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Big-Government Conservatism

From the August 15, 2003 Wall Street Journal: How George W. Bush squares the fiscally expansive / conservative circle.

12:00 AM, Aug 18, 2003 • By FRED BARNES
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IS PRESIDENT BUSH really a conservative? When that question came up this summer, the White House went into crisis mode. Bush aides summoned several of Washington's conservative journalists to a 6:30 a.m. breakfast at the White House to press the case for the president's adherence to conservative principles. Aides outnumbered journalists. Other conservative writers and broadcasters were invited to luncheon sessions. They heard a similar spiel.

The White House needn't have bothered. The case for Bush's conservatism is strong. Sure, some conservatives are upset because he has tolerated a surge in federal spending, downplayed swollen deficits, failed to use his veto, created a vast Department of Homeland Security, and fashioned an alliance of sorts with Teddy Kennedy on education and Medicare. But the real gripe is that Bush isn't their kind of conventional conservative. Rather, he's a big government conservative. This isn't a description he or other prominent conservatives willingly embrace. It makes them sound as if they aren't conservatives at all. But they are. They simply believe in using what would normally be seen as liberal means--activist government--for conservative ends. And they're willing to spend more and increase the size of government in the process.

Being a big government conservative doesn't bring Bush close to being a moderate, much less a liberal. On most issues, his position is standard conservative: a pro-lifer who expects to sign a ban on partial birth abortion, he's against stem-cell research and gun control, and has drawn the line at gay marriage. His judicial nominees are so uniformly conservative that liberals are furious.

On taxes, Bush is a supply-sider. He's gotten large tax cuts that would have slashed even deeper if a few moderate Republicans hadn't balked. His interventionist foreign policy has near unanimous support among conservatives. His backing of tough internal measures against potential terrorists has riled civil libertarians but pleased most conservatives.

Yet conservative critics insist Bush is no Ronald Reagan--and they're right. Reagan was the leader of the conservative movement before he entered the White House. In his initial years as president, he cut taxes as boldly as Bush and curbed domestic spending. But Reagan was a small government conservative who declared in his inauguration address that government was the problem, not the solution. There, Bush begs to differ.

The essence of Bush's big government conservatism is a trade-off. To gain free-market reforms and expand individual choice, he's willing to broaden programs and increase spending. Thus his aim in proposing to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare is to reform the entire health-care system for seniors. True, the drug benefit would be the biggest new entitlement in 40 years. But if paired with reforms that lure seniors away from Medicare and into private health insurance, Bush sees the benefit as an affordable (and very popular) price to pay. Bush earlier wanted to go further, requiring seniors to switch to private health insurance to be eligible for the drug benefit. He dropped the requirement when queasy congressional Republicans balked. Now it's uncertain whether Congress will pass a Medicare bill with sufficient market incentives to justify Bush's approval. Should he sign a measure without significant reforms, he won't be acting as a big government conservative.

On education, Bush and Kennedy joined to pass the No Child Left Behind Act. Its only real reform was a mandate for states to test student achievement on the basis of federal standards. Many conservatives, including some on the president's staff, felt this wasn't sufficient reform to warrant boosting the federal share of education spending. Still, Kennedy and other liberals aren't happy either. They'd expected even more spending.

When I coined the phrase "big government conservative" years ago, I had certain traits in mind. Bush has all of them. First, he's realistic. He understands why Reagan failed to reduce the size of the federal government and why Newt Gingrich and the GOP revolutionaries failed as well. The reason: People like big government so long as it's not a huge drag on the economy. So Bush abandoned the all-but-hopeless fight that Reagan and conservatives on Capitol Hill had waged to jettison the Department of Education. Instead, he's opted to infuse the department with conservative goals.

A second trait is a programmatic bent. Big government conservatives prefer to be in favor of things because that puts them on the political offensive. Promoting spending cuts/minimalist government doesn't do that. Bush has famously defined himself as a compassionate conservative with a positive agenda. Almost by definition, this makes him a big government conservative. His most ambitious program is his faith-based initiative. It would use government funds to expand social programs run by religious organizations. Many of them have been effective in fighting drug/alcohol addiction and helping lift people out of poverty. So far, the initiative has had only a small impact, its scope limited by Congress.

Another trait is a far more benign view of government than traditional conservatives have. Big government conservatives are favorably disposed toward what neoconservative Irving Kristol has called a "conservative welfare state." (Neocons tend to be big government conservatives.) This means they support transfer payments that have a neutral or beneficial effect (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid) and oppose those that subsidize bad behavior (welfare). Bush wants to reform Social Security and Medicare but not shrink either.

Bush has never put a name on his political philosophy, though he once joked that it was based on the premise that you could fool some of the people all of the time and he intended to concentrate on those people. An aide characterized Bushism as "an activist, reforming conservatism that recognizes it's sometimes necessary to use the power of the government to change the status quo." I doubt that Bush would put it that way, but at least it distinguishes him from the ordinary run of conservatives. He's a different breed.

Fred Barnes is the executive editor of The Weekly Standard.