Bush’s Failure: More than Incompetence

Writing on opinionjournal.com, Joseph Bottum offers a conservative case against President Bush—sort of.  But in doing so, he actually reveals the larger problem with much of the conservative movement these days.

Bottum argues that the problem with the Bush administration is not the lack of a conservative ideology, but a lack of competence.  Bush has tried to do the right thing, but messed up the execution.  It’s hard to argue with any critique of the Bush administration’s competence.  Yet look at the list of “good things” that Bottum says the Bush administration has tried to do: reform education, fix Social Security, restore religion to the public square, assert American greatness, appoint good judges.  Bush has generally appointed good judges (the Harriet Miers fiasco aside).  But the other items on Bottum’s list, except for Social Security reform, are all hallmarks of big government conservatism. 

As I point out in my new book, Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought down the Republican Revolution, conservatives once opposed things like a federal takeover of education or giving tax dollars to private charity.  Now a new brand of conservatism has no problem with big government as long as it can be used to achieve conservative ends.  Just look at some of what President Bush has done:

  • Enacted the largest new entitlement program since the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, an unfunded Medicare prescription drug benefit that could add as much as $11.2 trillion to the program’s unfunded liabilities;
  • Dramatically increased federal control over local schools while increasing federal education spending by nearly 61 percent;
  • Signed a campaign finance bill that greatly restricts freedom of speech, despite saying he believed it was unconstitutional;
  • Authorized warrantless wiretapping and given vast new powers to law enforcement;
  • Federalized airport security and created a new cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security;
  • Added roughly 7,000 pages of new federal regulations, bringing the cost of federal regulations to the economy to more than $1.1 trillion;
  • Enacted a $1.5 billion program to promote marriage;
  • Proposed a $1.7 billion initiative to develop a hydrogen-powered car;
  • Abandoned traditional conservative support for free trade by imposing tariffs and other import restrictions on steel and lumber;
  • Expanded President Clinton’s national service program;
  • Increased farm subsidies;
  • Launched an array of new regulations on corporate governance and accounting; and
  • Generally done more to centralize government power in the executive branch than any administration since Richard Nixon.

Yet, Bottum offers no criticism of this agenda.  Instead he is upset that Bush “fumbled” the faith-based initiative. What Bottum and others need to understand is that the biggest failure of the Bush administration (and its allies in Congress), is not incompetence but an abandonment of conservatives’ traditional belief in limited government.