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What if Bush is a Nixonian Liberal?

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.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on December 22, 2003 | Permalink


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But the Republicans will increasingly have the flip side of the problem: they won't be able to run against the government when they are the government. You can't have a one-party state consisting solely of an opposition-- not for long, at least.

Posted by: Matt McIrvin | Dec 22, 2003 7:21:52 PM

Bush is actually closer to Lincoln then any other President. The Demorats need to be careful. If Howard the Duck gets the nomination, it will be the end of the party. He will suffer a defeat of Biblical proportions. Plus President Bush's coatails will get a filibuster proof Senate and the house will fall to double digits in democrats. The really wacko left will go to the Greens and the center to the Liberarians. As a Palo-con, I would hate to see that. America needs a two party system. A single huge party and several splinter groups would be a diaster in the war we are facing.
919 (A vote for Dean is a vote for Osama).

Posted by: ableiter | Dec 22, 2003 7:49:10 PM

Well, Ableiter, I suppose you might as well have a cluster of hallucinogenic observations in one place.

Posted by: James R MacLean | Dec 22, 2003 8:02:25 PM

Bush as a Nixonian political pragmatist - whatever it takes to stay in power. Seems like a well reasoned commentary to me.

At least Nixon was competent. Dems shouldn't be charging "he's a radical" when there are more fundamental, tangible issues like a fiscal train wreck and a military quagmire to proclaim.

It's the stupid incompetence. Or to borrow a well-worn cliche': It's the incompetence, stupid!

Posted by: Martin Smith | Dec 22, 2003 9:30:38 PM

First time visitor to your blog. I plan to visit more often.

It seems that the Republicans, and Bush in particular, have broken the code. Spend like a liberal and tax like a conservative, and damn the torpedoes. Republican missteps in the past have all been marked by a foolish regard for consequences. Bush saw what happenned to his father when he chose reponsibility over pandering. He won't make the same mistake.

Posted by: libertas | Dec 22, 2003 10:10:02 PM

The "screw everything up so people will dislike the government and vote Republican" (aka cake and eat it too) concept is one I hadn't thought of before, and it's just screwy enough to be scary.

For success, it hinges on Republicans not becoming the party of big government, in spite of the current massive spending increases and huge deficits. That seems largely dependent on the press coverage.

Will Republicans be able to avoid the big government appellation? Well, Tim Russert sat meekly by on Sunday while Tom DeLay claimed that (1) current deficits are small by historical standards, (2) Spending growth under Bush II has been 4% (more like 7%!), (3) Republicans get credit for balancing the budget under Clinton (even though they all voted against). And besides, DeLay added, balancing budgets is what they did in the Soviet Union, there's no need to do it here (No, really, he said it. I swear.) So, I am, sadly, not hopeful.

Still, policies this bad (i.e., massive spending and regressive tax cuts) will have to come home to roost at some point. But in 2004? 2008? 2012?


P.S. By 2012 seems like a certainty, given that the sunsets in the tax cuts mostly kick in between 2008 and 2010, so the President at that time will have to allow substantial tax increases or further damage the budget outlook--just as the baby boomers retire in force.

Posted by: Angry Bear | Dec 22, 2003 10:48:58 PM

You have to strip out Bush' necessary responses to events, and Karl Rove's political tactics and expediencies, to get to Bush' (or Bush Administration's) radicalism. Even if they only moved forward by a few inches, his initiatives are defined by a view that what's good for corporate America is good for the whole. Tax cuts, Medicare, school vouchers, forest policy, energy policy, defense operations policy, pension fund investment, SEC reform, media ownership, and so on: all these policies and initiatives aren't guided simply by political fund-raising as the left accuses. They represent a belief that goes beyond elitism and privatisation to an acceptance that corporate wisdom and management style is best for the country. Perhaps Cheney is part of the backbone of this thinking; Enron was there too, but shook GW's beliefs a little.

This is pretty radical, if you take David Brooks' Sunday NYT piece at face value, that Bush is going to promote recasting all sorts of safety basket functions, government or corporate, as contracts between individuals and specialist for-profit providers.

