Indeed, Bush's "compassionate conservatism" has more in common with his father's "kindler, gentler" America than it does with Reagan's shining city on a hill. Fortunately, the first President Bush believed, as he put it in his first inaugural speech, that America had "more will than wallet."
The current President Bush has lots of will and a wallet full of credit cards. On the domestic side, Bush has asserted that the federal government has a central role in education - once a local concern - and he's backed that up with a 60 percent increase in federal funding.
He's created a new Cabinet agency, massively expanded entitlements in the form of a prescription drug benefit and asked for a major new commitment by the federal government to insert itself into everything from religious charities to marriage counseling. And these are just a few examples.
Now, all of these programs aren't necessarily bad. Some might be quite defensible from a political or public policy perspective. Also, there are quite a few truly Reaganite ideas bouncing around this administration.
But, at minimum, Bush seems to have abandoned the rhetorical high ground. Reagan declared that government wasn't the solution, it was the problem. In countless ways, Bush has been saying the reverse. And once you concede that the "government has to move" every time "somebody" hurts, you've pretty much abandoned your dogma and picked up the opposition's.
What makes things even worse is that while Bush may be good and decent and unfairly criticized for a host of things, he's a terrible spokesman for conservative principles. One cannot listen to four decades of Reagan speeches and off-the-cuff remarks and not be amazed by the man's ability to enunciate a coherent philosophy. Bush gives some excellent written remarks, but off the cuff he can make even sympathetic listeners cringe.
Some conservatives are now claiming that Bush's conservatism isn't about "big government" so much as "strong government." Others are complaining - or cheering - that conservatism is flying under the flag of religion more than liberty.
But most are simply suspending needed conversations until after the election, because a Republican victory at the polls and/or an American victory in the war on terror take precedence. It's an understandable impulse. I just hope there's enough of the Reagan legacy to build on after the election.
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