Bush becomes 'big government conservative'

Posted: Jul 18, 2003 12:00 AM

Is the Republican Party conservative?

Amid all of the screaming from leftwing partisans and reflexive Bush-haters about how the president is an ogre and fascist tyrant, it sounds like an odd question to ask. But not according to many conservatives these days.

Among conservative journalists and activists, the disappointment in the Bush Administration's, and the GOP congressional leadership's, domestic policies is mounting daily.

On free trade, the president has proved less reliable than - shudder - Bill Clinton. His acquiescence (i.e. capitulation) on Medicare has been total, refusing to fight for significant free market reforms while agreeing to shovel hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars for new entitlements.

In general, Bush has been spending money like a man with a week to live. The GOP-led Congress deserves some blame, too. But even when they overspend above his overspending, Bush refuses to use his veto power.

On the cultural side, things aren't much better. The White House literally celebrated the Supreme Court's affirmative action fiasco and mumbled its disappointment about the court's sodomy ruling. Just last week, the administration sneakily released word that it would surrender completely to feminist activists on the issue of Title IX.

There are some points in Bush's favor from the conservative perspective. Most important, he's pursued a muscular, often heroic, foreign and national security policy.

Yeah, yeah, I know this sounds funny to people who think the Niger-uranium story proves that Bush is a demonic harbinger of the apocalypse. But, whether or not you agree, most conservatives - and most Americans, according to polls - approve of what George Bush, Don Rumsfeld and John Ashcroft have done to keep America safe. You could look it up.

The president has also pushed aggressively and admirably for tax cuts. His judicial appointments have been solid (knock on wood). He's floated numerous good ideas - partial privatization of Social Security, faith-based programs, etc - and even followed through on some.

But in the final analysis, Bush doesn't quite look like the president conservatives hoped for, and he certainly doesn't look like the rabid monster the Democrats say he is. In short, it turns out Bush's "compassionate conservatism" means something. I admit I hated the phrase during the election, seeing it as a Republican version of Clintonian feel-your-pain politics. I'm still not a fan, but I see now that it's more than a marketing label.

The rise of compassionate conservatism can be explained by two reinforcing factors, one pragmatic and one philosophical. On the pragmatic side, the Democratic Party is spiraling into the void like Darth Vader's TIE fighter at the end of the first "Star Wars" movie. Ideological purity and irrational Bush hatred are making Democrats into the goofy party.

In a two-party system, when one party moves to its base it leaves the political center - where elections are always won - relatively unguarded. This allows the other party to move in. It's one of the odd paradoxes of American politics: When one party immolates itself, the other party moves closer to the flames, not farther away.

When the GOP was perceived, sometimes unfairly, as moving too far to the right in the early 1990s, Bill Clinton grabbed the political center like it was a mast in a storm. The GOP is now doing the same thing, tacking to the center on all sorts of issues, partly out of opportunism, partly out of necessity. Demographic projections show that the GOP must expand its base by 2004 or it will surely lose.

The second explanation has to do with the changing nature of conservative dogma. Or, to be more accurate, the faltering adherence to conservative dogma. For fifty years, it was an article of faith that growth of government was synonymous with loss of liberty. Many conservatives believed that government meddling in the free market put us all on what Friedrich Hayek famously called "The Road to Serfdom," his literary way of saying the slippery slope to communism or fascism.

But welfare reform, the collapse of communism and the relative popularity of middle-class entitlements like Social Security and home mortgage interest deductions have caused that dogma to lose much of its oomph. A movement that believes writing checks to old folks is a step toward tyranny is more likely to fight government spending than one that thinks it's merely bad bookkeeping.

When you look at it from this perspective, it's fair to say this administration is conservative. But it's also fair to say it favors big government. What will make politics very interesting in the years to come is that "big government conservative" used to be an oxymoron. now it means "compassionate conservative."