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Is President Bush A Conservative--Sullivan's Question
Andrewsullivan.com ^ | July 21, 2003 | Andrew Sullivan

Posted on 07/21/2003 8:14:50 PM PDT by publius1

The Liberal Within Is Bush A Conservative?

Is president Bush a conservative?

It may sound like a stupid question but the dizzying mix of policies that this president has pursued - domestically and in foreign affairs -is surprisingly immune to coherent ideological analysis. Where it does seem to make sense, it certainly doesn't look like the classical conservatism of the Regagan-Thatcher years, or the revolutionary conservatism of the Gingrich period. And in some critical ways, it's far less traditionally conservative than the administration of Bill Clinton.

Take a couple of obvious differences between this administration and the last. The Clinton years will rightly go down as a period of intense fiscal sobriety. The president wasn't solely responsible for this: he was backed into a balanced budget (and then surpluses) by a Republican Congress. But the spending record of the Clintonites was extremely tight. Compare that to the Bush record. In a mere two years, this administration has turned an annual surplus of $167 billion into an annual deficit of over $400 billion. In 2001, the projected fiscal future until 2008 was estimated at accumulating $2.9 trillion of surplus - room to tackle the baby-boomer retirement crunch. Last week's White House estimates of the same future period showed a projected increase in government debt at $1.9 trillion. In other words, the Bushies have added a projected extra $4.8 trillion in debt to the U.S. government. In two short years.

Some of this was hardly Bush's fault. The economic impact of 9/11, the sluggish world economy, and expensive wars in Afghanistan and now Iraq all took a bite out of government finances. You could even argue that the big tax cuts Bush has passed have also helped cushion the U.S. and therefore world economy from slipping into a recession. But that still doesn't explain the huge lurch into debt. Even on non-military, non-homeland defense matters, the Bush administration enacted a 6 percent increase in government spending in 2002 and almost 5 percent in 2003. Government is growing strongly as a sector in American life - and Bush is now proposing the biggest new entitlement since Nixon: free or subsidized prescription drugs for the elderly. When you add all this up, you come to an obvious conclusion: the Bush administration is actually a big government liberal administration on fiscal policy. It likes spending money; it takes on big projects; it's quite content to borrow till the fiscal cows come home. Perhaps you could argue that Bush's deficits are designed to restrain future spending growth: but then why add another huge entitlement to the mix? And why not restrain spending now, when you can?

You can see the difference even more vividly when you compare the Africa trips of president Clinton and his successor. Clinton was lionized and loved - but he did virtually nothing on HIV and AIDS in the developing world in eight long years. Clinton did little to stop the holocaust in Rwanda; and did less to ensure adequate treatment for millions of HIV-positive Africans. Bush, in contrast, has proposed the biggest single project for treating AIDS in Africa ever put forward, garnering gushing praise from the likes of Bob Geldof and Bono, but precious little credit in the American, let alone European, press. So who's the conservative?

In foreign policy, Bush's instinct for unilateralism or bilateralism over international bodies has won him a reputation for conservatism. But the scale of his ambitions is anything but conservative. For eight years, Bill Clinton played a conservative game with regard to Middle East terror and conflict: defensive pin-prick strikes against al Qaeda, missiles in the Sudan, a peace-process in Israel, containment of Saddam. Obviously, 9/11 changed the equation dramatically. But the way in which Bush has chosen a strategic and systemic response - deposing the Taliban, ridding the world of the Saddam regime, taking on the enormous task of nation-building in Iraq, isolating the murderous mullahs in Tehran - is the mark of a radical, not a conservative. Bush is far more Gladstone than Disraeli in his approach to the developing world.

On trade, Bush speaks the right words, but has often failed to live up to them. His most notorious decision - to slap high tariffs on imported steel - has been rightly found illegal by the WTO. But Bush is appealing the judgment, thereby weakening the entire apparatus of free trade. Again, he seems to see little benefit in global arrangements designed to treat all countries equally in order to maximize trade between them. Compared to Bill Clinton, who stared down his own party's left to embrace NAFTA and the GATT, Bush is an old-style one-sector-at-a-time protectionist.

On contentious domestic matters, Bush is also no hardline right-winger. In his term of office, there has been no attempt to restrict the number of abortions in America; and the Supreme Court has ratified affirmative action and constitutionalized gay privacy. Bush actually supported the Court's affirmative action ruling and has stayed mum on gay issues, for fear of alienating either the center or his religious right base. In both areas, his policies are very hard to distinguish from his predecessor's - who also supported modest affirmative action and only rhetorically backed gay equality. Sure, Bush has named some worrying fire-breathers to the lower courts. But my hunch is that his Supreme Court pick (if he ever makes one) will be firmly centrist. All in all: the record is socially moderate.

