TRENCH POLITICS….Ross Douthat writes today that conservatism hasn’t accomplished much since taking over the country four years ago (or 10 years or 25 years ago depending on how you count). You know what? Despite all the griping that liberals do about George Bush, Ross is right. Here’s a quick recap of the major legislative and executive actions of Bush’s first term:

  1. No Child Left Behind

  2. Some big tax cuts

  3. Big spending increases, both in defense and nondefense spending

  4. The stem cell straddle

  5. Patriot Act

  6. Invasion of Afghanistan

  7. Sarbanes-Oxley

  8. McCain-Feingold

  9. Department of Homeland Security

  10. Invasion of Iraq

  11. Medicare prescription bill

  12. Some conservative judges

Of these, some are just plain liberal (3, 7, 8, 11), some were basically neutral or bipartisan (1, 5, 6, 9), and only a couple are clearly conservative (2, 12). Of the remaining two items, the stem cell straddle was….a straddle, and if the Iraq war is a conservative cause, it’s only because George Bush is fighting it. Outside of PNAC circles, conservatives have not exactly been baying for more foreign wars over the past decade.

So what explains this? Oddly enough, Ramesh Ponnuru inadvertantly provides the answer in his explanation of why the Medicare bill was necessary even though conservatives didn’t care for it:

Like it or not ? and I mostly dislike it ? the Medicare bill succeeded in defusing the issue. If John Kerry had been able to run ads, and pound Bush in the debates, about how the president had failed to deliver on his promises to create a prescription-drug benefit, Bush could well have lost Ohio.

Exactly. Even though expanding Medicare is a classic liberal proposal, passing it was necessary to Bush’s political survival. Why? Because for the most part, Americans are fundamentally in favor of liberal policies and goals.

This explains why Bush didn’t simply ban federal funding of all stem cell research and why his Social Security initiative failed. It’s because liberals have won the public opinion fight over both stem cells and Social Security. It also explains why he hasn’t cut spending and didn’t push very hard on the gay marriage amendment.

The fact is, conservatives haven’t won much of anything in the last 10 years except a PR triumph. Their biggest successes have been on taxes ? a Pyrrhic victory at best without corresponding spending cuts ? and in the court system, which hasn’t actually delivered much real world benefit. Plus they have a war in Iraq, for whatever that’s worth. Public opinion simply hasn’t allowed them anything more.

Conservatives since Reagan have managed to slow down the march of liberalism ? something that was probably inevitable after the 60s anyway ? but PR triumphalism aside, that’s about it. In reality, today’s politics is reminiscent of World War I: dozens of divisions squaring off for bloody and horrific battles that end up doing nothing except clawing back a few yards of territory in one direction or the other. It looks and sounds horrible, but when the smoke clears the landscape hasn’t altered much. Even the most conservative president of the past 50 years hasn’t been able to change that.

BY THE WAY: For all that I despise George Bush, this is why it’s not his ideology that bothers me the most. What’s always bothered me more is his corporate cronyism and his clueless incompetence. He hasn’t really managed to do all that much ideological damage ? and most of it can be repaired in any case ? but he has managed to screw up Iraq, screw up the future of the economy, screw up FEMA, and even screw up things like the Medicare bill, which I’d otherwise support. In the long run, those things matter a lot more than some new logging rules or the demise of New Source Review.

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