The Truman Show

The president's conservative rhetoric is missing.


It may be foolish to take a politician at his word, but it's illuminating to consider the words he feels obliged to offer. As George W. Bush read his State of the Union address, I kept thinking back to another George Bush and another speech, delivered at the 1988 Republican convention in New Orleans. The two Bushes hit some of the same themes; they even occasionally voiced similar phrases. But they existed in separate rhetorical universes. The elder Bush's speech was conservative in ways that now seem as irretrievable as the city he spoke in. The younger Bush sounded more like Harry Truman than Barry Goldwater.

I'm referring to rhetoric, not to policy. Bush I was widely regarded as a moderate merely pretending to embrace the right, and that's exactly how he went on to govern. Bush II is generally seen as a man more conservative than his father, and while a lot depends on just how you define the word "conservative," you can make a credible case for that thesis. But when the father accepted his party's nomination in 1988—the time when a candidate traditionally stops chasing his party's base and starts reaching out to the middle—he delivered an address that defended the death penalty and attacked abortion, that stuck up for school prayer and put down gun control, that declared: "I respect old-fashioned common sense, and have no great love for the imaginings of social planners. I like what's been tested and found to be true." It was this speech that included these still-famous words:

And there is another tradition. And that is the idea of community—a beautiful word with a big meaning. Though liberal Democrats have an odd view of it. They see "community" as a limited cluster of interest groups, locked in odd conformity. In this view, the country waits passive while Washington sets the rules.

But that's not what community means—not to me.

For we are a nation of communities, of thousands and tens of thousands of ethnic, religious, social, business, labor union, neighborhood, regional, and other organizations, all of them varied, voluntary, and unique.

This is America: the Knights of Columbus, the Grange, Hadassah, the Disabled American Veterans, the Order of Ahepa, the Business and Professional Women of America, the union hall, the Bible study group, LULAC, "Holy Name"—a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.

A few moments later, H.W. was announcing that public school teachers should be "required" to lead their students in the Pledge of Allegiance, an idea that rests uneasily beside the decentralized voluntarism he had just espoused. But that was a conservative idea, too. Indeed, you could argue that nothing better sums up the modern conservative creed than this careless conflation of the voluntary and the compulsory, the libertarian and the nationalist.

What did W. offer conservatives? There was a reference to "activist courts that try to redefine marriage," which he awkwardly shoehorned into the same sentence that decried a scandal in his own party. There was a short attack on human cloning, which implied but did not forthrightly state a pro-life position on abortion. For pro-market conservatives there were some mild health-care reforms, some already-enacted tax cuts, and a promise to cut the budget by $14 billion. That last item sounds less impressive when you remember, as Stephen Slivinski of the Cato Institute points out, that "In a government that spends $2.7 trillion, a spending cut of this sort amounts to only 0.5% of the entire budget. But it's also not entirely clear that these are going to be real cuts instead of just declines in the rate of spending growth. The president congratulated Congress for passing bills last year that included so-called cuts to non-security discretionary spending. Yet the newly released CBO numbers show that sort of spending grew by at least 4%."

Claiming to cut the budget while it actually grows is hardly an unconservative position. In fact, it might be the clearest sign that the president really has claimed the mantle of Reagan. But fuzzy math aside, the speech was larded with promises of new programs and new spending, among them such dubiously conservative causes as AIDS research and alternative energy.

The elder Bush mentioned energy independence as well, by the way. But when he claimed "there is no security for the United States in further dependence on foreign oil," he was making an argument to give "incentives" to "the domestic energy industry." Most in the audience understood this as a reference to the trade in which he had made his fortune, and not to the purportedly futuristic alternatives now touted by his son.

In short, if you could transmit W.'s domestic rhetoric back to the middle of the century, there would be little there to offend a northeastern Democrat. (The southerners might not like the warm allusions to Martin Luther King.) The brief comments on gay marriage and cloning would sound less like right-wing talking points than like issues from another planet. Even the dismissive reference to people who "say that the government needs to take a larger role in directing the economy" would lose its sting by the end of the speech, after the listener has heard all the ways the president wants the government to take that role after all.

And international issues? Both father and son called for active American leadership and military strength, and both attempted to link the image of an engaged America to the idea of freedom on the march. But in the Reagan era, H.W. was speaking as an anti-Communist arguing with liberal doves. W. consciously framed his foreign-policy pitch as a challenge to "isolationists," harkening back to World War II and the early days of the Cold War. If the result was Reaganesque, it was even more Trumanesque; he came off as an internationalist scolding the anti-warriors of the right. As W. himself put it: "American leaders—from Roosevelt to Truman to Kennedy to Reagan—rejected isolation and retreat, because they knew that America is always more secure when freedom is on the march." Three fourths of that quartet is Democratic, and the Republican remainder was a Democrat himself until 1962.

There is a difference, of course, between a campaign speech and a State of the Union address. But even in office, Bush the First felt the need to talk like a conservative even while he acted like a moderate—denouncing a Democratic civil rights proposal as a "quota bill," for example, before signing legislation that quietly encouraged quotas. Bush the Second reserves his social conservatism for particular issues and particular audiences, preferring to wrap even his most right-wing social initiatives in the warm fuzz of "compassion." In 1988, the vice president of the United States decided that conservative red meat would play well with the electorate. In 2006, his son lacks the courage of his nominal convictions.