In some ways, Bush is the JFK to Clinton's Eisenhower. After eight long years of fiscal sobriety and foreign policy caution, a young aristocratic president, after a knife-edge victory, cuts taxes and throws American weight around in the world. He has a global vision and some wonderful wordsmiths to craft it. He seems to care less about balanced budgets than moving the economy forward; he's less concerned about the minutiae of intelligence estimates than the broad moral and strategic case for intervention abroad. His typical action is risk-taking - like the war in Iraq or the two big tax cuts. Perhaps his policy mix, like that of many others', is merely a blend of opportunism and gut instinct.

More likely, Bush's conservatism is of a type that is simply more comfortable with the power of government than conservatives usually are. He certainly has little hesitation in using it for conservative ends. That makes sense for Bush, a man who was used to walking around the White House corridors long before he ever won the presidency. To more small-government types and libertarians, it's distressing. To Bush, it's merely full speed ahead. Meanwhile, the government he hands off to his successor will be bigger, more expensive and far more powerful in its anti-terror powers than anything he inherited. Whatever else that is, it's hardly a conservative achievement.


TOPICS: Culture/Society; Foreign Affairs; Government; Miscellaneous; News/Current Events; Philosophy
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I'm curious to know what the rest of you think. To me, it's odd that the question is being raised now, and not during the last presidential campaign, when President Bush made promises about tax cuts and prescription drugs. The foreign policy stuff is new, in the sense that it was not raised in the campaign--but the idea of projecting American force around the world is hardly anti-conservative (except to the isolationist fringe). The president is a big-government conservative, who gives the same priority to tax cuts over budget deficits that President Reagan did--and no one ever suggested that he was not a conservative.
1 posted on 07/21/2003 8:14:50 PM PDT by publius1
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To: publius1
a big-government conservative

One entry found for oxymoron.

Main Entry: ox·y·mo·ron
Pronunciation: "äk-si-'mOr-"än, -'mor-
Function: noun
Inflected Form(s): plural ox·y·mo·ra /-'mOr-&, -'mor-/
Etymology: Late Greek oxymOron, from neuter of oxymOros pointedly foolish, from Greek oxys sharp, keen + mOros foolish
Date: 1657
: a combination of contradictory or incongruous words (as cruel kindness)
- ox·y·mo·ron·ic /-m&-'rä-nik, -mo-/ adjective
- ox·y·mo·ron·i·cal·ly /-ni-k(&-)lE/ adverb
2 posted on 07/21/2003 8:21:11 PM PDT by Polycarp (Life's not like a box o choclates...it's like eatin jalapenos. What ya do now might burn ya tomorrow)
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To: publius1
...no one ever suggested that he was not a conservative.

Well, some of us did right here on this forum. I explained in numerous threads that I would not vote for Bush because he was not going to take the US in the direction I wanted us to go - less government and more freedom.

And he hasn't. Despite doing a much better than expected job on foreign affairs (I don't care if France is POed at us), on the domestic front Bush has been a bigger disaster than Clinton. There were no new big-government programs like prescription drugs passed under Clinton. Spending increased more slowly under Clinton. (I realize this was mostly because of the Republican Congress, but it's still true.)

And I will not vote for him this time either. Our airports now resemble those in third-world police states, the misnamed Department of Homeland Security is already expanding its mission to use those lovely new, possibly unconstitutional abilities it has been granted, and there's no end in site to increases in government spending.

Now you conservatives go ahead and tell me how Gore would have been worse. Well, except for probably munging up the aftermath of 9/11, I don't see how he could have been.

3 posted on 07/21/2003 8:24:29 PM PDT by Joe Bonforte
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To: publius1
The GOP under Clinton increased spending like drunk sailors but it was masked because the Clinton Tax increases and dot com bubble also resulted in more income. Add to this the GOP approved 800 Billion Dollar cut in Military spending under Clinton made it look like we balanced the books.

It now looks like the Reagan years when he increased the budget every year except one to get his military build up - which we now know was the correct thing to do.

