George W. Bush presents conservatives with a fundamental challenge: Do they believe in anything other than power? Are they serious about their rhetoric on limited, constitutionally restrained government?
Bush appears to have remained strong in the presidential race by rallying conservatives behind him. In his convention acceptance speech he derided Sen. John Kerry's claim to represent "conservative values" and seized the mantle of promoting liberty at home and abroad.
Indeed, many conservatives react like the proverbial vampire at the sight of a cross when they consider casting a ballot for Kerry. Tom Nugent, a National Review Online contributing editor, wrote: "The last thing the Republican party needs is the reckless suggestion that conservatives vote Democratic." That is mild, however, compared with the American Conservative Union's mass e-mail solicitation headlined "Why Do Terrorists Want Kerry to Win?"
Republican partisans have little choice but to focus on Kerry's perceived vulnerabilities. A few high-octane speeches cannot disguise the catastrophic failure of the Bush administration in both its domestic and its foreign policies. Mounting deficits are likely to force eventual tax increases, reversing perhaps President Bush's most important economic legacy. The administration's foreign policy is an even greater shambles, with Iraq aflame and America increasingly reviled by friend and foe alike.
Quite simply, the president, despite his well-choreographed posturing, does not represent traditional conservatism -- a commitment to individual liberty, limited government, constitutional restraint and fiscal responsibility. Rather, Bush routinely puts power before principle. As Chris Vance, chairman of Washington state's Republican Party, told the Economist: "George Bush's record is not that conservative ... There's something there for everyone."
Even Bush's conservative sycophants have trouble finding policies to praise. Certainly it cannot be federal spending. In 2000 candidate Bush complained that Al Gore would "throw the budget out of balance." But the big-spending Bush administration and GOP Congress have turned a 10-year budget surplus once estimated at $5.6 trillion into an estimated $5 trillion flood of red ink. This year's deficit will run about $445 billion, according to the Office of Management and Budget.
Brian Riedl of the Heritage Foundation reports that in 2003 "government spending exceeded $20,000 per household for the first time since World War II." There are few programs at which the president has not thrown money; he has supported massive farm subsidies, an expensive new Medicare drug benefit, thousands of pork barrel projects, dubious homeland security grants, an expansion of Bill Clinton's AmeriCorps, and new foreign aid programs. What's more, says former conservative Republican Rep. Bob Barr, "in the midst of the war on terror and $500 billion deficits, [Bush] proposes sending spaceships to Mars."
Unfortunately, even the official spending numbers understate the problem. The Bush administration is pushing military proposals that may understate defense costs by $500 billion over the coming decade. The administration lied about the likely cost of the Medicare drug benefit, which added $8 trillion in unfunded liabilities. Moreover, it declined to include in budget proposals any numbers for maintaining the occupation of Iraq or underwriting the war on terrorism. Those funds will come through supplemental appropriation bills. Never mind that Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz had promised that reconstruction of Iraq could be paid for with Iraqi resources. (Yet, despite the Bush administration's generosity, it could not find the money to expeditiously equip U.S. soldiers in Iraq with body armor.)
Nor would a second Bush term likely be different. Nothing in his convention speech suggested a new willingness by Bush to make tough choices. Indeed, when discussing their domestic agenda, administration officials complained that the media had ignored their proposals, such as $250 million in aid to community colleges for job training. Not mentioned was that Washington runs a plethora of job training programs, few of which have demonstrated lasting benefits. This is the hallmark of a limited-government conservative?
Jonah Goldberg, a regular contributor to NRO, one of Bush's strongest bastions, complains that the president has "asked for a major new commitment by the federal government to insert itself into everything from religious charities to marriage counseling." Indeed, Bush seems to aspire to be America's moralizer in chief. He would use the federal government to micromanage education, combat the scourge of steroid use, push drug testing of high school kids, encourage character education, promote marriage, hire mentors for children of prisoners and provide coaches for ex-cons.
Conservative pundit Andrew Sullivan worries that Bush "is fusing Big Government liberalism with religious right moralism. It's the nanny state with more cash."
Yet some conservatives celebrate this approach. Kevin Fobbs and Lisa Sarrach of the National Urban Policy Action Council opine that Bush is "a strong leader, a comforter in chief." A comforter in chief?
Why, then, would any conservative believer in limited, constitutional government vote for Bush? It is fear of the thought of a President John Kerry.
