The Failure of Conservatism

THE FAILURE OF CONSERVATISM….One of the favorite games in conservative pundit-land these days is to weep sadly over the shocking discovery that George Bush has turned out not to be a real conservative. This is hardly a surprise. After all, even conservatives mostly acknowledge that Bush’s tenure has been a disaster, and the only way to avoid the conclusion that conservatism itself is at fault is to throw Bush overboard instead.

In the Washington Monthly’s cover story this month, “Why Conservatives Can’t Govern,” Alan Wolfe argues that this is a crock:

Conservative dissidents seem to have done an admirable job of persuading each other of the truth of their claims. Of course, many of these dissidents extolled the president’s conservative leadership when he was riding high in the polls. But the real flaw in their argument is akin to that of Trotskyites who, when confronted with the failures of communism in Cuba, China and the Soviet Union, would claim that real communism had never been tried. If leaders consistently depart in disastrous ways from their underlying political ideology, there comes a point where one has to stop just blaming the leaders and start questioning the ideology.

….If government is necessary, bad government, at least for conservatives, is inevitable, and conservatives have been exceptionally good at showing just how bad it can be. Hence the truth revealed by the Bush years: Bad government ? indeed, bloated, inefficient, corrupt, and unfair government ? is the only kind of conservative government there is. Conservatives cannot govern well for the same reason that vegetarians cannot prepare a world-class boeuf bourguignon: If you believe that what you are called upon to do is wrong, you are not likely to do it very well.

Of course, it goes beyond this. As Wolfe points out, Americans like big government that actually solves real-life problems, and that puts a firm ceiling on just how conservative you can be and still get elected. George Bush, who got reelected by the smallest margin in the past century despite a decent economy and the tailwind of 9/11, has shown almost precisely where that limit is.

It’s true that Bush has been almost uniquely incompetent among modern presidents. But the real failure of the Bush years is a fundamental failure of ideology. For the first time since 1932, conservatives have controlled every branch of government. They had a chance to show they had a real governing ideology, and it turned out they didn’t.

So: Are George Bush and Tom DeLay and Bill Frist real conservatives? Of course they are. They’ve failed because of that, not despite it.

For other takes on this theme, see my review of Bruce Bartlett’s Impostor here and Jon Chait’s takedown of conservative apostacy here.