For a long time, I've argued that there wasn't much profit to talking about Bush as a conservative, right-wing, or extremist President. Sure, he betrayed his promise to "change the tone" in Washington. But conservative isn't a word loaded with bad connotations, unlike "liberal," and more importantly, it concedes too much: Bush is not conservative in the least, certainly not in the Burkean sense in which conservative means respecting a pre-existing order and our duty to future generations, or even in the vulgar sense of merely favoring a smaller government.
Chris Caldwell of the Weekly Standard, who's probably the smartest conservative writer around, and certainly the one with the broadest cultural range, makes a similar point in the Financial Times (requires regi$tration, so I'll quote at length)
Caldwell quotes Howard Dean calling Bush "the most radical president we've ever had," and CNN analyst William Schneider calling him, "the most right-wing president ever." Caldwell comments, "Crowd-pleaser though it may be, there is no credible basis for this charge. Correct or not, one can assemble a logical argument that Bush is a bad president. Or that he is slow-witted or uninspiring or smug. But not that he is radical. It is a dubious proposition, in fact, that he is governing from 'the right' at all."
Before going on, let's point out that there's a difference between conservative/right-wing and radical. The term radical was never even associated with conservatism until the late '60s, and referred to groups like the John Birch Society, which were as dedicated to the destruction of the existing order as the radical left-wing groups of the time like the Weather Underground. But in the sense that "radical" means a change down to the very roots of society, it may be more suited to Bush than conservative. It is exactly right to call the underlying vision of his tax policy, which is a system that taxes exclusively income from labor, and exempts income from investment, "the most radical idea since socialism," to quote John Edwards.
But in most other cases, and particularly when it comes to government spending, the administration and Congress are not operating from any deep principles of government, just seeing what they can get away with to benefit their friends and contributors, and figuring out how to win an election so they can keep doing it. On social issues such as gay marriage, abortion-related questions, and affirmative action, the noisy grinding of the gears as they calculate just how to hit the spot where they won't alienate either their base or swing voters makes it obvious that the question of what the President actually believes is a story to be crafted later, by speechwriters.
Caldwell also argues that the administration is neither conservative nor consistently hardline on foreign policy, but that's a tough question and I don't want to take it on right now. I suspect historians will struggle for years over the meaning of the "Bush Doctrine," and even whether it is a doctrine at all or just an occasional pose.
Caldwell argues that to compare Bush either to his father or to Ronald Reagan
"is to seek the wrong model for Mr. Bush's modus operandi. The current president of the U.S. follows Richard Nixon ... in his embrace of path-of-least-resistance politics. It is to Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's political plenipotentiary, who entered Republican politics in the late 1960s, that we owe the recrudescence of the Nixon style: throwing opponents off-balance by allying with liberal constituencies, passing reasonable facsimiles of socialist legislation and avoiding all actions that fit into Democratic speechwriters' stereotypes -- a tactic that makes opponents look like woolgathering fabricators at campaign time."
Now, I hate to hear the word "socialist" used to refer to any aspect of the social safety net almost as much as I hate words like "fascist" used to describe conservatives, so I'll just ignore that bit of innuendo. Otherwise, Caldwell has a reasonable description of the Bush strategy: Just as Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency and oversaw the quiet expansion of Social Security by cost-indexing of benefits and the creation of Supplemental Security Income for the disabled, among other things, Bush expanded Washington's control power in education through No Child Left Behind and, in the Medicare bill, created the biggest new entitlement since Medicare itself.
If this is correct, it adds an important dimension to the debate over "Bush-hating." It's now beyond dispute that Nixon's presidency was close to the high-water mark for American liberalism in domestic policy, and very much an extension of the Kennedy-Johnson administrations that preceded it. It was only in the Nixon administration, after all, that the U.S. came within a hair's breadth of an actual welfare state, in the form of a guaranteed income crafted largely by Daniel Patrick Moynihan But, as David Greenberg shows in his fine recent book, Nixon's Shadow, it took the hindsight and discipline of historians to recognize this. Most liberals let their well-founded Nixon-hatred blind them to the complexity of his agenda. Greenberg has a great quote from a young Bob Kuttner, later editor of The American Prospect, writing in the Village Voice in 1973,"My God, he's dismembering the Great Society before the Texan's boots are cold." Had liberals understood just how Nixon's initiatives would compare to everything that would follow in the next thirty years, they might have thought about him a little differently, although his ethics and his expansion of the Vietnam War are not small matters.
But there are significant differences between Nixon's liberalism and Bush's domestic initiatives. For one thing, the Nixon-era initiatives were pretty sound and responsible, with the exception of wage and price controls. No one doubts the efficacy of the EPA or the idea that disabled people should be protected from becoming destitute. In many ways, they were sounder than the cutting edge of the Great Society, particularly the Office of Economic Opportunity, whose doctrine of "Maximum Feasible Participation" by poor people in designing local social programs was an invitation to political problems, especially because the local groups that could organize that participation were not yet established. (An amusing footnote to this is that the man Nixon brought in to gut the OEO was a young Illinois congressman, Donald Rumsfeld, who in turn hired a recent PhD on an American Political Science Association fellowship named Dick Cheney. And their receptionist was a well-bred, well-connected recent graduate from New Jersey named Christie Todd.)
Bush's domestic initiatives, on the other hand, are as disgraceful to liberals as to conservatives. The Medicare bill may be the biggest new entitlement in generations, but it is more of an entitlement to insurance companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers and employers than to the beneficiaries. As Caldwell puts it, "even the basic plan is indecipherable...The president is right to call this a new kind of entitlement: It is the first entitlement that you have to hire an accountant to take advantage of." It is impossible to see how this scam will form the basis for a better-structured entitlement in the future. The same is true of No Child Left Behind.
Caldwell argues that "Mr. Bush has built his re-election around policies that will help him personally in the next election but harm his party thereafter. Republicans will not long wish to defend the education bill. Nor will they be able to fund the Medicare benefit fully, as voters will surely demand. The political risk is that the drug benefit will allow Mr. Dean, should he become the Democratic nominee, to re-establish himself as a centrist."
I wish that were true. I do think that the backlash against the Medicare bill is not long in coming, and No Child Left Behind is already one of the most locally unpopular federal initiatives in a long time. But as I've written before, it's not easy for Democrats to find centrist language that shows how they would do things differently, that goes beyond the liberalism of "more." As it is, I suspect the backlash against this crappy, lazy, irresponsible legislation will not be a call to improve it, but simply another backlash against government. "Look at this Medicare mess," seniors will say: "government can't do anything right!" And when Americans are pissed off at government, who do they call? Republicans.
It will take a very subtle politician to change this dynamic, in which Bush gets credit in the short-term for expanding social spending, and the Republicans retain the advantage in the long term because of the hostility to government its will create. (I'll take up the question of whether this is deliberate in another post.) Until they craft an alternative vision, Democrats are much better off establishing the "logical argument that Bush is a bad president" than granting him the totally undeserved credit for being a conservative one.