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.

In September 1999, amid a heated debate over the earned-income tax credit, Bush spoke out against the congressional GOP's efforts to defer paying the income reimbursement. "I don't think they ought to balance their budget on the backs of the poor," he argued, adding, "I think we ought to make the tax code such that it's easier for people to move from near poverty to the middle class." A few weeks later, in a speech in New York City, he went further: "Too often," Bush argued, "my party has confused the need for limited government with a disdain for government itself. . . . There are human problems that persist in the shadow of affluence."

This earned Bush a great deal of criticism. Gary Bauer, then running for president, called the "backs of the poor" statement "a classic Ted Kennedy, Barney Frank, Democratic National Committee line." Rush Limbaugh suggested that Bush had left D.C. Republicans "dying on the congressional battlefield." Paul Weyrich described Bush, with obvious venom, as a "moderate politician."

But Bush's message resonated with the public in a way that his critics' arguments didn't. For thirty years, the Democrats have struggled to move beyond the self-marginalizing tendencies of their base; in the late 1990s, the Republicans often seemed in danger of falling into the same trap, becoming the party of prudery, don't-tread-on-me nationalism, and an angry antigovernment message that some thought partook more of Ruby Ridge than Reagan. In leading the GOP out of this snare, Bush returned to the animating insight of the post-Goldwater Republican party: The right can only succeed if it champions a politics of solidarity as well as a politics of liberty.

The GOP's path to power took shape when Richard Nixon associated conservatives with the "silent majority" of Americans, bound together not only by a desire for less government, but also by class, culture, family, and faith. Reagan expanded the Nixon majority, not by promising to cut government spending to the bone, but by pledging to make it work for the common good again, rather than for the interest groups and bureaucrats of the Great Society. "It is not my intention to do away with government," Reagan announced in a passage from his First Inaugural that many conservatives seem to have forgotten. "It is, rather, to make it work. . . . Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it."

This was the same promise, reinvented for a new century, that won Bush the presidency in 2000. His message aimed to consolidate working-class support for the GOP, through initiatives aimed at building wealth and an emphasis on reforming education, the issue at the core of blue-collar struggles in a globalized world. At the same time, on size-of-government questions, as Jonathan Rauch argued in 2003, Bush attempted an end-run around the roadblocks that had stopped Gingrich and Reagan's government-cutting crusades in their tracks. Rather than target the "supply-side" of government, or the amount of government spending, Bush's focus was on the "demand-side," or the need for government services. Personal accounts carved out of Social Security would build wealth and reduce reliance on government checks. Dividend tax cuts would reward a growing "investor class" while helping to build a self-sufficient "ownership society" in which the goods of American life were widely dispersed. Marriage promotion would foster stable families and diminish demand for welfare services.

All these ideas, of course, would mean more government spending (or larger deficits) in the short term. But their appeal was crucial to Bush's political success, and the expansion of the GOP majority that followed. Any post-Bush reckoning needs to begin with this reality--and with the acknowledgment that the president's spending heterodoxies saved the GOP from slipping back into minority status.

Bush's conservative critics often admit that his deviations from the small-government line bought him a temporary majority. But they insist he has sowed conservative disaffection that will leave the party worse off than when he found it. "It is largely the defection of conservatives that is driving the president's poll numbers to new lows," Richard Viguerie argued recently. The "opportunism" of compassionate conservatism, Andrew Busch suggested in a recent issue of the Claremont Review of Books, "will bring its own punishment. Indeed, it is already doing so."

No doubt there is conservative disaffection today. But it failed to manifest itself during Bush's first five years in office, when he was no less of a spender than he is now. If conservative voters have turned against their president, it's because of his perceived incompetence--over Iraq and Katrina--and his support for immigration reform, not No Child Left Behind or the prescription drug entitlement. Indeed, if there's any lesson to take from Bush's sky-high popularity among conservatives for most of his presidency, it's that the movement's rank and file cares far less about government-cutting than its activists do.

Or perhaps the rank and file just have longer memories. After all, Ronald Reagan, the man whose legacy Bush has supposedly betrayed, presided over a federal government that consumed 23.5 percent of GDP in 1984. Granted, this was at the height of the Cold War defense build-up, yet the figure far surpasses spending under President Clinton, which reached a low of 18 percent of GDP in 2001. Under Bush, spending has inched over 20 percent of GDP, a definite increase from the era of the "peace dividend." But spending is still far from Reagan-era levels. And the post-9/11 defense buildup (defense spending has increased by roughly 40 percent over 2001 levels, to nearly half a trillion dollars) accounts for the bulk of the increased spending. When you factor out spending on homeland security, domestic discretionary spending has barely budged under Bush.

None of this is to say that conservatives should be happy about Bush's spending choices. But it is to say that the president's domestic policy is in shambles not because he duped small-government conservatives into voting for big government, but because he hasn't delivered on the kind of big-government reforms he promised during the 2000 and 2004 campaigns. His administration has gone astray not because it has spent too much money, but because it has spent money badly.

This is a point that small-government conservatives sometimes seem to recognize. In Getting America Right: The True Conservative Values Our Nation Needs Today, Edwin J. Feulner and Doug Wilson--the president of the Heritage Foundation and the chairman of three successful conservative reforms: the Homestead Act, the G.I. Bill, and the 1996 welfare reforms. All three, they argue, are examples of legislation that aims to "promote self-reliance" and make Americans "strong, independent, and useful to themselves." This is the tradition with which Bush has associated himself: a conservatism that allows room for spending increases, so long as they are channeled toward government programs that, in the words of Ronald Reagan's first Inaugural Address, "work with us, not over us," and that "stand by our side, not ride on our back."

Where does this recognition leave us? Because Social Security reform promised so much--including a first step toward coping with the looming entitlement crisis--its defeat has been the signal domestic policy failure of the Bush administration, and it's there that the conservative critique of this presidency should begin. The Bush years have represented the best opportunity to think seriously about the design of the welfare state, to seize the initiative from its liberal architects, and to find new ways to deliver essential services while building, rather than degrading, the capacity for self-reliance.

That opportunity has been squandered. And while the blame lies largely with President Bush, it also lies with a conservative movement that seems unwilling to tailor its thinking to the scope of the challenges ahead.

Ross Douthat, an associate editor at the Atlantic Monthly, and Reihan Salam, a writer in Washington, are at work on a book on the future of the GOP.