How Conservative Was Bush?

On his Facebook page, in the course of responding to an attack on Sarah Palin launched on Politico, Mark Levin has lodged charges against her detractors among those – such as Karl Rove, David Frum, and Peter Wehner – who served in the administration of George W. Bush. In this context, he argues,

Bush’s record, at best, is marginally conservative, and depending on the issue, worse. In fact, the Tea Party movement is, in part, a negative reaction to Bush’s profligate spending (including his expansion of a bankrupt Medicare program to include prescription drugs). And while Bush’s spending comes nowhere near Barack Obama’s, that is not the standard. Moreover, Bush was not exactly among our most articulate presidents, let alone conservative voices. I raise this not to compare Bush to Palin, but to point out only a few of the situational aspects of the criticism from the Bush community corner. (If necessary, and if challenged, I will take the time to lay out the case in all its particulars, as well as other non-conservative Bush policies and statements.  No Republican president is perfect, of course, but certainly some are more perfect that others, if you will.)

On the Contentions blog maintained by Commentary, Peter Wehner has come to W.’s defense, suggesting that in a great many areas W. was as conservative, if not more conservative, than his revered predecessor Ronald Reagan. Wehner is intelligent and thoughtful. His posts are always worth reading, and he has a case to make in almost every sphere – apart from the one cited by Mark Levin: spending (where he concedes that the younger Bush fell short).

He leaves out one issue, however, that I think paramount: McCain-Feingold. Bush rightly considered the bill unconstitutional, and he made his opinion known. After all, the First Amendment says that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” How could the language of the Constitution be made clearer?

In signing McCain-Feingold, George W. Bush betrayed his oath of office – which requires that he uphold and defend the Constitution. We are fortunate that, under the Obama administration, the Supreme Court has chipped away at that malicious piece of legislation. But Bush left us to the mercy of Justice Kennedy, and that is hard to forgive. The liberals want to shut down talk radio, where they have proven unable to compete. They want to subsidize newspapers, which for the most part they control; they want to regulate the internet to their advantage; and they want to regulate expenditures on advertising that might affect the outcome of elections.

Freedom of speech really is our first freedom. It is our chief protection against administrative tyranny. And in a world in which greater and greater power is concentrated in administrative agencies that operate behind closed doors and issue regulations that in manifold ways shape our lives, it is our only bulwark. On the day he signed McCain-Feingold, President Bush disgraced himself.

Why he gave way I have often wondered but do not know. There is only one possible motive that I can think of. I suspect that a deal was done with John McCain to ensure the latter’s enthusiastic support in the general election. If so, Bush’s action was all the more shameful – for, if there was such a deal, it was the very model of what once was termed “a corrupt bargain” – the sacrifice of high principle for personal gain. Were I to learn that I am dead wrong in this suspicion, that Bush had some less reprehensible motive, I would be very glad – for, in many ways, I admire the man. When, in the face of almost universal opposition, he pressed on with the “surge” in Iraq, he had a moment of greatness.

  1. Gus Marvinson

    There were many things to like about Bush. The way he spent my money wasn’t one of them.

  2. Gus Marvinson

    Levin. Hammer. Nail. Head.

  3. Jimmy Carter

    I never considered President Bush “Conservative.” He was a politician through and through.

    Conservatism is a set of principles that are non-negotiable. Period. 

    President Bush’s sails were blown by the wind between the margins. A history of tit-for-tat.

  4. Not JMR

    President Bush always seemed to me to be an unusually honorable and honest man. I seriously doubt that he would ever have considered such a deal. It’s more likely that he thought the law would be, on balance, an improvement on the state of affairs back then (increased disclosure and maximum individual contribution), and that the offending parts of the bill would be struck down in any case.

