The Magazine

The Buck Starts Here

George W. Bush was never a fiscal conservative.

Oct 9, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 04 • By REIHAN SALAM and ROSS DOUTHAT
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WHEN THE Washington Monthly recently asked seven conservatives to explain why they were rooting for GOP defeat this November, some of them complained about the Iraq war, some about the Bush administration's expansive view of executive power, some about the GOP's opposition to stem-cell research. But nearly all of them agreed on at least one point: If you were to boil down the domestic policy failings of the Bush years to just three words, those words might be spending, spending, and spending.

Pining for divided government, Joe Scarborough bemoaned the Republican-led "spending orgy," while Christopher Buckley lamented "six years of record deficits and profligate expansion of entitlement programs." The Cato Institute's William Niskanen accused Bush of being the "profligate" heir of Lyndon Johnson and Harry Truman's "fiscal benders." Bruce Bartlett, the author of Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy, suggested that a Republican defeat would put an end to "out-of-control government spending."

This assessment of the Bush era is shared by supply-siders and Christian conservatives; paleocons and libertarians; Phyllis Schlafly and John McCain; Dick Armey and George Will. Bush's fiscal apostasy is perhaps the only evil that Pat Buchanan and Andrew Sullivan have joined hands--rhetorically, at least--to condemn. The next Republican president, the emerging conservative consensus insists, needs to relearn the tenets of the right-wing catechism and renounce the crypto-liberal heresies of the last six years. Only then will the conservative movement return to the broad sunlit uplands it reached, fleetingly, under the leadership of Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich.

This is an appealing fantasy, in which ideological purity leads to political success, and all of Bush's domestic-policy innovations can be thrown out with the bathwater of his failures. Its version of recent history displays the neat symmetry of a morality play: Just as the Reaganite golden age was followed by Bush 41's betrayal, the story goes, so the 1994 renaissance has been undone by another Bush's abandonment of right-wing principle.

Unfortunately, believing this narrative requires a willful amnesia about the difficulties that the Republicans faced in the late 1990s, when the party eagerly turned to George W. Bush to save them from a series of setbacks and defeats. There have been many surprises associated with the Bush presidency, but his willingness to deviate from conservative orthodoxy on the role of government isn't one of them.

Consider where the GOP stood in the run-up to the 1998 midterm elections. The party was powerful but reeling. In a sense, there had never been a better time to be a conservative in America. The GOP had held Congress since 1994, when they captured both houses for the first time since 1954; a Democratic president had rung down the curtain on the era of big government; a right-of-center consensus held sway on everything from welfare and balanced budgets to free trade and out-of-wedlock births.

Yet these victories masked a developing crisis. Gingrich's push for entitlement reform had run aground, like Reagan's before it, on Democratic demagoguery and the public's unwillingness to curb spending. The conservative agenda seemed increasingly to be all stick and no carrot, and the party's leadership, from Gingrich to Dick Armey, Phil Gramm, Tom DeLay, and all the rest, played poorly on the national stage. Worse, the Republicans' congressional majority was already eroding. The GOP lost all the battleground states in the Dole-Clinton presidential race and shed congressional seats in the Rust Belt and Pacific Northwest.

Then came the '98 midterms, when Gingrich--outflanked by Clinton for the final time--assured his colleagues that they need only remind voters of the Lewinsky scandal, and that an actual policy agenda could wait. By that winter, Gingrich was in exile, the GOP majority was smaller still, and the Republican Revolution was over.

As the 2000 election approached, the GOP turned to George W. Bush, who seemed to embody all the qualities the national party so sorely needed. He was a successful governor with a reformist track record of the kind that had made Republican governors and mayors--Tommy Thompson and John Engler, Rudy Giuliani and Stephen Goldsmith--the pride of the party. He had a record of applying right-wing ideas to traditionally liberal issues like education. And not only could he speak the language of the religious right; he also seemed capable of translating this language into an ecumenical rhetoric of moral renewal that would appeal to the religious middle.

But what Bush wasn't--what he never was, in fact--was an orthodox small-government conservative.