Righteous Anger: The Conservative Case Against George W. Bush

December 11, 2003 • Commentary
This article originally appeared in The American Conservative on December 11, 2003.

Some liberals admit that they hate President George W. Bush. Many conservatives say they are appalled at this phenomenon. Indeed, some of them believe any criticism of the president to be akin to treason. So much for the political tone in Washington.

American politics have never been for the faint‐​hearted. Even George Washington suffered some public abuse, and presidential campaigns involving revolutionary luminaries John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were vitriolic. After the Civil War, Republican candidates routinely waved the “bloody shirt”; one GOP stalwart denounced the Democrats as the party of “Rum, Romanism and Rebellion.”

The GOP did not treat Harry Truman with kid gloves, and Democrats never let fairness impede their attacks on Barry Goldwater in 1964. Richard Nixon was widely reviled on the Left. Some fringe partisans expressed sorrow that John Hinckley failed in his assassination attempt against Ronald Reagan. And then there was Bill Clinton. Some Republicans saw him as a drug‐​dealing murderer whose wife killed family friend Vincent Foster.

Now Jonathan Chait of the New Republic says simply, “I hate President George W. Bush.” Not one to hold back, he explains, “You decide Bush is a dullard lacking any moral constraints in his pursuit of partisan gain, loyal to no principle save the comfort of the very rich, unburdened by any thoughtful consideration of the national interest, and a man who, on those occasions when he actually does make a correct decision, does so almost by accident.” More concisely, charges James Traub in the New York Times Magazine, “George Bush is a craven, lazy, hypocritical nitwit.”

Chait’s recent essay has triggered a spate of conservative responses. Bush is wonderful, liberals are irrational, and the whole thing is bad for America. These are rather hilarious arguments coming from conservatives. For instance, New York Times columnist David Brooks calls the phenomenon of the Bush haters a “core threat to democracy.” Yet, as Brooks acknowledges, the Clinton years were also well populated with haters. Brooks now regrets having not spoken out more clearly against the latter.

Better late than never, perhaps, but his conversion looks awfully convenient, as does that of other conservative Bush defenders. Hatred of Bill Clinton never made sense. In contrast, anger was fully justified.

I never understood why conservatives invested so much emotion in Clinton. He was a charming and bright but enormously flawed, highly ambitious man of few principles. That warranted criticism, not hatred. But I joined in early and often. During his first summer of discontent I urged Clinton’s critics to “pile on” as opposition mounted to his policies. Over the years there was a moral imperative to take aim in the target‐​rich environment: the attempted government takeover of the health‐​care system, the pork‐​barrel stimulus package, the use of jackboot tactics against critics of federal policies, the endless claims of victimization, the unjustified Kosovo war, the sale of administration access for campaign contributions, the special‐​interest Whitewater and cattle‐​futures pay‐​offs, the sustained efforts to cover up such abuses, and the presidential perjury in federal court proceedings.

Clinton was properly impeached. He should have been removed from office. The rule of law demanded no less.

Similarly, though George W. Bush is very different from Bill Clinton, hatred makes no sense. But anger is appropriate.

Much of the liberal case against President Bush is barely short of silly. His election was not illegitimate. Whether or not the candidate with the most votes should win, that’s not what the U.S. Constitution says. Blame the Founders, not George W. Bush.

Complaints about Bush’s fabled inarticulateness and privileged background are superficial. More worrisome are his partisan focus, demand for personal loyalty, and tendency to keep score, but these are hardly characteristics warranting hatred.

The charge that he’s a crazy right‐​winger is beyond silly. Other than tax cuts—which have benefited the rich only because the rich paid, and still pay, most of the taxes—virtually nothing of conservative substance has happened. Government is more expansive and expensive than ever before.

Jonathan Chait must have been smoking funny cigarettes when he wrote, “[I]t’s not much of an exaggeration to say that Bush would like to roll back the federal government to something resembling its pre‐​New Deal state.” Sad to say, inaugurating limited private retirement accounts is not the same as eliminating Social Security, let alone dismantling the Leviathan that has grown up in Washington.

