Forced to the ramparts to defend Rush Limbaugh against spurious, low-down attacks from the Obama White House and assorted Obamedia, conservatives, in their understandable zeal to defend a salient voice of conservatism, are letting the real enemy slip away unnamed. Who would that be? The answer is George W. Bush, whose stealthy political legacy stands as taking what is popularly known as "conservatism" on a disastrously leftward lurch.
A shocking statement, maybe. But I came to believe long ago -- at some point after the insipid limpness of former President Bush's theories of world democracy, delivered in his second inaugural address, had sunk in -- that it most likely would have been better for conservatism, and therefore the country, had John Kerry won in 2004.
To be sure, it would have been a long, possibly dire four years. But four Kerry years of rampant liberalism would likely have invigorated the right. Eight Bush years of rampant compassionate conservatism have left it confused and feckless. Post-Bush, conservatism -- small government, low tax, strong defense and country-proud conservatism -- isn't resonating as a concept partly because of its champions: conservatives who simultaneously claim George W. Bush as their own.
I started picking up on this conservative confusion as the Obama cabinet began taking shape, and a number of conservative commentators responded by praising the Clintonian retreads (Hillary Clinton, Rahm Emanuel) and Scowcroftian non-cons (Robert Gates, James Jones) amidst the new administration. Indeed, there was a strange rapture on the right over what many touted as the "centrist" Obama cabinet -- evidence, I maintain, of conservative disorientation over the shape and span of the political spectrum itself. Only if the right has shifted left might the Obama cabinet be labeled "centrist." Such ideological dislocation is the result of two Bush terms of ever-expanding government, still-open borders, nation-building galore, politically correct policies toward "extremism," and, of course, the Bush rush to socialize the U.S. economy -- all of it tagged with the "conservative" brand.
The resulting chaos -- crisis, in fact -- is exactly what President Obama, our new collectivist-in-chief, has seized on, not in order to change America's direction, but to accelerate its leftward motion. It is the degree of continuity with Bushism that most conservatives completely miss.
I tried to explore this continuity between 43 and 44 last week, when writing on the Churchill bust that President Obama recently returned to the British, an act that symbolically disavows a lion of the West. Understanding the symbolism is somewhat complicated, I wrote, because of the fact that even as George W. Bush may have retained the Churchill bust and other knickknacks of Western civilization, the 43rd president did more to break with such legacies than perhaps any previous president.
Yes, upon attack by Islamic terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001, Bush ordered our armed forces to fight the undefined "war on terror" and "extremism." But Bush was first and always an internationalist, a globalist, with no patriotic calling, for example, to stem the massive illegal Hispanic influx that has transformed large swaths of the United States into a Third World, Spanish-speaking culture. In countless ways, President Obama is merely extending and expanding policies initiated by his predecessor. From securing the border, which neither man has considered a priority, to securing a Palestinian state, which both men have considered a priority, to a shared belief in bailout packages that are nationalizing the economy, a neutered lexicon with which to address Islam, and the legalization of millions of illegal aliens, there is in both leaders a transformational impulse, intensified and recognized as radicalism only in Obama's case.
President Obama, meanwhile, is trying to camouflage himself in the confusion. Last week, following an interview with the New York Times aboard Air Force One, President Obama telephoned the reporter at his office to elaborate on the president's answer to what was apparently a shocking question: Was he, Obama, a "socialist"?
"It was hard for me to believe that you were entirely serious about that socialist question," Mr. Obama told the reporter, who wrote: "He then dismissed the criticism, saying the large-scale government intervention in the markets and the expansion of social welfare programs had begun under his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush. 'It wasn't under me that we started buying a bunch of shares of banks," Mr. Obama said. 'And it wasn't on my watch that we passed a massive new entitlement, the prescription drug plan, without a source of funding.'"
So true. But drawing on the mantle of George W. Bush should be no shield against charges of socialism. Having massively expanded the government and massively intervened in the economy, Bush checked his capitalist credentials long ago. For Obama, this really is smoke and mirrors time. Going for the grandest illusion of all, he then told the New York Times: "We've actually been operating in a way that has been entirely consistent with free-market principles."
Excuse me while I pick my jaw off the ground. Everyone knows -- or should know -- that putting more and more of the government in charge of more and more of the economy is entirely inconsistent with free-market principles. This means that the president's statement to the contrary is what is known as a big lie. Repeat it enough, and people believe it. President Obama, of course, only has to say it once: George W. Bush, the Republicans, they started this whole thing; since they represent "conservatism," that must make him Mr. Free Market.
Confusing? Only so long as George W. Bush retains conservatism's stamp of approval, thus stun-gunning conservatism. The resulting paralysis is what keeps a lot of the Obama hocus pocus going -- even when the ruse is so obvious. Not to mainstream media reporters, of course; they're hopeless. But conservatives, I'm afraid, are in denial.