  5. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Jan-Michael Rives: President Bush always seemed to me to be an unusually honorable and honest man. I seriously doubt that he would ever have considered such a deal. It’s more likely that he thought the law would be, on balance, an improvement on the state of affairs back then (increased disclosure and maximum individual contribution), and that the offending parts of the bill would be struck down in any case. · Mar 17 at 3:34pm

    Edited on Mar 17 at 03:35 pm

    If this is true — and, alas, it is not (Bush called the bill unconstitutional) — he betrayed his oath. To sign a bill that he knows to be unconstitutional in whole or in part is to subvert, not to uphold the Constitution. He knew what he was doing, and he did it. Look the maximum individual contribution itself is a limit on freedom of speech. When the Constitution says, “Congress will make no law . . .  abridging,” it admits no exceptions.

  6. Matthew Osborn

     GW Bush may have been a hawk, but he was a very progressive big government spender. Michael’s litany above should be suffcient cause shudders in any conservative.

  7. cdor

     Someone please help me. On his way out of office, after he had gotten TARP passed through Congress, Bush made an historic statement, the exact words are escaping me, but it went something like this, “I have to destroy capitalism in order to save capitalism”. That comment coming after he had broken his pledge to uphold the Constitution by illegally using those very same TARP funds, which were specifically disallowed by Congress for the auto industry, to bail out the auto industry…well that pretty much did it for me and GW. I still, however, admire his sincerely heartfelt respect for our troops.

    Mama Bush dissing Palin for no reason at all was another nail for the Bush family. I used to defend these people in conversation. Not so much anymore.

  8. The King Prawn

    I defend Bush for 3 reasons:

    1. I grew up in Midland

    2. He was not Al Gore
    3. He was not John Kerry
  9. Klaatu

    No president will ever be as conservative as I would wish.  It is the nature of the office to compromise on certain issues.  The fact that there are those on the left that believe Obama is insufficiently pure in his liberalism shows this is true at the other end of the spectrum as well.

    For me there are two reason I will always consider Bush a conservative; Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.

  10. Larry Koler

    I think the election of 2004 was extremely critical for this country. I can justify a person doing what Bush did if this important election hung in the balance. I can’t answer that question fully, but if that was honestly the calculation he was making then I can support him. The Constitution was made for man not man for the Constitution… and of course, the old trope that is essentially correct: “The Constitution is not a suicide pact.”

    Letting an anti-American traitor like John Kerry be president would be almost as bad as letting an anti-American Marxist like Barack Obama become president. Here’s the difference, though, regarding Bush: the 2004 election was more important than the 2008 election. It was probably the most important election in my lifetime.

  11. Hang On

    Paul Rahe,

    I could not agree with you more about Bush as far as McCain-Feingold. But what got me was how muted the criticism of Bush was from conservatives and Republicans when it happened. The other reason I liked Bush in 2000 had to do with his renunciation of nation building. That’s why I disagree with you about the surge and disagree about what we are doing in Afghanistan. If we had pulled out, there would have been a massive civil war. But that is what is going on among Islamic societies at the moment, and frankly who cares? American foreign policy should be for the material benefit of Americans. Period. All this democracy-building is a load of whooie. You can’t build a nation for other people. So on both domestic and foreign policy grounds, not only was Bush not a conservative, he was a disaster who tainted conservatives because they stuck with him far too much.

  12. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Klaatu: No president will ever be as conservative as I would wish.  It is the nature of the office to compromise on certain issues.  The fact that there are those on the left that believe Obama is insufficiently pure in his liberalism shows this is true at the other end of the spectrum as well.

    For me there are two reason I will always consider Bush a conservative; Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito. · Mar 17 at 5:17pm

    Those are two pretty good reasons.

  13. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Larry Koler: I think the election of 2004 was extremely critical for this country. I can justify a person doing what Bush did if this important election hung in the balance. I can’t answer that question fully, but if that was honestly the calculation he was making then I can support him. The Constitution was made for man not man for the Constitution… and of course, the old trope that is essentially correct: “The Constitution is not a suicide pact.”

