Bush the Conservative Liberal


Here's an interpretation of Dubya you won't see on Fox News Channel (or CNN, for that matter). Writes George Mason Univ.'s Peter Berkowitz in the Boston Globe:

Progressives are not alone in taking offense over how President Bush has governed. Some conservatives too have been dismayed, particularly by what they have derisively referred to as Bush's "big government conservatism." Yet as his administration makes its mistakes, rolls with the punches, and adapts to changing circumstances, the president reveals himself to be a pragmatic conservative who knows in his gut that it is a liberal welfare state that he wishes to reform, and to conserve. This will continue to discomfit purists on both sides. And it may prove attractive to a majority in 2004, not only in the Electoral College but in the popular vote as well.

Btw, if Bush does win a majority of the popular vote in 2004, he'll be the first president to do so since his dad in 1988.

Read all of Berkowitz's interesting commentary here.

[Link via Arts & Letters Daily.]

NEXT: Electric Power to the People!

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  1. I more or less agree with Plutarck. In a thread that started yesterday, people soon got onto the question of whether slavery was supported by “liberals” or “conservatives.” In the 19th century, as throughout most of American history, there were 2 primary political factions in the US. It would be great if we could point to one of those two factions and say “That faction is equivalent to such-and-such faction today. So such-and-such faction today is pro-slavery and can be disregarded.”

    But the “us vs. them” is really a story of two constantly changing coalitions trying to accrue power. Sure, the two factions go by the same names now as then (Democrat and Republican) but they’ve both changed so much that comparisons with their manifestations 140 years ago are meaningless.

    So what is Bush? He’s a very skilled panderer who keeps a coalition of core supporters happy and does his best to woo just enough swing voters to maintain his grip on power. Except he mostly woos them with bigger gov’t (more spending) rather than smaller gov’t (tax cuts with spending increases are just a way of saddling today’s children with interest payments. Better to cut the spending AND the taxes.).

    Anyway, we can call him a liberal or we can call him a conservative, or a moderate, or whatever. Doesn’t change what he actually does to keep power.

  2. Actually Thoreau, I think Bush works the other way around.

    I believe he keeps his base just content enough to guarantee their presence at the polls next November, while working hard to nail down the 10% of voters right in the middle. There is no other way to explain the mish-mash administration position on civil rights issues (affirmative action, Title IX); the environment; trade protectionism (some tariffs, some free trade measures) and so forth. It’s calibrated pandering to reach the undecided voter…

    After all, what’s the Republican base going to do… vote Green or Dem?

    If there was a viable third party, this calculus would be different. If the greens were stronger, it would likely push the Dems to the center, as hard left voters would leave the Dems for the Greens. If the libertarians were stronger – it’s hard to say but I think the Republicans would become Ted Kennedy Lite, all paternalism, all the time, while libertarian leaning Republicans of a number of stripes – a cross section of the party – would leave.

  3. thoreau,

    “In the 19th century, as throughout most of American history, there were 2 primary political factions in the US. It would be great if we could point to one of those two factions and say ‘That faction is equivalent to such-and-such faction today.'”

    Hmmmm…. Isn’t that pretty much Ann Coulter’s methodology? When even Horowitz takes her to task for her sophomoric “College Republicans” approach to history, it’s hard not to be embarassed for her.

  4. On civil rights, it’s pretty misleading to claim any stable identity of the “two political factions” in their attitude toward it.

    It’s quite true, as the neocons love to point out, that the main opponents of the CR Act were southern democrats, and that it wouldn’t have passed without Republican support.

    What they deliberately fail to mention is that the Republicans in question were Eisenhower or Rockefeller Republicans; and those southern Democrats put their sheets in the closet, joined the GOP and went on to become its Congressional leadership. The GOP’s “southern strategy” deliberately tailored the party’s appeal in 1968 to southern whites who were disaffected over integration.

  5. Bush: Nixon without the sweat…

  6. Peter Berkowitz’s piece is often quite confused:

    “…Bush as a fiend bent on destroying all that progressives hold dear… Bush’s priorities differ from theirs not because he rejects their deepest principles?individual freedom…”

    Progressives deepest principles include individual freedom?? On what planet? This reveals much about Berkowitz’s biases.

    “By maintaining high levels of domestic federal spending…Bush has governed in a manner that should not leave progressives foaming with rage.”

    But,it should enrage conservatives and libertarians for sure and progressives too, even if they care not a wit for principle but at least honestly consider the harmful long term effects on the less affluent of bloated federal spending.

    “Bush’s conservatism is certainly less rigid and doctrinaire than that of Newt Gingrich and his minions…”

    Actually, Gingrich was not among the conservatives dedicated to cutting back on the growth of federal spending and often sought to impead their efforts.

    “… who swept to power in 1994 and, in a most unconservative spirit, sought to remake the federal government by drastically reducing its size….”

    So, in Berkowitz’s world, what is the very essence of conservatism (reducing the size of the federal government) is “unconservative”. Again, this tells us much about Berkowitz’s leanings.

