Bush Versus Principled Conservatism

George W. Bush has been vilified by the Left, but his harshest critics should be on the Right. One of the most momentous consequences of the Bush presidency is the destruction of the philosophical core of modern conservatism.

Like most political movements, American conservatism incorporated various strains of thought, some at odds with one another. But the movement had a fundamentally anti-statist orientation. Central was a commitment to individual liberty, limited government, and constitutional republicanism.

None of these principles characterize today’s conservative movement and Republican Party, which sells itself as “conservative.” The president and his followers denigrate personal freedom, support expanded state power, dismiss constitutional limits, and advance global intervention.

A number of commentators have spoken of “Big Government conservatism” or a conservatism based on “authority” rather than liberty. But the philosophy is barely recognizable as conservatism. Set aside the Bush administration’s socially conservative rhetoric and there is little difference between Great Society Democrats and George Bush Republicans.

Oft noted has been conservatives spending like liberals. Federal outlays have been rising at levels comparable to those under Lyndon Johnson. Could anyone imagine unified GOP government under Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan being more expensive than united Democratic rule?

Moreover, at least Democrats focused on big programs that allegedly met great national needs, such as poverty. The symbol of Bush conservatism is the earmark, like the notorious bridge to nowhere. Despite huge deficits and endless embarrassment, Congress refuses to kill abusive pork, and the president refuses to veto even one appropriation.

Yet spending is merely one conservative disappointment. Between the president and Congress, nothing is seen as lying beyond the competence of the federal government. Promoting marriage counseling, overriding state laws allowing medical use of marijuana, creating a national medical database, and interfering with an end-of-life family dispute may or may not be good ideas, but conservative they are not.

Republicans once claimed to value federalism. Now conservatives no less than liberals attempt to micromanage the affairs of 300 million Americans.

But not just of 300 million Americans. Conservatives who routinely denounced social engineering at home believe they have been anointed to rule 6 billion people abroad. Whereas Woodrow Wilson once inspired Democrats, now Republicans see him as their godfather as they seek to spread democracy through war.

Hardheaded conservative realists who once counted the cost in American lives and treasure now wax lyrical about encouraging democracy abroad. Politicians who once respected small cultural differences among U.S. states now ignore vast cultural gulfs among foreign nations – and the hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of years of history that define other peoples. A presumed universal yearning for freedom is confused with a commitment to the complex tradeoffs of a liberal society.

Even in its discussion of national security, the conservative movement has become degraded, abandoning deterrence, which contained Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, history’s most prolific mass murderers. Preventive war is now the strategy of choice.

Indeed, many conservative war advocates wax enthusiastic about unleashing death and destruction upon other societies, largely unconcerned about the consequences. “Kick Saddam’s butt” became the slogan of choice for those who viewed war as a game, not a process in which thousands – American and Iraqi soldiers, as well as Iraqi civilians – would die.

Today conservatives worry, appropriately, about whether U.S. troops charged with atrocities are being arraigned fairly. But few war proponents seem discomfited, let alone anguished and appalled, as they should be, by the innocent civilians routinely killed at roadblocks, by air strikes, and in normal military operations. Yes, innocents always die in war. However, we bear a heavy responsibility for those killed in a war of choice that we, or those representing us, initiated under false pretenses swathed in humanitarian rhetoric.

In fighting this conflict, conservatives have abandoned their onetime belief in checks and balances. Republicans worried about executive aggrandizement under Democratic Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. Today conservative intellectuals form a Greek Chorus suggesting that the U.S. government consists of the president, backed by an unimportant congressional supporting cast.

Of course, the threat of terrorism and war will inevitably strengthen the president. But when Attorney General Alberto Gonzales argued that the congressional authorization of force allowed the president to ignore the statute governing NSA surveillance, he was really suggesting that the chief executive could ignore all duly enacted laws at his discretion. Conservatives lauded rather than dismissed this outlandish interpretation.

Indeed, conservatives have even stopped demanding honesty and competence from the executive branch. Federal officials lied about the cost of the Medicare bill before Congress. The Pentagon did not outfit U.S. soldiers with sufficient body armor and armored vehicles. Republican legislators remained supine.

That the conservative movement has lost its philosophical guts is evident from a simple thought experiment. Imagine President William Jefferson Clinton going to war on grounds that subsequently proved to be false. Imagine him sending the secretary of state before the UN Security Council to make a speech wrong in every detail.

Imagine President Clinton, after invading Iraq, making a series of erroneous projections about the ease of occupation and progress in guerrilla operations, and failing to send adequate numbers of troops or quantities of equipment to do the job. Imagine him ignoring Congress and concentrating power in his own hands.

Imagine a continuing stream of rosy predictions despite a steadily rising body count. Then imagine the emergence of a series of crises – rising Taliban activity in Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea steadily pursuing nuclear arms, the Mideast teetering on the brink of widespread war – with the U.S. tied down in Iraq.

What would conservative Republicans be saying about President Clinton? Just imagine.

The failure of the Bush presidency is painful to watch. He is a decent man, and his most vociferous critics are mostly unattractive. But after being blessed with extraordinary opportunities, President Bush will leave America in extraordinary difficulties.

Unless the conservative movement detaches itself from his administration, it risks going down in flames with him. Worse, it risks eternal shame in backing him as he does the nation grievous harm.