    Letting an anti-American traitor like John Kerry be president would be almost as bad as letting an anti-American Marxist like Barack Obama become president. Here’s the difference, though, regarding Bush: the 2004 election was more important than the 2008 election. It was probably the most important election in my lifetime. · Mar 17 at 5:50pm

    Very interesting. Why do you regard the 2004 election as more important? My guess is that, if we had lost in 2004, Kerry would have quickly made such a hash of things that we would have been back in 2008. Obama, for all of his faults, is a more formidable politician. What was at stake in 2004?

  14. PJ

    You can’t compare Reagan and Bush 43 policy point by policy point because Bush existed in a post-Reagan world. Bush tried to give us amnesty even after the broken promises of 1986. Bush had a slew of reliable conservative jurists to pick from, carefully cultivated by the Federalist Society, which Reagan did not (and Bush still tried to give us Harriet Myers). This is not a hard question. Bush was a “compassionate conservative” who said when someone is hurting, the government has to move. Reagan was a conservative who said the scariest words in the language were “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” Reagan was right. And Right.

  15. Robert Promm

    Bush claimed to be a “compassionate conservative”.  To me this was code for a liberal who didn’t want to be labeled a liberal.

    Bush has this die-hard belief in the essential goodness of mankind.  This likely comes from his Armenian/Methodist Christian worldview.  Being on the other side of this doctrinal devide, I was always frustrated by his initiatives that I knew were doomed to failure.

    That being said, I think that he was always true to his Christian worldview.  It was the filter through which every action was passed.

  16. The King Prawn
    Hang On: All this democracy-building is a load of whooie. You can’t build a nation for other people.

    I’ve contemplated our nation building/democracy planting doctrine quite a bit and I do not see anything really good coming of it in the long run. Democracy is more method than meaning. What makes ours work (or did) was a foundation of Western political/philosophical thought that most of the world either lacks or rejects outright. Planting democracy in a field not enriched by liberty is futile at best and dangerous at worst. To tie this all back into the conservative/non-conservative question: I think true conservatism is adherence to the fundamentals that underlie certain political policies rather than adherence to the policies themselves. If Bush adhered to the fundamental concept of liberty in his policies then he was conservative. If not, then not.

  17. Ross C

    I think President Bush was conservative but made real efforts at bipartisanship in many areas.  (Examples would be No Child Left Behind and the Medicare drug benefit).  These are all areas where he will be criticized by conservatives.  I think he wanted to govern in an apolitical and statesmanlike manner.  I think this is why he did not defend himself as the left wing press ranted about him day after day.  A mistake if ever there was one.

    BTW the president does not rule alone, Republicans had control of the Senate for half Bush’ tenure and control of the house for 3/4 of that time.

  18. Michael Labeit
    Ross Conatser: I think President Bush was conservative but made real efforts at bipartisanship in many areas.  (Examples would be No Child Left Behind and the Medicare drug benefit).  These are all areas where he will be criticized by conservatives.  I think he wanted to govern in an apolitical and statesmanlike manner.  I think this is why he did not defend himself as the left wing press ranted about him day after day.  A mistake if ever there was one.

    BTW the president does not rule alone, Republicans had control of the Senate for half Bush’ tenure and control of the house for 3/4 of that time. 

    True, but all bills developed by Congress must receive approval from the President in order to become laws.

  19. Scott R

    Bush’s country wasn’t conservative, which is why he couldn’t expand HSA’s without  granting prescription drugs, which is why he got hammered trying to reform Social Security, which is why he had to fight wars with practically no one behind him, which is why he suffered politically for not over-stepping his constitutional prerogatives during Katrina, which is why he (unwisely and against his better judgment) relented to a  popular campaign finance reform bill, etc.

    Should he have stood his ground more? Sure. But the underlying problem, as always, was with us, not him, and the Mark Levin’s of the world would grasp this fact good and fast if they ever actually had to govern. Which of course they never will.