Why Conservatives Hate Bush

If I were a Bush administration insider, I’d be scrambling right now to get my book contract. No path leads more surely to critical acclaim these days than the White House confessional. What the insiders are trafficking in, however, isn’t the usual gossip about infighting or turf wars but a matter of considerably greater importance: the president’s alleged ideological apostasy. President Bush, a fleet of his former enthusiasts now insist, is no conservative.

No complaint against Bush is more popular on the rightor gets a freer pass in the mainstream mediathan the notion that he somehow abandoned the philosophy that guides today’s Republican Party. And the most recent insiders to turn on Bush for his impurities come from high stations. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who declined to contest Bush’s disastrous tax cut plan back in 2001 when he might have derailed it, used his September memoir to blame Bush for failing to cut spendinga cardinal sin among conservatives. Weeks before, the law professor and Bush White House veteran Jack Goldsmith published a memoir disclosing his dismay with the administration’s policies on torturing suspected terrorists, even though he could have denounced the president years ago. Before that, another ex-Bush aide, David Kuo of the euphemistically titled “faith-based” office, purported in his book to expose the hollowness of Bush’s program for aiding religious institutions that do social work. Was he really expecting that the church-state wall would be demolished, not just eroded?

Greenspan, Goldsmith, and Kuo have, of course, merely joined a long train of right-wing officials, operatives, and journalists who once genuflected before Bush but are now charging him with abandoning the true path. Consider the comments of a few stars of the conservative firmament. Former Bush speechwriter David Frum laments that Bush never adopted a sufficiently robust neoconservative worldview. “I always believed as a speechwriter that if you could persuade the president to commit himself to certain words, he would feel himself committed to the ideas that underlay those words,” he told Vanity Fair in 2006. “And the big shock to me has been that, although the president said the words, he just did not absorb the ideas.” This from the author of the 2003 paean The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich these days deplores the “absurdly bloated, undisciplined federal budget.” During the 2004 presidential race, interestingly, Gingrich told Fox News that “Abraham Lincoln didn’t have a balanced budget. He was fighting a civil war. Franklin Delano Roosevelt didn’t have a balanced budget. He was fighting the Second World War. We are in a real war.” Pundit Ann Coulter complains of “really stupid Americans like George Bush”the man she labeled a “magnificent wartime leader” in 2004. And radio host Laura Ingraham wondered this summer if Bush is “too stupid” to understand that his base is angry for “turn[ing] his back on them”an uncharacteristic move, surely, for the “real man” who “stands by his word” whom she rhapsodized about in 2003. And so it goes.

Heartening as it is to hear the growing criticism of Bush from within the GOP ranks, the idea that he’s veered from conservatism is hogwash. Bush is the most conservative president we’ve had since probably Warren G. Hardingand perhaps ever. He has governed, wherever possible, fully in step with the basic conservative principles that defined Ronald Reagan’s presidency and have shaped the political right for the last two generations: opposition to New Deal-style social programs; a view of civil liberties as obstacles to dispensing justice; the pursuit of low taxes, especially on businesses and the wealthy; a pro-business stance on regulation; a hawkish, militaristic, nationalistic foreign policy; and a commitment to bringing religion, and specifically Christianity, back into public policy. “Mr. Bush has a philosophy. It is conservative,” wrote Peggy Noonan in 2002. Ah, but times change. Last June she complained, “What conservatives and Republicans must recognize is that the White House has broken with them.”

It’s certainly true that Bush hasn’t delivered on every last item on the conservative wish list. But what president hasor ever could? What Bush’s new critics on the right don’t see, or won’t see, is that to credibly accuse Bush of betraying “conservatism” requires constructing an ideal of conservatism that exists only in the world of theory, not the world of practical politics and democratic governance. It’s an ideal that any president would fail to meet. In a democracy, governing means taking into account public opinion and making compromises. That means deviating at times from doctrinal purity.

