The Conservative Case Against George W. Bush

by William Bryk

Theodore Roosevelt, that most virile of presidents, insisted that, “To announce that there should be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American people.” With that in mind, I say: George W. Bush is no conservative, and his unprincipled abandonment of conservatism under the pressure of events is no statesmanship. The Republic would be well served by his defeat this November.

William F. Buckley’s recent retirement from the National Review, nearly half a century after he founded it, led me to reflect on American conservatism’s first principles, which Buckley helped define for our time. Beneath Buckley’s scintillating phrases and rapier wit lay, as Churchill wrote of Lord Birkenhead, “settled and somewhat somber conclusions upon… questions about which many people are content to remain in placid suspense”: that political and economic liberty were indivisible; that government’s purpose was protecting those liberties; that the Constitution empowered government to fulfill its proper role while restraining it from the concentration and abuse of power; and that its genius lay in the Tenth Amendment, which makes explicit that the powers not delegated to government are reserved to the states or to the people.

More generally, American conservatives seek what Lord Acton called the highest political good: to secure liberty, which is the freedom to obey one’s own will and conscience rather than the will and conscience of others. Any government, of any political shade, that erodes personal liberty in the name of social and economic progress must face a conservative’s reasoned dissent, for allowing one to choose between right and wrong, between wisdom and foolishness, is the essential condition of human progress. Although sometimes the State has a duty to impose restrictions, such curbs on the liberty of the individual are analogous to a brace, crutch or bandage: However necessary in the moment, as they tend to weaken and to cramp, they are best removed as soon as possible. Thus American conservative politics championed private property, an institution sacred in itself and vital to the well being of society. It favored limited government, balanced budgets, fiscal prudence and avoidance of foreign entanglements.

More subtly, American conservatism viewed human society as something of an organism in itself. This sense of society’s organic character urged the necessity of continuity with the past, with change implemented gradually and with as little disruption as possible. Thus, conservatism emphasized the “civil society” – the private voluntary institutions developed over time by passing the reality test – i.e., because they work – such as families, private property, religious congregations and neighborhoods – rather than the State. In nearly every sense, these institutions were much closer to the individuals who composed them than the State could ever be and had the incidental and beneficial effect of protecting one’s personal liberty against undue intrusion from governments controlled by fanatics and busybodies, that which Edmund Burke presciently called the “armed ideologies,” and thus upheld our way of life as flying buttresses supported a Gothic cathedral.

But the policies of this administration self-labeled “conservative” have little to do with the essence of tradition. Rather, they tend to centralize power in the hands of the government under the guise of patriotism. If nothing else, the Bush administration has thrown into question what being a conservative in America actually means.

Forty years ago, when Lyndon Johnson believed the United States could afford both Great Society and the Vietnam War, conservatives attacked his fiscal policies as extravagant and reckless. Ten years ago, the Republican Party regained control of Congress with the Contract with America, which included a balanced-budget amendment to restore fiscal responsibility. But today, thanks to tax cuts and massively increased military spending, the Bush administration has transformed, according to the Congressional Budget Office, a ten-year projected surplus of $5.6 trillion to a deficit of $4.4 trillion: a turnaround of $10 trillion in roughly 32 months.

The Bush Administration can’t even pretend to keep an arm’s length from Halliburton, the master of the no-bid government contract. Sugar, grain, cotton, oil, gas and coal: These industries enjoy increased subsidies and targeted tax breaks not enjoyed by less-connected industries. The conservative Heritage Foundation blasts the administration’s agricultural subsidies as the nation’s most wasteful corporate welfare program. The libertarian Cato Institute called the administration’s energy plan “three parts corporate welfare and one part cynical politics…a smorgasbord of handouts and subsidies for virtually every energy lobby in Washington” that “does little but transfer wealth from taxpayers to well-connected energy lobbies.” And the Republican Party’s Medicare drug benefit, the largest single expansion of the welfare state since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, was designed to appeal to senior citizens who, as any competent politician knows, show up at the polls.

None of this is conservative, although it is in keeping with the Bush family’s history. Kevin Phillips, whose 1969 classic The Emerging Republican Majority outlined the policies that would lead to the election of President Reagan, describes in his American Dynasty the Bush family’s rise to wealth and power through crony capitalism: the use of contacts obtained in public service for private profit. Phillips argues the Bushes don’t disfavor big government as such: merely that part of it that regulates business, maintains the environment or aids the needy. Subsidizing oil-well drilling through tax breaks, which made George H. W. Bush’s fortune, or bailing out financial institutions, such as Neil Bush’s bankrupt Silverado Savings and Loan, however, is a good thing.

This deficit spending also helps Bush avoid the debate on national priorities we would have if these expenditures were being financed through higher taxes on a pay-as-you-go basis. After all, we’re not paying the bill now; instead, it will come due far in the future, long after today’s policy-makers are out of office. And this debt is being incurred just as the baby boomers are about to retire. In January 2004, Charles Kolb, who served in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush White Houses, testified before Congress that, at a time when demographics project more retirees and fewer workers, projected government debt will rise from 37 percent of the economy today to 69 percent in 2020 and 250 percent in 2040. This is the sort of level one associates with a Third World kleptocracy.

