Tue, Nov 09, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Bush's victory: Political death for conservatives

George W. Bush's worldview is more in tune with the modern liberalism of Senator John Kerry and former president Woodrow Wilson than is the conservative tradition of classical liberalism espoused by the US' founding fathers

By Doug Bandow


After Nov. 2 the Republican Party seems to have it all: continued possession of the US presidency and expanded control of Congress. Ironically, however, President George W. Bush's victory has killed the US' conservative movement. The Republican Party and conservative movement have lost their souls.

American conservatism grew out of the classical liberal tradition that birthed the US. Republicans emphasized their commitment to individual liberty and limited constitutional government.

They believed Washington to possess only specific enumerated powers. The most important domestic issues were matters for the states. Internationally the US needed to be strong but responsible: War was a tool to protect US security, not remake the world.

Most important was conservative recognition of the limitations of political action. Economist Thomas Sowell observed how the right had a "constrained" view of mankind: no amount of social engineering could transcend humanity's inherent imperfections. In contrast, modern liberals held an "unconstrained" view, that is, they believed in the perfectibility of human beings and institutions.

Although Republican Party operatives and their conservative supporters often placed political expediency before philosophical purity, most of them formally resisted expanding government power. And occasionally -- during Ronald Reagan's presidency, for instance -- they actually rolled back one or another program.

In 2000 candidate George W. Bush ran within this conservative tradition. But he has turned the Republican Party into another vehicle of modern liberalism, little different from the Democrats.

Spending by the national government has raced ahead at levels more often associated with the Democratic Party. The Bush administration has pushed to nationalize local issues, expanding federal controls over education, for instance.

Bush engineered the largest expansion of America's welfare state in decades, a poorly designed but hugely expensive pharmaceutical benefit. And Bush's officials shamelessly lied about the legislation's cost. The Republicans' spending excesses threaten to undo the president's celebrated tax cuts.

The administration terms its expansion of government as a form of "empowerment." But this is just another name for nanny-state regulation. White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card admitted that Bush "sees America as we think about a 10-year-old child," requiring Washington's benevolent guidance.

In international affairs, Bush most dramatically diverged from traditional conservativism, advancing an international agenda breath-taking in its arrogance. First, he launched a preventive war based on bad intelligence, but offered no apologies for his mistake.

His substitute justification, that of promoting -- or really imposing -- democracy on a recalcitrant Islamic society harkened back to liberal warmaking in the tradition of former president Woodrow Wilson. Abandoning traditional Republican skepticism of foreign aid, Bush sought to win Iraqi hearts and minds by providing garbage trucks and creating a postal zip code system. Such utopian social engineering seemed more appropriate for liberal Democrats such as Senator John Kerry.

Equally disappointing was Bush's commitment to executive prerogative. Administration supporters explicitly and administration members implicitly questioned the patriotism of anyone who criticized the president's Iraq policy. He brusquely dismissed fiscally-responsible members of Congress who advocated trimming the administration's Iraqi aid program.

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