Who would have suspected that George W. Bush, a president who came into office vowing to "change the tone" of the meretricious Clinton era (a dark age when America howled under the twin lashes of peace and prosperity), would emerge as the country's leading exponent of situational ethics?
Maybe true conservatives always understood. Ever since Ronald Reagan ended his second term with the Department of Education still intact, it's been clear how little even a committed ideologue can achieve in real politics. So it's hardly surprising that Bush, who ran the most content-free campaign since some nameless William Henry Harrison stooge coined the slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler too," would produce something less than a 21st century Goldwater administration.
What's striking, however, is how regretful, hesitant and feckless Bush manages to seem whenever he does something that might agree with conservative principles. A real Republican would beam with pride after freezing the pay raises of civilian federal workers and proposing a new regime to let private companies bid for up to half of all civil work currently done by the government. Instead, Bush sounds like Dean Wormer invoking a little-known codicil in the Faber College Constitution that gives the dean absolute power in times of campus emergency.
"A national emergency has existed since September 11, 2001," Bush wrote in his announcement of the pay raise reductions. "Full statutory civilian pay increases in 2003 would interfere with our Nation's ability to pursue the war on terrorism." The precedent established here—using the US Legal Code's emergency powers language—is disturbing enough; the code allows the President to fiddle with everything from immigration levels to copper mining to military officers' commissions in times of national emergency, even an open-ended emergency like the current one.
Most telling, though, is the way this follows Bush's pattern of using circumstances to dictate what should be principled actions. Thus, the Bush tax cut is justified not by an ethical opposition to taxation but, as Reason writer Glenn Garvin has noted, by "the Keynesian argument that it would stimulate a lagging economy." (You can see how well that worked.) Important decisions about privacy and military commitments (issues that long ago, before President Nixon invented post-ideological Republicanism, were the purview of conservatives) are held hostage to whatever real and perceived emergencies the great society is confronting. The party of limited government has now created a cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security that immediately dwarfs the Departments of Education and Energy (neither of which Bush shows any inclination to do away with).
And then there are the areas where Bush actually aims to out-Democrat the Democrats. The son of the Education President has already dumped school vouchers. His conversion to Nader/Buchanan protectionism in the form of tariffs to protect the moribund domestic steel industry was motivated not by a shift in Bush's thinking but by his need to address the tight results of Rust Belt voting in 2000. Midwestern farm states have come in for similar largesse in the form of $170 billion in agribusiness subsidies. How completely "faith-based" charitable initiatives will involve Washington in formerly civil matters remains to be seen. Is it any wonder that the erstwhile head of the faith-based disbursement program is now crying the blues about Karl Rove's "Mayberry Machiavellis" and their distance from anything like political principle?
These half-maneuvers are more amazing when you consider that Bush's political position is the strongest of any president in recent memory, and that he has had uncanny success in damning opinion in order to get his way. On the Kyoto Protocol, the international criminal court, the ABM treaty and even the buildup for war with Iraq, Bush has repeatedly asserted his own will and found little but barking where fierce resistance was expected. Indeed, by choosing Henry Kissinger to head the September 11 investigation (was the altar- and Worldcom-bound Rudy Giuliani too busy to give the whitewash a fig leaf of seriousness?), Bush seems to be engaging in a Washington version of an Andy Kaufman routine—seeing how brazenly he can defy the audience before somebody starts heckling.
For slavish devotees of power, the spectacle of a Republican president racking up victories is still heady stuff, no matter what the cost in political content. But here's a lesson in the recent past: Once there was a Democrat in the White House, who scored victory after victory, on free trade, welfare reform, defense budgets, and other formerly conservative issues. Most liberals were happy enough just to see him winning, but after eight years of Bill Clinton, what did they have to show for it? It's not too late to learn history's lessons: Two members of Congress are already vowing to sneak that pay raise through, despite the President's action last week. Does anybody doubt that when the "compromise" reaches Bush's desk, he'll sign it?