National Journal’s Carl Cannon brought up the topic of former presidents, Bush expressed singular admiration for FDR. “He was a strong wartime leader, and a very strong commander-in-chief,” Bush remarked. Had he pursued the subject, Bush might have found further parallels. Not the least is that Bush, like Roosevelt, is an accidental radical. He is an amiable establishmentarian who finds himself with the opportunity to effect transformational change, and who is seizing that opportunity and pushing the system to its limits. Or beyond. Suppose, as seems quite possible, that Bush will sign a Medicare prescription drug benefit into law before the year is out. Then suppose, as a thought experiment, that Bush’s presidency were to end next January, on the third anniversary of his inaugural. Bush would have done enough in three years to make an ambitious two-term president happy.”
In support of this thesis, Rauch points to two major tax cuts, significant spending increases, increased federal involvement in education, sweeping and centralizing reform of government through the establishment of the Homeland Security Department, (probably) a prescription drug bill that will bring about a massive expansion of the welfare state, the formulation of the doctrine of pre-emptive attack, the implementation of that doctrine in the Iraq war, and the push for a Palestinian state conditioned on Palestinian democratization.
Rauch suggests that Bush is a “demand-side conservative.” In other words, Bush hopes to reduce the influence of government by reducing the demand for it. “If one way to give people more choices is to shrink government, fine. But if another way is to reform government — also fine. And if he needs to expand government to deliver more choices — well, he can live with that. For Bush, individual responsibility and Big Government are not necessarily opposed to each other, any more than global stability and regime change are necessarily opposites. Moreover, small-government conservatism was root-canal politics, but the new approach is a political winner. If you spend more money, people like you. If you give them more choices, they like you. But if you spend more money giving them more choices, they really like you. . . .Many of these initiatives will make the federal government bigger or stronger, but, for Bush, that is beside the point, which is to change government’s structure, not its size. The question is not how much government spends; it’s how government spends. Conservatives have been obsessed with reducing the supply of government when instead they should reduce the demand for it; and the way to do that is by repudiating the Washington-knows-best legacy of the New Deal. Republicans will empower the people, and the people will empower Republicans. . . .Conservatives believe that today they are the ones who stand for progressive change, in the face of ‘reactionary liberalism,’ but they have never been able to convince the public. That is what Bush seeks to do, both by rejecting the mantra of minimal government and by passing reform after reform. Never mind how you feel about any one of his initiatives; as a group, they seek to establish that it is Republicans who now stand for the idea that the old ways will not work. If the Democrats dig in their heels and fall back on stale rants against greed, inequality, and privatization, so much the better. The voters will know whom to thank for the empowering choices that Republicans intend to give them.”
The last part of Rauch’s article suggests that Bush is pushing too hard and, like other presidents with notable first term accomplishments (Jefferson, Wilson, LBJ), his second term may end badly. But Rauch insists that “the point of this article is not to predict failure for George W. Bush, much less to wish it. The point is to dramatize the stakes he is playing for. He is risking his presidency, his nation’s fiscal and geopolitical strength, and the conservative movement. If he wins, he is FDR. If he loses, he is LBJ.”


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