by Nathan Beaton | Bush’s legacy might be the end of 20th century conservative thought.
Eight years ago, George W. Bush was inaugurated 43rd President of the United States, having campaigned on the promise of a new era of “compassionate conservatism.” Notwithstanding, the implication that generic conservatism alone was not and is not compassionate, Bush’s compassionate conservatism hastened the crippling fractures in the Republican Party that are responsible for its current malaise. Compassionate conservatism was not merely a rhetorical shift in conservatism; it was the articulation of a prevailing shift in conservative thought. This dramatic change merits the close attention of Republicans and conservatives and may be Bush’s least discussed legacy.
To the Bush administration and many modern Republicans, conservative policies are simply the most effective means of engendering results, a charge usually leveled at Democrats by Republicans. “It is compassionate,” Bush said, “to actively help our citizens in need. It is conservative to insist on accountability and results.” The former president and his fellow compassionate conservatives view government as a tool of economic and social engineering, albeit as advocates of conservative rather than liberal solutions. While Reagan argued that “government’s first duty is to protect the people, not run their lives,” Bush spent his time in office arguing not that private health care was better because no government should be capable of mandating economic choices, but that it was more efficient; arguing not that taxes should be lowered because taxing toward a government surplus was unjust, but that tax cuts would stimulate economic growth. Thus quietly did the Republican Party abandon individualism in favor of the general welfare, an ideal so elastic as to be without meaning.
In fairness, Bush was not the first and will not be last to argue the consequential benefits to conservative policies. He will be, however, the president remembered for subjugating conservative faith in individualism for these concerns. This utilitarian attitude belies previous understandings of modern conservatism, which emphasizes a cautious distrust of government meddling and advocates for personal freedom not on the basis that it produces the best outcomes, but that it is the best process, preferring even imprudent personal choices to prudent governmental ones.
That is not to say that Bush’s presidency has been an unequivocal failure. He has given conservatives and all reasonable Americans causes to celebrate. The selections of Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito offer the one prominent example of traditional, deontological conservatism from the Bush administration. Exiting the Kyoto Protocol was the right decision. In spite of early combative rhetoric against China, Bush leaves the presidency with Sino-American relations much improved while American relationships with Australia and East Asian democracies have not suffered as a result. That this issue has not been prominently discussed in the last eight years is a testament to Bush’s diplomacy.
The negative consequences of Bush-era conservatism have outweighed these successes, however. Under his watch, subsidies have increased for faith-based charities, foreign nations, domestic farmers, and a host of other interest groups. Compassionate conservatism has revealed itself to be big government conservatism. It is conservative tax policies and liberal spending; don’t tax, but spend. At the same time, because the Bush administration sees freedom as tool to promote international stability and domestic success and not as important for its own sake, it is unsurprising that Bush willingly entered a legal nebulous by authorizing the detainment of “enemy combatants” without habeus corpus and authorized other questionable expanses of government power at the expense of personal liberty. To him it is the result, suppression of terrorism, rather the process, which is paramount.
Perhaps the worst legacy of this aspect of the Bush administration is that it is has cultivated in the minds of segments of the American the expectation that it is the government’s–and particularly the president’s–responsibility to create jobs, to mitigate the lows and amplify the highs of the business cycle. Ironically, by promoting economic liberty as a means of achieving prosperous ends rather than supporting freedom in its own right, Bush has set the stage for citizens to readily forfeit those very rights to future administrations in the name of economic prosperity when the inevitable bad times come.
These current times are such bad times. The new president, Barack Obama, ascends to the office with, in his own words and in the opinions of the American people with the “job of… putting people back to work.” Bush did not create the problem of Americans expecting too much from their governments, but he did undercut the intelligentsia that would once combat this line of thinking. Whether these changes will calcify or are simply a brief interruption in a line of libertarian conservatism will, as Bush loves to say, be judged by history. But what is known is that while Bush’s presidency may have been compassionate, that compassion was never extended to conservatism.
Mr. Beaton is a freshman who has not yet declared a major.