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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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."