Mitch Berg, my Northern Alliance comrade at A Shot in the Dark, asks us to blog on the question that may present George Bush his toughest political challenge in 2004 — is Bush really a conservative, and if not, will the “true believers” bolt?
While it’s a time-worn principle for the media to call anyone to the right of Roger Moe a “Paleoconservative”, Bush has clearly been no such thing at any point in his career. Oh, sure – he’s a social conservative in all the ways that make the social conservative crowd happy; pro-death penalty, pro-life. There’s nothing wrong with that – except the myopic notion that being socially conservative makes one conservative in any other way. He’s also a conservative in the way that I expect any president to be; he favors a strong military (and acted on that belief even before September 11, thank God).
But he, like his father, has never been a fiscal conservative. Which was why I supported Steve Forbes for President, until the moment George Bush was nominated.
David Frum at NRO also tackles the first question, at least, in his diary today. Frum also notes that while Bush is undoubtedly personally conservative, he has governed primarily from the center. Frum also details some interesting demographics to explain Bush’s caution at becoming too ideological, although I disagree with Frum’s macro analysis that America has grown less conservative since 1980.
Many people have postulated that Bush, rather than being his father’s son in terms of presidencies, is much more the heir of Reagan. However, I think that Bush is much closer to Nixon than Reagan, and I’m not the first to say so. Nixon, for all his reputation as a right-wing vampire, governed to the left-center on everything but the war. He created the EPA and the Endangered-Species list, a regrettable piece of legislation that has significantly damaged private-property rights throughout the western states. Bush has also not hesitated to create or expand government programs such as prescription-drug benefits through Medicare, an enormously costly program.
While Reagan never fully delivered on his promise to shrink government, he had a built-in excuse: Congress was controlled by the opposing party throughout both of his terms, and the Senate most of the time as well. Bush had no such excuse, and it has become apparent that very little changed legislatively on pork when control of Congress shifted to Republicans. Lacking leadership from the White House, which continued to call for new spending on a host of domestic issues, the Republican Congress has gorged itself on tax revenue. Perhaps the lesson from this is that for fiscal restraint, the optimal political configuration is for the House to be controlled by the opposite party of the President. The natural tension between the two parties make for better public awareness of taxation and spending and keep a lid on the pork, at least as much of a lid as possible these days.
But will that apply to this election? No, because there are two mitigating, and in my mind superceding, issues at stake in this election cycle: the war on Islamofascist terror and judiciary appointments. Absent the first, Bush probably would be facing a primary battle this year from a more traditional conservative, perhaps someone along the lines of a Pat Buchanon without the far-right baggage. Bill Frist comes to mind, although I don’t know if he’s red-meat enough for the true believers. As long as Bush stays strong and on the offensive in the war and in building the military to fight it, he will hold his base. Judiciary appointments are always an issue for presidential elections, but this one is even more sensitive: as many as four Supreme Court openings may occur during the next term, and the conservative base understands that conceding this prerogative to John Kerry would be a tremendous setback for conservatives, an earthquake with aftershocks felt for years to come.
So I think at the end of the campaign, the conservative base will make the necessary calculations and support, perhaps even with enthusiasm, the re-election of George Bush. Does that mean they’ll only make happy sounds throughout the process? Absolutely not; they will bargain and barter for as many concessions as they can extract for their public support. But in the end, sitting on their hands on Election Day truly means losing power where it counts for years on end, and they worked too hard to get where they are to backslide all the way to Square One now.
UPDATE: Thanks to all of you who posted the nice comments … Power Line also addresses this issue. Their verdict? He’s not as conservative as he could be, but in my opinion, he’s as conservative as he wants to be, which is not terribly conservative at all.