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The Pledge

A pragmatist president attempts to fulfill his promise to appoint non-pragmatic Supreme Court justices.

11:00 PM, Oct 30, 2005 • By PAUL MIRENGOFF
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WHEN PRESIDENT BUSH nominated Harriet Miers, conservatives who balked at her lack of conservative credentials were assured by some that they should infer Miers's conservatism from the president's confidence in her. The skeptics generally responded with the maxim "trust but verify," and suggested that Bush, a non-lawyer, might not be able to discern the absence of a strong conservative judicial philosophy.

Some (most notably the lawyer and blogger Patrick Frey) went so far as to question whether Bush himself holds a strong conservative philosophy when it comes to domestic issues. Much of the president's domestic policy suggests that he is a pragmatist who, though possessing some conservative instincts, tends to put results ahead of conservative principles: Rarely are conservative principles absent from the president's domestic policy, but often they take a back-seat to short-term problem-solving.

Consider the president's recent proposal to rebuild the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The problem was how to alleviate suffering and repair vast damage. Bush's solution was a super-expensive, super-intrusive federal program. But within that framework, the president offered a number of conservative approaches--enterprise zones, tax incentives, private accounts, and the like.

Similarly, when the president went into problem-solving mode with respect to healthcare, he served up a massive federal prescription-drug entitlement program, but with free-market principles built into it. And when he wanted to improve public education, he engaged in a federal power grab, the No Child Left Behind program, but did so in the name of imposing standards and making schools more accountable to parents. Bush's immigration policy is more complex (that's a subject for another day), but one can detect the same sort of synthesis on this issue.

This tendency to synthesize a central tenet of liberalism--that the federal government should expand in an effort to solve problems--with certain core conservative values suggests that Bush is a proponent not of liberalism or of conservatism, but of a "third way." This label was often used during the early 1990s to describe the politics of those who supposedly eschewed both the traditional big government dogma of the left and the anti-big government dogma of conservatives. In these discussions, it was typically liberal politicians such as Tony Blair and Bill Clinton who were going the third way. In reality, though, the only synthesis they produced was between their big government dreams and the limits on their ability to achieve them.

BY CONTRAST, Bush seems genuinely to be striving for something new, and many observers (including Daniel Casse, Jonathan Rauch, and George Will) believe he has found it. They have suggested that Bush is a conservative, but of a different kind--a compassionate conservative, a big-government conservative, a strong-government conservative, an activist-conservative, or a demand-side conservative. However it might more appropriately labeled "domestic policy centrism," "pragmatism," or "third wayism," because (a) it's so different from traditional conservatism; and (b) when push comes to shove, Bush's desire to solve the problem at hand tends to take precedence over the desire to uphold conservative principles.

DOES BUSH'S APPROACH to public policy spill over into the law, making him other than a traditional conservative in this realm, as well? It did in at least one major instance which, ironically, appears to bear Harriet Miers's finger prints.