Monday, September 08, 2003

I'm really fighting this feeling that when he said earlier this week that whenever someone's "hurting," the "government has to move", he essentially jumped the shark. Maybe I'm just in a down mood about politics generally, but every day it seems more and more like the President is moving the Republican Party to the kissy-huggy liberal center at the behest of Rovian imperatives. I'll tell you, if he goes all Souter when/if there's a Supreme Court vacancy, I don't what I'll do. Ramesh noted a while back that when the Democrats move left, so does the GOP because the Center gets abandoned. It seems to me that's exactly what's happening and it just bums me out.

There seems to be a winter of discontent brewing on the Right, specifically in relation to the Bush Administration’s domestic policy. Andrew Sullivan (who seems to have gotten a lot more tense since his vacation) has been even more strident.

In three years, Bush has managed to wreak so much havoc with the nation's finances it's very hard to see who could do worse. In his first three years, you have an increase in domestic discretionary spending of 20.8 percent, compared to a decrease of 0.7 percent for Bill Clinton. If a Democrat had this record, do you think Republicans would let him off the hook? Here's Tom DeLay in 1995: "By the year 2002, we can have a federal government with a balanced budget or we can continue down the present path towards total fiscal catastrophe." If Clintonomics was a "fiscal catastrophe," what would an intellectually honest DeLay say about Bush? (I know an intellectually honest Tom DeLay is a bit of magical realism, but bear with me.) We don't just have big tax cuts; we have a big leap in discretionary spending, huge hikes in agricultural subsidies, no reform of corporate welfare, a huge new entitlement for prescription drugs, big jumps in the number of people employed indirectly by Uncle Sam, and on and on. Looking ahead, the future looks even worse - and that's even before we try and tackle the entitlement crunch of the boomer retirement. The GOP has to be punished for this. They run the Congress; and they're now officially worse than Democrats at keeping government solvent or small. Clinton was way, way better. Honest conservatives know this. Dishonest partisans look the other way.

Ouch. Sullivan actually sidles up to giving a tacit endorsement to Howard Dean as a preferable choice in the fiscal conservative department. This general frustration on the right hasn’t coalesced around any particular issues yet (although the growing deficit could become the rallying point), and its worthy to recall that Bush’s fiscal policy doesn’t look much different from Ronald Reagan’s at the moment, i.e. tax cuts and deficit spending. We’re also, and I hate to bring this up, involved in something like a war, and at least some of the normal rules of government expansion and expenditure simply don’t apply at the moment.

However, it seems clear that Bush is pursuing roughly the same strategy of Bill Clinton: talking fringe and governing center. Now obviously, there are serious differences of personality and character between the two men, Bush lacks Clinton’s aversion to action and his capacity for doubletalk, as well as possessing a far more substantial backbone (Clinton could never have stood up to the type of pressure Bush faced down over the Iraq War), but on domestic and fiscal policy, Bush does seem intent on echoing Clinton’s strategy of coopting the rhetoric and ideology of the opposition. I don’t think there can be much arguing with the fact that, notwithstanding the Left’s semi-psychotic hatred of him, Bush is the most liberal Republican president since Richard Nixon. Lest we forget, that’s exactly what he sounded like when he ran for president.

Bush ran as a “compassionate conservative”, in other words, a conservative that wasn’t the type of mean, nasty conservative that was personified by Newt Gingrich and the Clinton impeachment (which was, beyond a doubt, the dumbest political move of the last 20 years, notwithstanding the fact that the man was guilty as hell). Whenever he tried to delineate exactly what "compassionate conservativism" was, it sounded very, very much like liberalism. Conservatives looked the other way for the best of reasons: they were sick of being out of power and they thought all this “compassionate conservative” rhetoric was just that; warm, touchy-feely stuff everyone ignores when they get down to the dirty business of governance.

I think we made a mistake. We thought we were buying an authentic conservative when what we got was just another “modern Republican”, a man who is convinced that certain aspects of big government Liberalism are here to stay and its better not to fight self-destructive battles against programs like the prescription drug entitlement, which, however ill-advised, are popular with a large segment of the electorate. Major changes in the established order of things are not going to come from this man.

And don’t get me wrong, I like Bush. I think he is, to a great extent, a shockingly honest man for a politician, and someone who genuinely loves this country and intends to defend it against enemies within and without. I think he understands the threat of terror and how to deal with it effectively and I don’t think he’s going to allow philo-totalitarian academic charlatans or vainglorious European politicians hamper our efforts. These are, at the moment, the most important things in my book, which is why, no matter what, I intend to vote for him in the next election.

I am not harboring illusions, however, that he is going to reduce the size or role of government, or even curtail its growth, nor is going to appoint a strict constructionist to the Supreme Court, take a strong stance against affirmative action, or make any serious attempt to reform the public school system. And yes, Teddy Kennedy is going to get away with a lot. Bush will cut taxes and try not to raise them again, that’s the best we can hope for. It’s a shame really, he could have been a truly great president.


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