Commentary

Progressive President

This article was published in Nationalreview.com, March 19, 2004.

George W. Bush is the best Democratic president of my lifetime.

That might seem like an absurd proposition. It’s hard to imagine a politician that seems less like a Democrat. Bush’s quiet self-confidence, religious convictions, and common touch are a long way from the secular mandarins that Democrats seem to prefer in the White House. Besides, the Democrats hate the guy through and through. He couldn’t be one of them.

In fact, George Bush the man is conservative and Republican beyond all doubt. Unfortunately he has governed like a Democrat — as I said, the best one in my lifetime.

If you doubt that, remember what conservatives used to say would happen if the Democrats won the presidency:

Taxes will go up. Here the president has been a reasonably good conservative for the wrong reasons. Taxes have gone down. Conservatives counseled limiting taxes to limit government. In part, President Bush did defend his tax cuts by saying the government should give taxpayers back their money. But more often his administration justified the cuts as a way to get the economy moving. That’s a Keynesian rationale for cutting taxes, an argument that reinforces the superstition that government can and should control the economy.

Government spending will get out of control. I am looking at a chart entitled “Federal Outlays as a Percent of GDP 1995-2004” prepared by my colleague, Veronique de Rugy. It is a melancholy sight. Federal spending drops like a stone from 1995 to 2000 and then rises inexorably until the present. Necessary spending on defense after September 11 does not explain the increases. Non-defense discretionary spending will have risen by 32.4 percent from 2000 to 2005.

Expensive new entitlements will become law. The American welfare state rests on entitlements like Social Security and Medicare. The welfare state has grown in three bursts, the first two under FDR and LBJ. We are living through the third burst fueled by an expensive prescription drug benefit passed at President Bush’s urging.

State functions will be nationalized. The education bill early in President Bush’s term both pumped money into public education and asserted federal control over a traditional task of the states. To be sure, the administration made the right sounds about vouchers, but they seemed more concerned about making Ted Kennedy happy.

The First Amendment will be in trouble. President Bush signed McCain-Feingold. Enough said.

Idealism will harm the national interest. Democrats vowed to vindicate human rights and democracy at unknown and perhaps enormous costs. In foreign affairs, it was said, they lacked the central conservative virtue of prudence. President Bush responded initially to the horror of September 11 in realistic and prudent fashion. Now we are rebuilding Iraq in the name of democracy.

How did we end up with a Republican administration governing like Democrats? Politics must be part of the problem. Most of the departures from Republican orthodoxy look like bids in an electoral auction aimed at assembling a winning coalition in November. But winning is not an end in itself. You win elections to enact a conservative agenda. That, President Bush has not done.

In fact, the actions of his first term suggest a governing philosophy far more worrisome than a mere partisan label. A century ago, progressives called for an expanding and centralized federal government and a renewed sense of collective purpose. They were indeed partisans of national greatness through big government, at home and abroad. Over time, their ideas informed the New Deal and its handiwork, the American welfare state. If Bush is a progressive, it’s not surprising his achievements look so much like the work of a Democratic administration.

More troubling than what the progressives wanted was what they opposed: a laissez-faire approach to economics, limited government, and individual liberty. Some of the most vitriolic attacks on the American founding came from the pens of progressives. No amount of political success or polemical skill can reconcile progressivism to a genuine American conservatism.

Will conservatives vote for President Bush? I have no doubt many will, his record notwithstanding. That’s no surprise. After all, the other choice is John Kerry, who, unlike Bill Clinton, does not even try to fake being a conservative. It is ironic indeed that at the moment of Republican triumph, conservatives are put to a choice between the less threatening of two partisans of government. That’s a dispiriting moment in the continuing struggle to revive and realize the ideals of the American Revolution.

John Samples is director of the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.