Bobby Eberle of the conservative Web site GOPUSA warns, "One can only imagine the budgets that would be submitted by Kerry." President Bush has made the same point, repeatedly charging that Kerry "has promised about $2 trillion of new spending thus far." Maybe that is true, though the cost of Bush's actual performance would be hard to beat. After all, the president initiated a huge increase in the welfare state with his Medicare drug benefit bill. Veronique de Rugy of the American Enterprise Institute points out that, in sharp contrast to Presidents Reagan and Clinton, "Bush has cut none of the [federal] agencies' budgets during his first term."
Moreover, whatever the personal preferences of a President Kerry, he could spend only whatever legislators allowed, so assuming that the GOP maintains its control over Congress, outlays almost certainly would rise less than if Bush won reelection. History convincingly demonstrates that divided government delivers less spending than unitary control. Give either party complete control of government and the treasury vaults quickly empty. Share power between the parties and, out of principle or malice, they check each other. The American Conservative Union's Don Devine says bluntly: "A rational conservative would calculate a vote for Kerry as likely to do less damage" fiscally.
Maybe so, respond some conservatives, but how about the Bush tax cuts? The president tells campaign audiences: "They're going to raise your taxes; we're not." But even here the Bush record is not secure. Bruce Bartlett of the National Center for Policy Analysis points to the flood of red ink unleashed by the administration and predicts that tax hikes are inevitable irrespective of who is elected in November. That is, Bush's fiscal irresponsibility could cancel out his most important economic success for the GOP.
For some conservatives, the clincher in favor of Bush is the war on terrorism. Kerry, with more war experience than the current president and vice president combined, "resembles Neville Chamberlain," says Nugent. Answering his own hysterical question, "Why do terrorists want Kerry to win?" David Keene of the American Conservative Union says Kerry would submit to terrorists and "lead the free world to a second Munich," only this time with al-Qaida instead of Adolph Hitler.
Yet Bush's foreign policy record is as bad as his domestic scorecard. The administration correctly targeted the Taliban in Afghanistan, but quickly neglected that nation, which is in danger of falling into chaos. The Taliban is resurgent, violence has flared, drug production has burgeoned and elections have been postponed.
Iraq, already in chaos, is no conservative triumph. The endeavor is social engineering on a grand scale, a war of choice launched on erroneous grounds that has turned into a disastrously expensive neocolonial burden.
Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction, contrary to administration claims, and no operational relationship with al-Qaida, contrary to administration insinuations. U.S. officials bungled the occupation, misjudging everything from the financial cost to the troop requirements.
Particularly shocking is the administration's ineptitude with regard to Iraq. Fareed Zakaria writes in Newsweek, "On almost every issue involving postwar Iraq -- troop strength, international support, the credibility of exiles, de-Baathification, handling Ayatollah Ali Sistani -- Washington's assumptions and policies have been wrong. By now most have been reversed, often too late to have much effect. This strange combination of arrogance and incompetence has not only destroyed the hopes for a new Iraq. It has had the much broader effect of turning the United States into an international outlaw in the eyes of much of the world."
Sadly, the Iraq debacle has undercut the fight against terrorism. The International Institute for Strategic Studies in its most recent study warns that the Iraq occupation has spurred recruiting by smaller terrorist groups around the world. And acting CIA Director John McLaughlin worries that terrorists are plotting "something big" against the United States. For a time the Pentagon considered closing its child care center, lest it become the target of an attack. NRO columnist Goldberg observes that the president's contention that the war in Iraq has made America safer "is absurd." Goldberg backs the war for other reasons, but says it was probably "the risky thing in the short run."
Bush -- not even sure himself whether the war on terrorism is winnable -- has been unable to demonstrate how Iraq has reduced the threat of terrorism against America. Instead, he says: "I need four more years to complete the work. There's more work to do to make America a safer place. There's more work to do to make the world a more peaceful place." Alas, there's more work, far more work, to do because of Bush's misguided policies.
A few conservatives are distressed at what Bush has wrought in Iraq. "Crossfire" host Tucker Carlson said recently: "I think it's a total nightmare and disaster, and I'm ashamed that I went against my own instincts in supporting it." William F. Buckley Jr., longtime National Review editor and columnist, wrote: "With the benefit of minute hindsight, Saddam Hussein wasn't the kind of extra-territorial menace that was assumed by the administration one year ago. If I knew then what I know now about what kind of situation we would be in, I would have opposed the war."
