bush, the conservatives, and the 2008 election
Although I'm a Republican, I try to stay away from politics in this blog, because I'm not an expert and probably won't convince anybody, anyway. Certainly I can't defend President Bush from all of his many enemies, who blame him for everything from the war in Iraq to the weather on the Gulf Coast (OK, the response to the weather, but you get the idea). But one recent criticism bears a more considered response.
The critique is basically this: not only is Bush bad for liberals, but he has even ceased to be a real conservative, and has indeed abandoned the conservative cause in a way that justifies his rejection by both parties. The critique has a certain chutzpadik (nervy) quality to it--it's rather impressive to be bad for liberals and conservatives at the same time--but it has made the rounds of books and talk shows and appears to be catching on among a certain (mostly liberal) kind of audience.
As I understand it, the critique is based mostly on three areas: (i) taxes and spending, (ii) immigration, and (iii) defense and foreign policy, with a little bit of social and cultural policy thrown in for good measure. Let's consider these in reverse order:
Defense and foreign policy.--Bush is accused of substituting neo- for old time-conservatism because of the war in Iraq and supposed "giveaways" like the ports deal and assistance to India's nuclear program. But the opposition to the ports deal was pure jingoism, and the alliance with India is both vital and inevitable given the deterioration of relations with Russia and perhaps China, as well. In any case what moral basis is there to say that India, a peaceful nation with over one billion people, cannot have nuclear weapons while France (or Israel) can? As for Iraq, I have no more to say except this: would we really be better off with both a Saddam-headed Iraq and an Ayatollah-headed Iran on the road to nuclear weapons, and together controlling nearly half the world's oil supply? It is not Bush's philosophy but the facts that changed in each of these cases.
Immigration.--Bush, it is suggested, is not a real conservative because he proposes amnesty for "illegal" aliens and doesn't spend millions on an electrified fence along the Mexican border. This seems to me the weakest accusation against him. Anti-immigrant sentiment is both morally distasteful and a sure political loser; just ask anyone in California. Pete Wilson's anti-immigrant stance ruined the Republican Party there for almost a generation.
Taxes and spending.--Bush is accused of abandoning conservative principles by running a deficit and increasing spending on Medicare and similar programs. This is the most serious accusation, and there is a real disagreement between different branches of conservatism on these issues (see below). But the issue is not that simple. The deficits result primarily from tax cuts which, like it or not, have been conservative gospel for thirty-plus years now. Medicare is admittedly way too expensive, but that results mostly from medical (especially pharmaceutical) advances, and paying these costs is consistent with a philosophy of compensating people for problems they cannot reasonably be expected to have avoided, on their own. There is also a certain, well, hypocrisy in liberal critics raising these issues. Does anyone really think that the Democrats would spend less on these programs, or reduce the size of Government in general?
Perhaps the real argument here is not whether Bush is a conservative, but what kind of conservative he is. Today's Republican Party is an uneasy marriage between the old GOP of small government/isolationism and the Southern or Tory Democrats who tend to be interventionist in foreign policy, conservative on social issues, and willing to use government to reward those kinds of behavior (entrepreneurship, religion, etc.) that they consider to be positive and punish those they consider destructrive. In this tug of war Bush leans about 2/3 of the way toward the second alternative. This may not please some northern Republicans (including myself), but it roughly reflects the balance within the party, and it is doubtful any other Republican president would do things a whole lot differently.
Whether all this matters much is a different question. If one plots the Presidential elections beginning in 1940 and 1980 respectively, and switches the two parties around, one notices an almost astonishing symmetry in the outcomes. Not only is the pattern of results identical so far (AAABBAA, with A the majority party in each era), but even the margins of victory are similar, together with other coincidences that are almost too spooky to talk about. To wit:
1940/1980 Majority party hero (Roosevelt/Reagan) wins decisively
1944/1984 Same as previous election
1948/1988 Majority party candidate who started as hero's VP (Truman/Bush I) wins come from behind victory
1952/1992 Minority party candidate (Eisenhower/Clinton) gets solid but not crushing win
1956/1996 Same as previous election
1960/2000 Majority party candidate, scion of a dynastic family (Kennedy/Bush II) reclaims the Presidency in a widely disputed election
1964/2004 Majority party candidate re-elected; returns to ranch in Texas and watches his popularity evaporate over an unpopular war
If this pattern holds up--we are now at the equivalent of 1966--the Democrats should win something like four of the next five elections regardless of what the Republicans do. This assumes that the newer pattern, under which all Presidential candidates must be named either Bush or Clinton, does not supersede it and turn our entire system, a la ancient Rome, from a democracy into an alternation of two or three powerful families. There is apparently someone in Italy who has written a book to this effect, finding American equivalents to Julius and Augustus Caesar and everyone else in the transition from Republic to Empire (I haven't read the book, although I'm guessing Bush wasn't Augustus Caesar, maybe I'm wrong here). As the prospectus would say, past performance is no guarantee of future results. But it sure is fun to talk about.