For Bush, the true measure of good governance wasn't liberating the American people from an over-weaning welfare state. Rather, activist government became the very definition of good government. And with such ideological markers in place, it was inevitable that government would expand and the ostensible conservatives in Congress would disintegrate into a gaggle of self-serving appropriators.
Indeed, since 1999, the federal budget has expanded by more than $1 trillion. And while Republicans, now in the minority, suddenly claim a newfound hatred for pork-barrel spending, nobody thinks twice about the fact that the GOP oversaw the largest expansion of the government since the Great Society. Monday night, Bush talked a big game about empowering and liberating the American people. But the most appropriate response to such assurances is, "Now you tell us?"
Bush's speech marked the beginning of the home stretch of the first back-to-back eight-year presidencies since 1824. So the hunger for "change" on both sides of the ideological aisle shouldn't be much of a surprise.
But that desire for change is also a product of ideological confusion on the left and the right. Clinton left office insisting that he'd restored liberalism in America, but in reality he bequeathed a confused mishmash of ill-formed ideas, slogans and hatreds. President Bush is winding down his presidency much the same way, talking about limited government, personal liberty and spending restraint, but he's left his party's troops scattered across the battlefield, with no overarching strategy and an awful lot of friendly fire.
Rush Limbaugh, for example, promises that if either John McCain or Mike Huckabee gets the nomination, it will "destroy the Republican Party." The Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan replies that, "This is absurd. George W. Bush destroyed the Republican Party, by which I mean he sundered it, broke its constituent pieces apart and set them against each other. He did this on spending, the size of government, war, the ability to prosecute war, immigration and other issues."
I'm sympathetic to both positions. Limbaugh is right that Huckabee and McCain might lead the party further from its limited-government roots. Noonan is right that Bush let the horse out of the barn long ago. But both complaints overlook a simple fact: We were warned. Bush and Clinton promised to be different kinds of leaders. And they delivered.