    “Bush seems to have more or less made his peace with a New Deal-style welfare state…he supports extending federal oversight of public schools in line with the hopes of many Democrats, he proposed in his 2003 State of the Union address an additional $400 billion over 10 years to strengthen Medicare; and going beyond Clinton administration rhetoric, he also asked Congress to commit $15 billion over the next five years to fight AIDS in Africa.” and “… Bush has significantly increased discretionary domestic spending…”

    It’s clear, Bush is no conservative at all. Republican conservatives are bending to Bush’s designs for big government where they resisted Clinton’s. The result is that we now have an explosion in the growth of the federal government compared to the Clinton years and the economy is suffering as a result. There are good, principled conservatives in congress and we should
    encourage them to resist the Bush liberalism and advance individual liberty. You can tell the good guys from the bad by going to the National Taxpayer Union site.

    “…coupled with a distrust of distant government bureaucrats …(a distrust that the president has apparently overcome in matters of education and health care).”

    Notice, that for Berkowitz, distrust of government bureaucrats is something to “overcome”.

    “While Bush has not yet accomplished much on behalf of… faith-based initiatives, his approach demonstrates his preference for market-based solutions.”

    As Jean Bart observed:
    “A welfare state via “private” actors is a welfare state all the same.” And also, faith-based initiatives harmfuly co-opts a segment of society that should act as a countervailing force to the state in an environment with good church-state seperation. The right has at least as much cause to oppose faith-based initiatives as the left and fortunately many conservatives in congress continue to do so.

    “…(Bush) who had campaigned against nation-building on the grounds that the US military should be reserved for fighting to protect America’s vital security interests…”

    And his administration had to concoct wild lies to justify the jettisoning of these wise principles.

    “Some conservatives too have been dismayed, particularly by what they have derisively referred to as Bush’s “big government conservatism.”

    With just reason, the Bush record is clear.

    “…the president … knows in his gut that it is a liberal welfare state that he wishes to reform, and to conserve.”

    At the end, Berkowitz resorts to silly, verbal gymnastics to justiy calling Bush a “conservative”.

    Posted by Rick Barton ( I accidentally hit the “forget personal info” button)

  7. Peter Berkowitz’s typically obtuse academic commentary follows the model for that kind of thing by describing Bush’s vision on policy and sagely predicting that it may well prove attractive to the voters.

    He has it backwards. Bush’s vision encompasses the first Tuesday after the first of November 2004; he and his team see this clearly, and plan for it with zeal and industry. The administration’s policy emerges from its preparations for the next campaign, not the other way around.

    The exception, of course, is security policy. George Bush could not have imagined those airliners slamming into the World Trade Center almost two years ago and everything that has flowed from that event. Ironically, though, he owes to that most of his political strength right now. If 9/11 never happened, Bush would be in desperate political trouble right now. The point is that running an election campaign and running a government are two completely different things; outside of the security area, Bush has the people who advised him on the first advising him on the second. They are not doing that well.

    Incidentally, I notice that Berkowitz also follows current fashion by describing what Bush knows “in his gut.” In other words, he infers Bush’s principles from his administration’s actions. He can hardly do anything else, because Bush himself has not articulated any of the ideas Berkowitz ascribes to him. The idea that in, for example, going along with a gold-plated farm bill or a prescription drug benefit Bush may just be following the path of least political resistance seems not to have occurred to him.

  8. I thought that this was the standard interpretation of most politicians (at least the variety who are going to get elected). Pragmatic yet ideological.

  9. BTW, I can’t see how you can fund “faith based programs” without also assuming the existance of a welfare state, or at least some sort of apparatus to hand out the checks to the NGOs who now function as a welfare agency would. A welfare state via “private” actors is a welfare state all the same.

  10. I have my doubts that he’s trying to “reform” anything, just make it more the way he wants it. Fucked up, but fucked up his way.

  11. agreed. the bush administration has many flaws in the eyes of a libertarian, but great (egregious?) flaw is the EXPANSION of the welfare state in all directions while reducing its revenues.

    and i’d take exception to the implied pragmatism. there’s little pragmatic about running the sort of defecits our federal government now is, nor of the level of public debt now owed by it.

  12. He certainly isn’t pragmatic in foreign policy. Shifting resources from Al Qaeda to an ideological, elective war in Iraq because of Big Ideas is as far from pragmatic as you can get.

  13. Jean,

    Most Libertarians are opposed to “faith based programs” for reason you state.

  14. Sorry–opposed to government funding of faith based programs (and other NGOs) for the reasons you cited. (must remember to engage brain before typing).

  15. Pragmatic as in prudent policy, or pragmatic as in getting elected? I think it’s all about the latter. His incoherent big government welfare-state conservatism [sic] is probably a pretty good embodiment of what the majority of the electorate says it wants.

    This guy does make a good point: I really can’t understand why anyone would accuse him of being a conservative. Or for that matter, praise him for being a conservative. That’s one thing he isn’t.