Even worse than this extravagance are the administration’s unprecedented intrusions into our constitutional privacy rights through the Patriot Act. If it does not violate the letter of the Fourth Amendment, it violates its spirit. To cite two examples, the FBI has unchecked authority through the use of National Security Letters to require businesses to reveal “a broad array of sensitive information, including information about the First Amendment activities of ordinary Americans who are not suspected of any wrongdoing.” Despite the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable search and seizure, the government need not show probable cause: It does not need to obtain a warrant from a judge. And who can trust any law enforced by John Ashcroft, who single-handedly transformed a two-bit hubcap thief like Jose Padilla first into a threat to national security and then, through his insistence that Padilla, an American citizen, could be held without charges, into a Constitutional crisis?

All this stems from Bush’s foreign policy of preemptive war, which encourages war for such vague humanitarian ends as “human rights,” or because the United States believes another country may pose a threat to it. Its champions seem to almost joyously anticipate a succession of wars without visible end, with the invasion of Iraq merely its first fruit: former Bush appointee Richard Perle, from his writings on foreign policy, would have us war against nearly every nation that he defines as a rogue. The ironic consequence of this policy to stabilize the world is greater instability. It reminds me of the old FDR jingle from the Daily Worker:

I hate war, and so does Eleanor,

But we won’t feel safe until everybody’s dead.

To be sure, there’s more than enough blame to go around with the Congress’ cowardly surrender to the Executive of its power to declare war. The Founding Fathers, who knew war from personal experience, explicitly placed the war power in the hands of the Congress. As James Madison wrote over 200 years ago:

“The Constitution expressly and exclusively vests in the Legislature the power of declaring a state of war… The separation of the power of declaring war from that of conducting it is wisely contrived to exclude the danger of its being declared for the sake of its being conducted.”

But since the Korean War (which the Congress defined as a “police action” to avoid using its war powers), war has been waged without its formal declaration. Thus Congressional power atrophies in the face of flag-waving presidents. Perhaps Congress is too preoccupied with swilling from the gravy trough that our politics has become to recall its Constitutional role as a co-equal branch of government, guarding its powers and privileges against executive usurpation. The Congress has forgotten that the men who exacted Magna Carta from King John at sword point instituted Parliament to restrain the executive from its natural tendency to tax, spend and war.

Moreover, there is nothing conservative about war. As Madison wrote:

“Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. [There is an] inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and…degeneracy of manners and of morals…No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”

By contrast, business, commerce and trade, founded on private property, created by individual initiative, families and communities, has done far more to move the world forward than war. Yet faith in military force and an arrogant belief that American values are universal values still mold our foreign policy nearly a century after Woodrow Wilson, reelected with a promise of keeping America out of World War I, broke faith with the people by engineering a declaration of war within weeks of his second inauguration.

George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign supposedly rejected Wilsonian foreign policy by articulating both the historic Republican critique of foreign aid and explicitly criticizing Bill Clinton’s nation-building. Today, the administration insists we can be safe only by compelling other nations to implement its vision of democracy. This used to be called imperialism. Empires don’t come cheap; worse, “global democracy” requires just the kind of big government conservatives abhor. When the Wall Street Journal praises the use of American tax dollars to provide electricity and water services in Iraq, something we used to call socialism, either conservatism has undergone a tectonic shift or the paper’s editors are disingenuous.

This neo-conservative policy rejects the traditional conservative notion that American society is rooted in American culture and history – in the gradual development of American institutions over nearly 230 years – and cannot be separated from them. Instead, neo-conservatives profess that American values, which they define as democracy, liberty, free markets and self-determination, are “universal” rather than particular to us, and insist they can and should be exported to ensure our security.

This is nonsense. The qualities that make American life desirable evolved from our civil society, created by millions of men and women using the freedom created under limited constitutional government. Only a fool would believe they could be spread overnight with bombs and bucks, and only a fool would insist that the values defined by George W. Bush as American are necessarily those for which we should fight any war at all.

Wolfowitz, Perle and their allies in the Administration claimed the Iraqis would greet our troops with flowers. Somehow, more than a year after the president’s “Mission Accomplished” photo-op, a disciplined body of well-supplied military professionals is still waging war against our troops, their supply lines and our Iraqi collaborators. Indeed, the regime we have just installed bids fair to become a long-term dependent of the American taxpayer under U.S. military occupation.

The Administration seems incapable of any admission that its pre-war assertions that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction were incorrect. Instead, in a sleazy sleight of hand worthy of Lyndon Johnson, the Administration has retrospectively justified its war with Saddam Hussein’s manifold crimes.

First, that is a two-edged sword: If the crimes of a foreign government against its people justify our invasion, there will be no end of fighting. Second, the pre-war assertions were dishonest: Having decided that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, the policymakers suppressed all evidence that it did not. This immorality is thrown in high relief by the war’s effect on Iraqi civilians. We have no serious evidence of any connection between Iraq and 9/11. Dropping 5000-pound bombs on thousands of people who had nothing to do with attacking us is as immoral as launching airplanes at an American office building.

To sum up: Anything beyond the limited powers expressly delegated by the people under the Constitution to their government for certain limited purposes creates the danger of tyranny. We stand there now. For an American conservative, better one lost election than the continued empowerment of cynical men who abuse conservatism through an exercise of power unrestrained by principle through the compromise of conservative beliefs. George W. Bush claims to be conservative. But based upon the unwholesome intrusion into domestic life and personal liberty of his administration and the local governments who imitate it, George W. Bush is no conservative, no friend of limited, constitutional government – and no friend of freedom. The Republic would be better served by his defeat in November.

William Bryk is a columnist for the New York Press.