James Traub contends, “Today’s Republican Party is arguably the most extreme—the furthest from the center—of any governing majority in the nation’s history.” This is the Republican Party that has embraced as its own every liberal initiative, from Lyndon Johnson’s Medicare to Jimmy Carter’s Department of Education to Bill Clinton’s AmeriCorps. This is the Republican Party preparing to enact a Medicare drug benefit that would represent the largest expansion of the welfare state in 40 years. This is the Republican Party that is increasing federal education spending as if doing so had something to do with the quality of local schools. This is the Republican Party that is increasing spending faster than during the Clinton years. Right‐​wing extremists? For the Left, liberal means centrist, and moderate conservative approaches fascist. Really conservative is off the spectrum.

But this president deserves to be criticized. Sharply. By anyone who believes in limited, constitutional government.

First, George W. Bush, despite laudable personal and family characteristics, is remarkably incurious and ill read. Gut instincts can carry even a gifted politician only so far. And a lack of knowledge leaves him vulnerable to simplistic remedies to complex problems, especially when it comes to turning America into the globe’s governess.

Second, despite occasional exceptions, the Bush administration, backed by the Republican‐​controlled Congress, has been promoting larger government at almost every turn. Its spending policies have been irresponsible, and its trade strategies have been destructive. The president has been quite willing to sell out the national interest for perceived political gain, whether the votes sought are from seniors or farmers. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 encouraged the administration to push into law civil‐​liberties restrictions that should worry anyone, whether they are wielded by a Bush or a Clinton administration.

The president and his aides have given imperiousness new meaning. Officials are apparently incapable of acknowledging that their pre‐​war assertions about Iraq’s WMD capabilities were incorrect; indeed, they resent that the president is being questioned about his administration’s claims before the war. They are unwilling to accept a role for Congress in deciding how much aid money to spend.

Some of Bush’s supporters have been even worse, charging critics with a lack of patriotism. Not to genuflect at the president’s every decision is treason. In two decades of criticizing liberal politicians and positions, I have rarely endured the vitriol that was routinely spewed by conservatives when I argued against war with Iraq over the last year. Conservative papers stopped running my column; conservative Web sites removed it from their archives. That was their right, of course, but they demonstrated that it was not just the Clintons who were fair‐​weather friends.

Third, President George W. Bush has made Woodrow Wilson the guiding spirit of Republican foreign policy. A candidate who criticized nation building is now pursuing global social engineering. The representative of a party that once criticized foreign aid is now pushing lavish U.S. social spending abroad, demanding that it be a gift rather than a loan.

And the administration has advanced a doctrine of pre‐​emption that encourages war for allegedly humanitarian ends. Attempting to justify the Iraqi war retrospectively by pointing to Saddam Hussein’s manifold crimes, the president apparently believes he may attack any nation to advance human rights. Ironically, the Bush administration has adopted as its policy the question posed by then UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright to then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell: what’s the use of having this fine military you keep talking about if we don’t use it?

The negative practical consequences of this policy are all too evident. Ugly foreign governments from Iran to North Korea have an incentive to arm themselves, quickly, with WMD to deter a U.S. preventive assault.

Iraq has become a magnet for terrorist attacks while becoming a long‐​term dependent under U.S. military occupation.

Anger towards—indeed, hatred of—Washington is likely to continue growing, even in once friendly nations. It will be difficult to maintain an imperial foreign policy with a volunteer military.

Liberals should identify with the Bush record. He is increasing the size and power of the U.S. government both at home and abroad. He has expanded social engineering from the American nation to the entire globe. He is lavish with dollars on both domestic and foreign programs. For this the Left hates him?

The tendency to hate, really hate, opposing politicians surely is not good for American democracy. It is not rational to hate George W. Bush, just as it was not rational to hate Bill Clinton. But after spending eight years hating Clinton, conservatives who complain about the Bush‐​haters appear to be hypocrites.

George W. Bush enjoys neither royal nor religious status that would place him beyond criticism. Whether or not he is a real conservative, he is no friend of limited, constitutional government. And for that the American people should be very, very angry.

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