  16. dude,

    Prudence, once the virtue of Kings (or so wrote Machiavelli), is now the purview of the general public (which is why we have opinion polling).

    BTW, Bush is clearly a “religious conservative.”

  17. WLC,

    I knew what you meant. 🙂

  18. Richard Millhouse, anyone?

  19. The thing about Bush is that, in some ways, he combines the worst elements of Liberals with the worst elements of Conservatives.

    It is Conservative to want lower federal income taxes, and Bush has been a success in that regard. Yet when it comes to spending money at the federal level, Bush has outdone any Liberal that was ever in his position, with the exception of FDR. In this case, the combination of an otherwise good Conservative trait becomes really, really bad when you combine it with a Liberal trait – you get huge budget deficits. I know, I know, some level of deficit is supportable by borrowing and some more is supportable if you assume some level of economic growth, but I really worry about the levels of debt that our federal government is taking on.

    But the area where Bush really falls flat is in his social policies. He is a religious zealot, which is one of the worst characteristics of many Conservatives (I, too, am a religious man, but as a general rule I don’t let religion rule my political thinking). Plus, he wants the long arm of the federal government to continue to have a greater impact on the lives of everyday Americans. He is a classic nanny-statist, which is one of the worst characteristics of many Liberals. The combination the two (religious zealot + nanny statist) is a threat to the very liberties we enjoy under the Constitution in this country. And that’s a BAD thing.

  20. I still think it’s all Ashcroft’s fault.

  21. Apis – if that’s the case, then it’s Bush’s fault for choosing Ashcroft, and then giving him carte blanche to extend the long arm of the federal government into the realm of our Constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties.

  22. Brad S.,

    France has the same problem regarding tax cuts and spending. Raffarin, Chirac, etc. are reducing taxes, yet at the same time government spending increases (admittedly Raffarin, etc. are trying to at least check this growth, which is more than can ge said for Bush, etc.).

  23. Speaking of everyone one’s fav, Ashcroft, I just heard on the radio that he’s bringing the Magical Patriot Tour to my state (Ohio, the heart of it all(tm)) today! Sadly, I’ll probably not be able to attend.

    How much are the taxpayers shelling out for this? Reminds me of Bill & Hillary’s endless junkets.

    the Magical Patriot Tour
    is coming to take you away
    coming to take you away. . .

    take you todaaaaay!

  24. “Btw, if Bush does win a majority of the popular vote in 2004, he’ll be the first president to do so since his dad in 1988.”

    The FEC website shows the popular vote results for the 1996 presidential election as:

    Clinton: 47,402,357
    Dole: 39,198,755
    Perot: 8,085,402

    Unless I’m mistaken, Clinton had a majority of the popular vote that year…


  25. Actually, something similar to this did appear on Fox News. Or at least on its website.

    I wrote it:


  26. I think the whole Conservative/Liberal dynamic is utter bullshit – it is simply an ongoing us-vs-them game which is constantly changed and redefined to take advantage of collective identity and group loyalty. So, for instance, it use to be liberal and academic to oppose all aggregations of power, including the state, and now it has managed to switch around such that supposedly liberals are for aggregating power to the government; all the while conservatives do the same damn thing, it’s just that this presents a contradiction to the whole paradigm, which is individually weaker than the strength of conservative-vs-liberal itself, and as such it is simply ignored and discounted, and the ‘theory’ is not discarded as it should be.

    Historical examples abound, once you begin looking for them. Thus Stalin (or was it Lenin?) and Hitler were both conservatives, until the ‘left’ began taking a liking to the commie one, and as such their positions were simply redefined to fit their favored groups.

    It use to be the Conservative thing to do to oppose state ordered religion like having government agents lead or command/call for prayers and oaths (pre-pledge of allegiance days, though maybe even a generation earlier than that), and yet now you are practically a Jesus-murdering commie atheist for not being rigidly in favor of such things.

    Such culture feeds upon the human cognitive tendencies to ignore or discount contradictions (humans don’t automatically think like scientists), overestimate the homogenity of groups to which one does not belong (as with the term “Native Americans” or “Indians”, or what have you, which makes it seem like one people, which is about as acurate as calling the people of the middle ages “Europeans” – they typically included 5+ individual tribes on a reservation, some of which had always been at war with each other, and then wondered why they didn’t get along!), Us-vs-Them group dynamics, conformance to socio-cultural norms, and probably countless others. It’s damn effective, but it seems to me more and more by the day to be an utterly misleading, false, and unproductive way of looking at the world in any way.

  27. Oh, he’s ALL boy! Heh heh!

  28. I cannot imagine Bush being able, in a personal give and take, to articulate anything except what his handlers give him. Anne Richards tells a story about when he ran against her as Texas Governor. A reporter would say “good morning” and he would reply ” every child deserves an education”.

    I don’t believe Bush is in charge.

  29. Lefty: If you look real close, that’s Ceney’s arm buried up to it’s elbow in Dubya’s back door. The puppet may not have strings, but that ain’t no real boy, either.

  30. Cheney. Damn, I need some sleep.

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