If Bush Is a Conservative, the Word Has No Meaning

Writing for National Review, Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute seems surprised that conservatives like Reagan but disapprove of Bush.

Conservatives have not been happy with George W. Bush. For each brand of conservatism, there is a different critique. Not so with Ronald Reagan, whom conservatives uniformly praise for various reasons. Seventy-nine percent of those in attendance at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference said they would prefer a candidate who is a Reagan Republican. Three percent would go for a G. W. Bush Republican. One gets the impression that Bush isn’t even considered a conservative.

But maybe Novak is confused because he doesn’t understand conservatism. He assumes conservatives are upset about deficits and debt, when the anger is really because of wasteful government spending. He writes, “Some say that Bush’s budget deficits prove he is not a conservative.”

Novak then lists several Bush “accomplishments,” most of which expand the size and scope of government. Most conservatives, for instance, presumably think that families and private institutions should be responsible for moral teachings, yet Novak claims that Bush’s subsidies for abstinence education are a conservative victory: “He dedicated unprecedented funds to abstinence education through the Department of Health and Human Services.”

“He was the first president to sign a school-choice bill to give parents greater freedom in deciding where their children will be educated.”

Bush’s record on education is particularly disappointing, with record spending increases and more centralization, yet Novak claims Bush is a conservative because of a tiny school choice program (which shouldn’t be operated with federal dollars anyway).

“He has dedicated funding to prepare prisoners for productive lives after they leave prison.”

Novak praises Bush for programs that ostensibly rehabilitate prisoners, but it is unclear why this is a responsibility of the federal government. Nor is there any evidence that Bush’s rehabilitation strategy would work any better than the left’s rehabilitation approach.

“He signed the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, which will curb Medicare/Medicaid spending by $11 billion over the next five years.”

Bush has increased federal spending more than twice as fast as needed to keep pace with inflation, and entitlements have been growing at three times the rate of inflation. But Novak thinks Bush is a conservative because a so-called Deficit Reduction Act that included $11 billion of savings. Yet this is the same president that added trillions of dollars of new Medicare spending by creating a prescription drug entitlement. Moreover the savings are only savings using the Washington definition – i.e., not increasing spending as fast as previously planned. After the “cuts,” for instance, the Medicaid budget was projected to grow 7.6 percent annually, compared to a projection of 7.8 percent before the legislation was adopted.

One of the many disappointments of the Bush presidency is an increase in regulation, particularly the hugely expensive Sarbanes-Oxley legislation, yet Novak makes a completely unsupported assertion that Bush believes in deregulation:

“He implemented deregulation across all government agencies.”

Perhaps the most amazing assertion in Novak’s article is that the creation of a new entitlement program is conservative. It also is interesting to note that Novak apparently believes that a program is conservative if it has popular approval. That means the looming minimum wage hike also is conservative (though not as conservative as the prescription drug entitlement, since only 70 percent of Americans foolishly think that government can raise the wage level). Moreover, the assertion that the program is “under budget” is rather odd. I wonder if he would be willing to bet (akin to the Ehrlich-Simon wager) whether the program 10 years from now will cost more than projected:

“He signed into law prescription drug assistance for the elderly — the first and only health-care reform in modern history to win a nearly 90-percent approval rating and to come in substantially under budget.”

To be fair, however, Novak was certainly correct when he wrote that “President Bush has defined a new kind of conservatism.” It may have nothing to do with limited government. It may be a complete reversal of Reagan’s policies, but it definitely is new (though Democrats surely can argue that they’ve been peddling these ideas for decades).