Indeed, Bush’s presidency, far from being a subversion of modern American conservatism, represents its fulfillment. For most of the president’s tenure, many of the same folks who now brand him as an incompetent or an impostor happily backed his agenda. Republicans controlled the Senate and the House with iron discipline. They populated the federal court system, built a powerful media apparatus, and, for years after 9/11, benefited from a public climate of reflexive deference to the powers that be. From 2001 to 2007, the conservative movement had as free a hand as it could have hoped for in setting the agenda. The fruits of its efforts are Bush’s policies.

So while conservatives may be disillusioned with Bush, they can’t seriously claim it’s over his policies. Another explanation seems more likely: When the Iraq War really turned sour in 2005 and the domestic catastrophes piled up, the appeal of being linked with Bush’s legacy dimmed. Like mobsters turning state’s evidence before they’re sent up the river, former Bushies began to testify, throwing themselves on the mercy of the court of public opinion. The reason isn’t that Bush is an imperfect conservative. It’s that he’s an unsuccessful one.

One clue that right-wingers might be acting a bit opportunistically in turning on Bush is the sloppy nature of so many of their arguments that he’s left conservatism. In seeking to salvage a pure doctrine from the flotsam of the Bush years, for example, his onetime boosters will often say that he forsook a core conservative principle such as “tradition,” “humility,” or “small government”or, more vapidly, “adherence to the Constitution,” “the wisdom of the Founders,” or “honesty in government.” But general concepts like these are so elastic as to encompass any grounds for disowning a failed course of actionor so generic as to be useless as defining traits of conservatism. (Don’t liberals preach adherence to the Constitution?) It may be fashionable now to deride Bush’s Iraq policy as insufficiently humble, but on the eve of the invasion, when Bush flouted world opinion, how many conservatives warned that he was jettisoning principle? And, for that matter, how does the failure to prepare for and address Hurricane Katrina’s damage stem from a dearth of humility? Even the oft-heard conceit that Bush has become a “big government” conservativebreaking from postwar conservatism’s antistatist foundationsdoesn’t withstand scrutiny. After all, practically everyone on the right backed his tax cuts, corporate giveaways, and military and security expenditures, which, along with health care cuts, have busted the budget. On inspection, buzzwords like “big government” and “humility” appear to be supple rhetorical tools, used inconsistently and opportunistically, for polemical force or political positioningnot as the basis of serious intellectual critiques.

The same tendentiousness marks the invidious comparisons of Bush to various heroes from the Republican past. Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel charged Bush with betraying Dwight Eisenhower’s legacy. Texas Congressman and presidential aspirant Ron Paul has invoked the “true” conservatism of former Senator Robert Taft. For others, Barry Goldwater is the forsaken prophet. But here, once again, selective readings of history are at work. (Taftite isolationism, for example, hasn’t been conservative doctrine since before the Eisenhower administration.) This abuse of history becomes clear from a comparison of Bush to the man beside whom virtually all conservatives claim he pales: Ronald Reagan.

For the last quarter century, Reagan’s rhetoric and ideology have guided the conservative movement and the Republican Party, which were effectively fused during his presidency. The Reagan love-inwhich includes a project led by GOP operative Grover Norquist to name something in every county in America after Reaganhas been gathering steam since his retirement. It reached an absurd peak at a Republican presidential debate earlier this year, when every candidate outdid the last to seize the late president’s mantle.

What few of the GOP candidates would admit, though, is that the purest heir to Reaganism is George W. Bush. In 2003, Bill Keller of the New York Times even wrote a definitive 8,000-word article in the Sunday magazine called “Reagan’s Son,” which detailed striking similarities in the two men’s personal styles, policies, and even staffing. Speaking to Keller, Norquist blessed the analogy. And since then the key traits that Keller identified as shared by Reagan and Bushthe “enthusiastic assumption of the role of solo superpower,” “tax cuts with a supply-side bias,” “a shift of responsibilities from government to the private sector, and from the federal government to the states”have, if anything, intensified. Judging by those aspects of Reagan’s record that his cheerleaders extol most ardently, Bush has actually proven more faithful to conservatism, not less, than his predecessor.

