Jonah Goldberg

Was George W. Bush a conservative president?

For liberals, this is a settled question. Bush is not merely a conservative, he is the conservative. He is the ur-right-winger, the Platonic ideal of all that is truly Republican.

For some liberals, this is clearly just a tactical pose. Bush is unpopular, so they hope to discredit conservatism by marrying it to Bush, just as Barack Obama succeeded by painting John McCain as a Bush clone. This is the moment, as Obama might say, to permanently block the right-hand fork in the road so the country can only move leftward.

The view on the right is very different, and the debate about the Bush years will largely determine the future of the Republican Party and the conservative movement.

Bush's brand of conservatism was always a controversial innovation on the right. Recall that in 2000 he promised to be a "different kind of Republican," and he kept his word. His partner in passing the No Child Left Behind Act was liberal Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy. Bush's prescription drug benefit -- the largest expansion of entitlements since the Great Society -- was hugely controversial on the right. He signed the McCain-Feingold bill to the dismay of many Republicans who'd spent years denouncing campaign-finance "reform" as an assault on freedom of speech. The fight over his immigration plan nearly tore the conservative movement apart.

This is not to suggest that Bush was in fact a liberal president. Politics is not binary like that. There were conservative triumphs -- and failures -- to the Bush presidency. He appointed two solid conservatives to the Supreme Court. He tried to privatize Social Security, though that failed for sundry reasons.

His much-touted "compassionate conservatism" was rejected by many on the right as a slap to traditional conservatives and an intellectual betrayal of Reaganite principles. It was a rhetorical capitulation to Bill Clinton's feel-your-pain political posturing and an embrace of the assumptions that have been the undergirding of liberalism since the New Deal. That is, the measure of one's compassion is directly proportionate to one's support for large and costly government programs.

And Bush admitted as much. In an interview with the Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes, Bush explained that he rejected William F. Buckley's brand of anti-government conservatism. Conservatives had to "lead" and to be "activist," he said. In 2003, Bush proclaimed that when "somebody hurts" government has to "move." This wasn't a philosophy of government as much as gooey marketing posing as principle. Ronald Reagan would have spontaneously burst into flames if he'd uttered such sentiments.


Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
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