Clinton Lite. Is that what American conservatism has come to in the 21st century? It’s a complex story, as there are many competing strands in President George W. Bush’s agenda.
Of course, Bush will never match the ambitious view of government of his predecessor, who managed to propose 104 new federal initiatives in 89 minutes in his last State of the Union speech. Still, in this week’s speech, Bush did manage to recommend that the federal government spend taxpayers’ money on such Clintonesque programs as a new hydrogen-powered automobile, drug treatment, mentors for disadvantaged children, AIDS treatment in Africa and a massive new prescription drug entitlement for the elderly. It’s a far cry from the individualist, free-market, less-government conservatism of Barry Goldwater, the 1964 presidential nominee and author of The Conscience of a Conservative, who inspired a generation of conservative activists, and Ronald Reagan, who later put into practice much of Goldwater’s agenda.
Conservatives used to believe that the US Constitution set up a government of strictly limited powers. It was supposed to protect us from foreign threats and deliver the mail, leaving other matters to the several states or to the private sector — individuals, families, churches, charities and businesses.
Bush has rejected the clarity of that vision, seeking a sort of Third Way between Reagan and Clinton. During the 2000 election, he campaigned across the country telling voters: “My opponent trusts government, I trust you.” But in speeches to more liberal audiences, he ridiculed “the destructive mind-set … that if government would only get out of the way, all our problems would be solved” and declared that “government must be carefully limited but strong and active and respected within those bounds”.
His State of the Union agenda can only make us ask: Where are those bounds? If the federal government should build cars, train mentors for children and treat AIDS in Africa, what are the limits of its responsibilities? Traditional conservatism recognizes limits to government’s wisdom and abilities.
Washington’s new big-government conservatism is a product of several factors. First, Republicans spent so many years complaining about the budget deficit that they got out of the habit of arguing that some programs just weren’t the business of the federal government; the deficit was an all-purpose reason to oppose new programs, but when the deficit (temporarily) disappeared the spending spigots opened.
Second, Republicans feared offending any group by denying its claims on the federal purse, so they conceded the moral high ground to the big-government crowd.
Third, the limited-government conservatives and libertarians were joined by the neoconservatives, who brought with them both a keen understanding of the threat of communism and an expansive view of the role of government. As Bush adviser Stephen Goldsmith put it in The Wall Street Journal yesterday: “Compassionate conservatism does accept continued state action, but advocates altering that action to fit common conservative principles.” The original “neocons” were former communists who lost their faith in revolutionary socialism but not their willingness to use government to accomplish one’s goals. Today’s neocons, such as Weekly Standard editor William Kristol (son of neocon godfather Irving Kristol) call for “national greatness”, not for limited government, and look to Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman, not James Madison and Goldwater, as their models.
The same shift is visible in foreign policy. In his campaign, Bush talked about restraint and humility: “If we don’t stop extending our troops all around the world in nation-building missions, then we’re going to have a serious problem coming down the road.” Obviously the terrorist attacks of September 11 (though indeed they demonstrated the risks of foreign interventionism) changed the focus of US foreign policy; but the shift in Bush’s agenda goes far beyond tracking down the al-Qa’ida network that attacked the US.
Now the US is undertaking “nation-building” missions in Afghanistan and soon in Iraq, challenges that will be far more difficult than Clinton’s mission in the Balkans. Worldwide interventionism is risky business. It is no easier to run the world than to run a national economy, and the costs may be even greater.
When they’re given a chance to vote, Americans don’t like big government. Last November 45 per cent of the voters in the most left-wing state in the Union, Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts, voted to abolish the state income tax, despite dire warnings from even conservative pundits that the measure would wreck vital services. On the day that Bush spoke to the nation, Oregon’s liberal electorate voted 55-45 to reject a proposed tax increase, thereby instructing the legislature to implement substantial spending cuts.
Given that US election laws have made incumbents virtually impregnable, and campaign finance restrictions make it hard to fund outsider candidates, it is hard to produce political leaders who will challenge the status quo.
For now, the best hope is the schizophrenia in Bush’s agenda. Inspired by the worldwide trend toward free markets and the rise of the investor class in the US, Bush combines his little bits of big government with a promise to cut taxes at the margin and to bring choice, competition and individual control to two of the linchpins of the welfare state: education and social security.
If he succeeds in those endeavors, we may yet see a new birth of freedom in the US.