And opposed it he should have. The conflict is undermining America's values. As social critic Randolph Bourne long ago observed, "War is the health of the state." Although the Constitution is not a suicide pact, the so-called PATRIOT Act threatens some of the basic civil liberties that make America worth defending. Abu Ghraib has sullied America's image among both friends and enemies.
Still, there obviously are issues important to conservatives on which the candidates differ. On abortion and judicial appointments, for instance, Bush is clearly superior for conservatives. On business regulation Bush is probably better. For this reason Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation worries that "in punishing Bush, they [conservatives opposing him] may end up punishing the country." The administration has also sacrificed economic liberty on issues such as antitrust, telecommunications and trade.
But these differences in practice may matter little. Not much can be done on abortion given current court rulings and the fact that Bush has won approval of few of his most conservative nominees. Republican senators could limit Kerry's choices just as Democratic senators have limited Bush's choices.
Bush's record has been so bad that some of his supporters simply ask, So what? Bush is "a big government conservative," explains commentator Fred Barnes. That means using "what would normally be seen as liberal means -- activist government -- for conservative ends. And they're willing to spend more and increase the size of government in the process."
But this political prostitution is unworthy of venerable conservative principles. Undoubtedly, reducing the reach of government is not easy, and there is no shame in adjusting tactics and even goals to reflect political reality. But to surrender one's principles, to refuse to fight for them, is to put personal ambition before all else.
The final conservative redoubt is Bush's admirable personal life. Alas, other characteristics of his seem less well suited to the presidency. By his own admission he doesn't do nuance and doesn't read. He doesn't appear to reflect on his actions and seems unable to concede even the slightest mistake. Nor is he willing to hold anyone else responsible for anything. It is a damning combination. John Kerry may flip-flop, but at least he realizes that circumstances change and sometimes require changed policies. He doesn't cowardly flee at the first mention of accountability.
Some onetime administration supporters have grown disillusioned. Sullivan observes: "To have humiliated the United States by presenting false and misleading intelligence and then to have allowed something like Abu Ghraib to happen ... is unforgivable. By refusing to hold anyone accountable, the president has also shown he is not really in control. We are at war; and our war leaders have given the enemy their biggest propaganda coup imaginable, while refusing to acknowledge their own palpable errors and misjudgments."
Those who still believe in Bush have tried to play up comparisons with Ronald Reagan, but I knew Reagan and he was no George W. Bush. It's not just that Reagan read widely, thought deeply about issues and wrote prolifically. He really believed in the primacy of individual liberty and of limited, constitutional government.
In his farewell address to the nation on Jan. 11, 1989, Reagan observed: "I wasn't a great communicator, but I communicated great things." Even when politics forced him to give way, everyone knew what he stood for. Bush's biggest problem, in contrast, is not that he is a poor communicator. It is that he has nothing to communicate. Victory over terrorists, yes -- but then what American really disagrees with that goal? Beyond that there is nothing.
"Government should never try to control or dominate the lives of our citizens," Bush says. But you wouldn't know that from his policies. He has expanded government power, increased federal spending, initiated an unnecessary war, engaged in global social engineering and undercut executive accountability. This is a bill of particulars that could be laid on Lyndon Johnson's grave. No wonder "Republicans aren't very enthusiastic about" Bush, says right-wing syndicated columnist Robert Novak.
Although anecdotal evidence of conservative disaffection with Bush is common -- for instance, my Pentagon employee neighbor, a business lobbyist friend, even my retired career Air Force father -- for many the thought of voting for John Kerry remains simply too horrific to contemplate. And this dissatisfaction has yet to show up in polls. Fear of Kerry, more than love of Bush, holds many conservatives behind the GOP.
Yet serious conservatives must fear for the country if Bush is reelected. Is Kerry really likely to initiate more unnecessary wars, threaten more civil liberties and waste more tax dollars? In any case, there are other choices (e.g., the Libertarian Party's Michael Badnarik, the Constitution Party's Michael Peroutka and even Independent Ralph Nader).
Serious conservatives should deny their votes to Bush. "When it comes to choosing a president, results matter," the president says. So true. A Kerry victory would likely be bad for the cause of individual liberty and limited government. But based on the results of his presidency, a Bush victory would be catastrophic. Conservatives should choose principle over power.