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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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 Townhall.com--cite 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.