The debate over whether President Bush is a conservative continues. Last summer, I argued that he isn’t. See here for example; as well as here and here. Recent events seem to have confirmed this assessment. However, in the new issue of Commentary (link not yet available, to my knowledge), Daniel Casse argues that Bush is a conservative, albeit “an unfamiliar kind of conservative.” And today, George Will makes basically the same claim.
Casse supports his position by arguing that Bush is using the government to uphold conservative substantive goals. This means trading off the traditional conservative “process” goal of limited government to promote higher conservative ideals such as choice and accountability (as I noted last summer, this sounds like a variation of the old “Hamiltionian means for Jeffersonian ends” slogan, that was used to justify the New Deal). Will makes the same point using slightly different jargon. He calls Bush a “strong government conservative,” which, unlike the term “big government conservative,” he finds not to be an oxymoron.
These arguments continue to strike me as unconvincing. Indeed, from the face of what Casse is saying, it seems apparent that Bush is synthesizing a central tenet of liberalism — that the federal government should expand and try to solve problems that formerly were dealt with privately or by local governments — with certain conservative values. If this is true, then it’s more honest (as long as the old-fashioned conservativism survives ) to call the new approach “centrist” or “moderate” or “third-way.” Will may be correct to say that Bush’s policies are not a surrender to the liberal agenda (which is racing leftward at a pace Bush couldn’t keep up with if he wanted to). But they nonetheless constitute a compromise with that agenda.
This becomes even more apparent when one starts talking about specific policies. If the federal government took over public education completely and instituted required courses in personal responsibility, this would satisfy the Casse test for conservativism — big government promoting a conservative value. But surely no one would call this step is conservative. How, then, is it conservative to increase the NEA’s budget while redirecting the NEA’s efforts on behalf of the arts towards more “conservative” art forms, such as Shakespeare and opera? How is it conservative to support, as Bush did, university admissions programs that achieve pre-ordained racial objectives by automatically admitting those who finish in the top ten percent of their high school classes (thereby relying on the existence of many mostly black high schools to achieve a certain level of minority admissions)? This approach is consistent with the conservative goal of rewarding effort and achievement, but surely no one thinks that such manipulation for racial purposes is conservative. The same is true, I would have thought, of creating a massive new federal prescription drug entitlement program that builds in some free market principles.
Will’s “big government” vs “strong government” distinction fares no better, as applied to many of Bush’s actions and proposals. Measures cited by Will such as providing information to parents about how public schools are performing in relation to certain standards, or allowing people to direct the investment of their social security funds, or setting up medical savings plans can be viewed as conservative wrinkles within the context of the existing welfare state. But these measures don’t really make government appreciably bigger, stronger or more intrusive, and they aren’t the measures that have most conservatives concerned. What bothers most conservtives are things like creating the new prescription drug coverage entitlement for seniors, or increasing the government’s involvement in the arts, or trying to come up with more creative ways of achieving racial balance at our universities. These ideas don’t make government stronger except to the extent that they make it bigger, or at least more intrusive.
Will justifies Bush’s “strong government” agenda as a coming to terms with the political reality that most Americans are defenders of the welfare state when they vote. But the fact that Americans do not want the welfare state dismantled does not mean that they demand new entitlements, especially in a time of growing deficits. Until the Bush prescription drug entitlement, nothing of this size or scope had been enacted in decades. The Democrats howled about the absence of new entitlements in every election, but to no significant effect. The Gingrich revolution cited by Will failed to roll back the power of the federal government very much, but the Republicans remained the majority party in Congress and regained the White House without re-inventing themselves as “unfamiliar kinds of conservatives.” In any case, there is certainly no clamor for the development of more creative forms of racial discrimination — polls show that the public is against all forms of race-based admissions — and none that I’m aware of for more NEA funding. Finally, the Democrats aren’t applying any real pressure on the Republicans to abandon traditional conservative approaches. The “centrist” elements in that party have been routed. If Clintonism were still ascendant among Democrats, the argument that Republicans need to moderate would be stronger (although it would still be wrong to call such moderation “conservative”). But with the Democrats as they are, any political motive for Bush to abandon or re-invent conservatism stems from opportunism, not necessity.
But I don’t think Bush is an opportunist. I just think he’s a non-conservative.
UPDATE by BIG TRUNK: Click here to link to Daniel Casse’s article (in PDF) in the February Commentary.
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