4 posted on 07/21/2003 8:24:46 PM PDT by america-rules (I'm one proud American right now !)
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To: Polycarp
Good--but then, what would you call President Reagan?
5 posted on 07/21/2003 8:24:53 PM PDT by publius1 (Almost as if he likes it...)
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To: publius1
They don't know history or were too young to go through it :)
6 posted on 07/21/2003 8:26:26 PM PDT by america-rules (I'm one proud American right now !)
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To: publius1
The President has done the things he campaigned on. I suspect some of those crying the loudest that they won't vote for him again, didn't in the first place. President Reagan indeed compromised and did many of these same things. That is what made him a great leader. There are those who have to have every single issue decided their way, or else. I wonder how they were as children, indulged perhaps? They can't stand the idea that a President has to be a leader to an entire nation, not their own special interests.
7 posted on 07/21/2003 8:28:37 PM PDT by ladyinred (The left have blood on their hands.)
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To: publius1
It depends on how you want to define these terms. As the years go by they'll become increasingly meaningless, if not outright topsy-turvy. Frankly, the term "big-government conservative" sounds oxymoronic - at least symbolically, it represents a major break with Goldwater conservatism.

I'd say that Bush is indeed conservative, but he's realized that in a world that's increasingly hostile to American interests, we can't pretend that small, decentralized government will be sufficient to hold our own against our highly cohesive adversaries. We've also come to realize - for the very first time - that unbridled global capitalism won't always work in our national interests.

The bad part of this is that the Democrats now have the perfect cover to push through their own big-government programs - not to mention being able to blame Bush for the government's declining fiscal health.
8 posted on 07/21/2003 8:30:15 PM PDT by Filibuster_60
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To: Joe Bonforte
How would Gore have been worse? That's not hard to answer: you would have had more spending, with prescription drugs being only the start, no Medicare reform, the education bill with education spending and no accountability, and no tax cuts. On foreign policy, of course, we would have continued blind faith in collective security rather than national interest, letting the UN run our affairs, and would have negotiated with the Taliban and Sadaam. In short, the nation would spend more, there would be no return to individuals in the form of tax cuts, and our position in the world would have been shakier than at any time since Jimmy Carter. There's more, but I want to keep this short. I hope this is helpful to you.
9 posted on 07/21/2003 8:32:18 PM PDT by publius1 (Almost as if he likes it...)
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To: america-rules
The problem lies with Congress who keep authorizing these spending bills. Someone needs to step up in the republican party and tell the White House that they will not approve bigger government spending. Yes, deficits can make sense at times and given the world we face defense spending needs to be a priority but social programs need to stop.

Perhaps it's time society looks in the mirror and examines its own values. Why not tell people who want more government spending to benefit themselves to either get a job or sell off their assets to pay for their expanded benefits? Seniors are some of the worst offenders when it comes to the public trough.
10 posted on 07/21/2003 8:34:24 PM PDT by misterrob
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To: publius1

That's the view from here.

11 posted on 07/21/2003 8:35:29 PM PDT by Jhoffa_ (BREAKING: Supreme Court Finds Right to Sodomy, Sammy & Frodo elated.)
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To: america-rules

And this has exactly what to do with our current spending orgy?

Endlessly parroting ", Well, Reagan did it too! Neener-Neener-neener!" is not an argument.

12 posted on 07/21/2003 8:39:33 PM PDT by Jhoffa_ (BREAKING: Supreme Court Finds Right to Sodomy, Sammy & Frodo elated.)
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To: publius1
With apologies to Conan O'Brien:

Bush is to conservatism as virginity is to prostitution. I will remind everyone I come in contact with of his obscene spending spree of NEW spending and his re-instituting entitlements in addition to embracing the dem's domestic policies. I am registed as an independant and I will not vote for him and I will NEVER vote for any democrat so, I'll probably sit out the next one. Bottom line, there is only one party and they take turns. Different approaches, different names, same results.
13 posted on 07/21/2003 8:45:35 PM PDT by poet
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To: publius1
I think the numbers speak for themselves:


14 posted on 07/21/2003 8:47:04 PM PDT by AntiGuv ()
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To: misterrob
The problem lies with Congress who keep authorizing these spending bills.

I can't seem to recall at the moment - when was the last time Bush vetoed a spending bill?

15 posted on 07/21/2003 8:52:14 PM PDT by AntiGuv ()
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To: ladyinred
"I suspect some of those crying the loudest that they won't vote for him again, didn't in the first place." President Reagan indeed compromised and did many of these same things."

I'll 'fess up to that and I did not vote for gore either (God forbid).

"President Reagan indeed compromised and did many of these same things."

I voted for Reagan both times for Governor and Pres. One big difference is that Reagan was saddled with a democrat congress while Bush has a republican house and senate, which exposes him and them as RINOS with a few exceptions.

