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.