Was George W. Bush a Real Conservative?

Conor Friedersdorf responds to a post I wrote, in which I noted that Ron Paul's attack on Rick Santorum basically amounts to assaulting Santorum for having been a Republican senator when George W. Bush was president, and today that means you're not a conservative:

Just to be clear, having supported "Dubya" does in fact mean that you weren't a real conservative! His hubristic attempt to remake the political culture of foreign nations via military occupation was not conservative. His profligate spending habits were not conservative. His empowerment of the federal education bureaucracy at the expense of state and local control was not conservative. His approach to immigration reform—a guest-worker program—wasn't conservative either. Perhaps it would be easier to respect his departures from conservative orthodoxy if he'd been a good president. As it stands, he was unprincipled and a pragmatist's nightmare.

If the conservative movement was more grounded in substance, and less concerned with tribal and partisan loyalty, then fewer Republicans would've gone along with Bush, and the ones that did would be pariahs now, rather than contending for the GOP's presidential nomination. Instead, the candidates are just sure to never mention Bush's name, and the base is going along.

Conor is a sort-of-conservative (I'm not sure what label he actually puts on himself) and a principled guy who has never been afraid to criticize Republicans. But he's right that tribal and partisan loyalty has always trumped principle, and I guess that means that as a species conservatives pretty much disappeared between the years of 2000 and about 2006 or so. Let's take No Child Left Behind, which imposed all kinds of new federal requirements on public schools, undermining that "local control" of which conservatives are so fond. Republicans voted for it by margins of 186-34 in the House and 43-6 in the Senate. It was a triumph of the new president's "compassionate conservatism," and most Republicans thought it was dandy. How about government finances? Bush managed to turn the surplus he was given into a deficit by 2002, and you didn't hear too many Republicans criticizing him for it.

But today, some of the specifics of Conor's brief are shared by many Republicans. In fact, they started moving away from Bush late in his second term, when he began getting more and more unpopular. Some liberals said at the time, "Just wait—before long they'll start saying that this guy they worshipped for years was never a real conservative" (if memory serves, Digby was, as usual, prescient on this). The motivation wasn't hard to discern: if your guy is leaving office with a string of policy failures and an approval rating in the 30s, the only way to resolve the cognitive (and political) dissonance is to say he was never really your guy in the first place.

But that doesn't really tell us anything about whether Bush was, in fact, a real conservative. Here's my answer to that question: it's complicated. Presidents do lots and lots of things, and unlike candidates, the things they do actually play out in the real world and have a multitude of consequences. But overall, I'd say that Bush was an excellent embodiment of conservatism as it existed circa 2000-2008. Huge tax cuts for the rich? Check. Supreme Court justices ready to overturn Roe v. Wade? Check. Bellicose foreign policy? Check. Lax enforcement of environmental and worker safety regulations? Check.

Now, you can argue that Bush's departures from conservative orthodoxy on issues like the overall size of government, immigration, or education are significant enough that they outweigh all the things he did that made conservatives deliriously happy for most of his tenure. But most conservatives only began to find those things terribly important once Bush stopped being the hero of 9/11 and became just one more failed president.

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