Now, as with Medicare they might not get very far, and even end up going in reverse. But that doesn't make him any less radical for trying; it's a WSJ editorial page view of the world, and that's pretty radical.

paulo, http://whosecapitalism.typepad.com/

Posted by: paulo | Dec 23, 2003 1:01:37 AM

Outstanding blog. I agree that many of Bush's actions are not conservative. His expansion of government benefits, his huge homeland security department and his anti-federalism when states don't do what his Administration wants are not hallmarks of an ideologically consistent conservative philosophy.

However . . . if as you allude, his support of a prescription drug benefit turns people against government and leads to privatization of Medicare (and perhaps social security) then Bush may end up being the most conservative president ever. Coupled with a huge deficit, Bush and Rove may be paving the way for reversing the New Deal.

If this is intentional (and Grover Norquist quotes give us every reason to believe that it is) then the claims about Bush's conservatism may not be off base.

Posted by: Stuart | Dec 23, 2003 3:29:20 PM

"But the Republicans will increasingly have the flip side of the problem: they won't be able to run against the government when they are the government. You can't have a one-party state consisting solely of an opposition-- not for long, at least."

Posted by: Matt McIrvin at December 22, 2003 07:21 PM

Actually, I think that you can - how long did communists call opponents 'counter-revolutionaries'? Even when the people in power were second-generation.

Reagan, who was (IIRC) a two-term governor of one of the largest states in the US, had no problem casting himself as opposed to government. The WSJ editorial page ranted about 'inside the beltway thinking' throughout the decade I read them - and there're few people who are more concerned with the details of federal government than they are.

Posted by: Barry | Dec 23, 2003 9:18:08 PM

Shorter Caldwell: Don't saddle us conservatives with George W. Bush. He's such a bad president he's beneath ideology.

Posted by: Ken | Dec 24, 2003 12:59:07 PM

Well written piece.

I think Bush is more of a Big Government Conservative than a liberal. The historical precident is worrisome.

Posted by: Jim Ausman | Dec 30, 2003 3:43:32 AM

I think there is one fundamental difference to point out between Bush and Nixon (besides many obvious ones). Nixon was politician, he knew politics, played politics, knew government, and could get smart reforms passed (which actually worked to the benefit of many people, such as American Indians), whereas Bush is a businessman (and a poor one at that), and seems not to understand good social policy (the energy bill for pete's sake) or even care as long as he is doing right by the wealthy (hey the dow is rising, everything must be fine). The best ideas he can come up with are new and old ways of transfering taxpayers money to wealthy people (starting wars, not closing tax loopholes for war contractors, starting back up nuclear program, adding prescription drug coverage, opening anything he can to government subsidized extraction, sticking public with environmental cleanup whenever possible). I don't think Dean will be able to reform all the many things in america that need common sense reform, but at least he has an overarching moderate agenda 70% of the country can agree with (if only the lazy media would read his damn website that has outlined his views for nearly a year now instead of reporting uninformed attacks from desperate rivals).

Posted by: Dan Morelli | Dec 30, 2003 4:19:11 AM

actually, they're even cutting funding for now child left behind.

Posted by: yoni | Dec 30, 2003 3:25:52 PM

The old left/right divisions are crumbling. There is now only pro-corporation vs. pro-democracy. We haven't come up with pithy names for them yet, but "left" and "right" are dead. Bush Jr. is clearly a pro-corporation radical. Bush I, Clinton, and our President Gore were pro-corporation moderates. (Michael Moore calls Clinton "the best Republican President we've ever had", and he's right). Kucinich's and the Libertarians' are the only real pro-democracy presidential platforms I've seen so far. Dean and Clarke are flirting with anti-corporate rhetoric but they want to get elected, so don't expect anything better than moderation from them.

The exciting part of this is watching the far-"left" Greens and far-"right" Freep'ers find common cause in opposing NAFTA, the WTO, the WIPO, the World Bank, the WEF, the USA-PATRIOT Act, the FTAA-- in short, if pro-democracy forces put our old "left" vs "right" differences aside, we can possibly make some gains against the global corprorate-droids and maybe even forge a new populist majority. In fact, it's the only way it'll happen.

What I really want to do is shrink corporations down until they're small enough to be drowned in a bathtub.

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