I will not vote for anyone who violates his/her Sworn Oaths to uphold the Constitution.

16 posted on 07/21/2003 8:55:12 PM PDT by poet
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To: publius1
Wait just a minute there, these questions were raised during the last presidential campaign.  Many of us were taken to task for voicing those concerns, precisely because of the timing.

The foreign policy stuff is new, and in relation to those, there are some examples of the president's instincts being very good.  There are others which trouble me.

I cannot agree with your label that Bush is a big-government conservative.  As Polycarp stated, that's oxymoronic.  I do think it's fair to defend Bush for some issues that have been placed on his plate by the previous administration.  Bush is dealing with Osama Bin Laden because Bill wouldn't.  He is dealing with terrorism because Clinton was more interested in getting h--d, than moving the nation ahead.  So a good number of increases in the budget were forced on him to a certain degree.

Clinton desimated the military, Bush had to turn that around.  It costs money to do so.  The War on Terrorist cost big bucks.

Where I come down on this taking Bush to task, is the advancement of liberal programs.  Excess increases in the DoE budget, billions in African AIDS relief, support for another 'great society' boondoggle, to name a few.

We should give Bush his due.  It's also fair to voice objections to other aspects of his policy.

When compared to Reagan, it is true that both increased the nation's indebtedness.  Let's remember that Reagan had to deal with a Democrat House and Senate during that time frame.  Revenues into the US Treasury doubled under Reagan.  Spending tripled.  Under Bush the budget is going to balloon to a $465 billion dollar deficit this year.  No matter how you slice it, that's huge.  I'm not convinced it had to be that huge.

Bush has a Republican Senate and House.  It's much harder to compare Bush to Reagan for that reason.  On the other hand Reagan didn't have to deal with the war on Terror.  But he did have to spend major bucks on Pershing missle deployments to Europe and other military endeavors.  Carter had trashed the military in four years almost as bad as Clinton did in eight.  Neither Bush or Reagan had a free ride.  They were saddled with Democrat failures, which they had to overcome.

None the less I'm not exactly comfortable with Bush being compared to Reagan based on the controls of Congress being in different hands.

I don't remember Reagan signing onto any 'great society' type programs.  Perhaps someone can correct me on that.

I do believe that there are examples of Reagan not toeing the conservative line on every issue.  If I could only point to a couple of instance where Bush didn't, I wouldn't comment on the issue as often.

17 posted on 07/21/2003 8:56:10 PM PDT by DoughtyOne
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To: publius1
I have two main thoughts on the subject.

One, the "liberal" v. "conservative" dichotomy seems to be increasingly losing whatever meaning it once had.

Two, many of Bush's policies (especially the idealistic foreign policy which Sullivan correctly describes as "radical") are indeed "liberal" or "of the left", by the traditional/historical usages of those terms. Yet at the same time, the curious fact remains that many people today who consider themselves "liberal"/"on the left" despise those policies with a tremendous vitriol the likes of which I have never seen.

My current hypothesis for this is that, as per my first observation, the terms "liberal" and "conservative" have lost their original meanings - switched places, to be precise. In brief: Bush is indeed quite liberal in various ways, and this often ticks off those socialists who generally seek to preserve - or, let's say, conserve - the existing order of things.

18 posted on 07/21/2003 8:58:30 PM PDT by Dr. Frank fan
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To: Joe Bonforte
You going to vote for a Democrat? You think Bush is worse than Clinton? Well Clinton isn't running. How do you feel about President Hillary or President Dean. Give me a break. Think about the Scotus for a moment. You want a Dem appointing four justices? How about national security. You want the UN in charge of America's security? I don't believe you were ever a Bush supporter-either voted for Gore (Democrat) or some obscure third party candidate.
19 posted on 07/21/2003 9:01:04 PM PDT by nyconse
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To: Jhoffa_
"Bush is now proposing the biggest new entitlement since Nixon: free or subsidized prescription drugs for the elderly."

You are ignorant on this issue.

Medicare is an insurance program that 1)isn't free and 2)doesn't cover prescription drugs

If you were to buy health insurance right now 99% of us wouldn't pick a program that doesn't cover prescriptions.

Think about it.

The argument should be why is the Gov't in the insurance Biz.

But, because it is no insurance company will cover anyone who can get medicare so it's their only choice. Also, if you're 65 and paid taxes for most of your life and you're paying $250 per month for medicare you want your drugs covered !

Case closed !

20 posted on 07/21/2003 9:01:21 PM PDT by america-rules (I'm one proud American right now !)
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