But Bush’s new critics spare themselves the pain of finding fault with their hero through selective memory. They remember that Reagan was steadfast (most of the time) in his conservative rhetoric and ideologyjust as Bush has been. They forget, however, that in practice Reagan veered from his official line as politics dictated or when, as invariably happened, different conservative ideals clashed.

Recall some of Reagan’s backtracking: He came into office promising to abolish cabinet departments, but he ended up creating the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. He vowed to cut government, but despite some slashing of programs, it continued to expand overall. He passed a tax cut in 1981, but when deficits ballooned he raised taxes anew. He talked of privatizing Social Security, but when he met resistance he gave up the plan. Reagan wanted the United States to project more military force abroad, but when he ran into trouble, as with the 1983 bombing of the American military barracks in Beirut or with the Iran-contra scandal, he often backed off. And having won conservatives’ hearts with rhetoric that called the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” Reagan infuriated them by embracing Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev as an authentic reformer and engaging in arms-control talks between the two superpowers. If self-styled conservative purists were intellectually honest, they would prefer Bush’s foreign policy to Reagan’s.

The point here isn’t to deny that Reagan was conservative; he was. The point is that Reagan didn’t adhere to right-wing doctrine any more rigorously than Bush has. On the contrary, he conceded more to countervailing liberal pressures. Because Reagan ended his presidency on a note of triumph, however, and because his reputation waxed after his exit from office thanks to the cold war’s end, his compromises with liberalsand with the realities of governancewere not just forgiven but largely forgotten. (See Josh Green’s 2003 January/February Washington Monthly piece, “Reagan’s Liberal Legacy.”)

More than forty years ago, the public opinion analysts Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril wrote a book called The Political Beliefs of Americans that is now remembered chiefly for a single apercu: that Americans are rhetorically conservative but “operationally” liberal. That observation is still mostly true today. What it means is that most Americans like the Republicans’ talk about small government, low taxes, and military strength. But they have nevertheless also become strongly attached to basic services that government provides, such as Social Security benefits or effective disaster reliefas Bush learned the hard way. Operationally, they don’t always want that conservative rhetoric put into practice.

Intuitively, if not consciously, successful Republican politiciansas well as liberal ones like Bill Clintonhave grasped this axiom. Reagan certainly did. He offered an aggressively conservative rhetoric and certainly implemented a right-wing agenda where possiblemost effectively by appointing conservatives to executive-branch roles as regulators or promulgators of policy, where they would escape press scrutiny most of the time. (Bush has done the same.) But Reagan was sensitive to the limits of conservatism as a governing philosophy. When he ran up against public opinion, he relented as often as he pressed ahead.

Bush is different. In his new book, The Bulldozer and the Big Tent, the sociologist and journalism professor Todd Gitlin aptly describes Bush’s rigid ideology and aggressive political tactics as the consummate expression of his party’s political style. Bush hasn’t compromised much with the Democrats and until recently didn’t have to. Only on one major issueimmigrationdid he initially take a stand to the left of his party, and he quickly dropped his efforts when his base revolted. The criticisms of Bush now coming from various quarters on the right have it precisely backward. They fault him for compromising too much when his failures have resulted from his refusal to compromise more.

So are conservatives unhappy with Bush because he let down their causes? No. They’re miffed that Bush, in pursuing those very causes, alienated two-thirds of the voting public. Starting with Katrina in the fall of 2005, and proceeding through the worsening civil strife in Iraq, the revelations of the wiretapping and U.S. attorney scandals, and growing discontent with domestic problems like health care, Americans lost faith in Bush’s agenda. Various right-wingers are now trying to salvage conservatism not simply to maintain their own reputations but because they worry that, having soured on Bush, voters may soon sour on the creed of conservatism itself. That would be a turn of events for the right so damaging that not even another Ronald Reagan could repair it.

David Greenberg

David Greenberg, a professor of history at Rutgers University, is the author, most recently, of Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency. He is a contributing editor to Politico and tweets at @republicofspin.