George W. Bush's record in office invites fresh consideration of a question long asked about him: Is he a conservative? Conservatives tend to agree that on the so-called social issues--abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, marriage--the president is a conservative. But on other matters there is debate.
Bush hasn't pleased conservatives who seek to limit the size and reach of the federal establishment. Under Bush, and often at his behest, the government has grown and become more expensive. Consider, for example, the federal role in education, now much enlarged thanks to Bush's No Child Left Behind legislation. Or the prescription drug benefit, so vigorously supported by Bush. It's expected to cost as much as $2 trillion over the next 20 years.
Nor has Bush pleased conservatives concerned about deficit spending, which has soared during his tenure. The most recent fiscal year ended with a deficit that in numerical (though not percentage) terms is our largest ever. There are various reasons for the large deficits, not least the war on terrorism, but Bush has yet to veto a single spending bill (or any bill, for that matter).
Of course, unlike Ronald Reagan, Bush didn't run for the presidency on a smaller-government, spend-less platform. Nor, departing from his father's path, has he made deficit reduction a top priority. To be sure, conservatives have long differed on that issue, with those less concerned about balanced budgets arguing that economic health depends less on the size of the deficit than on policies designed to stimulate growth. Such as the Bush tax-rate cuts, which many, indeed most, conservatives have supported.
It's fair to call Bush a "compassionate conservative," given his advocacy of "compassionate conservatism." He has explained it this way: "It is compassionate to actively help our fellow citizens in need" [a formulation that concedes a role for government]. "It is conservative to insist on responsibility and results."
Not surprisingly, Bush has described many of his policies as "compassionate conservatism," the leading example being the faith-based initiative, which seeks to enlist religious charities in the fight against poverty and other social ills. Strikingly, however, Bush often talks about his policies in terms of compassion only, omitting any reference to conservatism. This is true even of his foreign policies (consider those directed at famine, AIDS, and human trafficking)--and of the war in Iraq.
Consider that last year, upon telling a Connecticut audience that the United States had liberated an innocent people oppressed by a barbaric regime, Bush said: "We're compassionate. We care deeply about our fellow citizens in this world." Such a statement invites the obvious question of how we can indeed care for everyone on the planet (though it is a certainty that Bush believes we can). His unqualified embrace of compassion can leave a conservative listener wanting a dose of conservatism, since it would provide limits to what otherwise might become a limitless pursuit--whether overseas or here at home.
Consider that Bush has also said: "There is no question that we can rid [America] of hopelessness and despair." A compassionate liberal could equally say that while proposing new and costly government programs (another Great Society?) to achieve those ends.
Before the Republican Convention this week, Bush is likely to talk about compassion once again. But if you're inclined to assess his conservatism, you'll listen closely for nuance, for reference to limiting principles, for discussion of "responsibility and results."
You'll listen, too, for amplification of a theme Bush has already sounded: That the election offers a choice between "two visions of government"--one that "encourages ownership and opportunity" and one that "takes your money and makes your choices." In other words, a choice between (paradoxically) the use of government to free individuals from dependence upon government--or its use to increase that dependence. If Bush pursues this theme, and if he is reelected, he'll have the chance to redefine the meaning of conservative governance.
Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard. This column first appeared in the Dallas Morning-News.