Sam Tanenhaus: Imperial Conservatism’s Last Gasp

Roundup: Historians' Take

Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of The New York Times Book Review, is writing a biography of William F. Buckley Jr. This article originally appeared in the September 15, 2011, issue of the magazine.

It was not so long ago that George W. Bush seemed to embody the future of conservatism. He had entered office amid doubts about his rightful place there, but pressed ahead nonetheless with grand ambitions, conducting an ideologically potent foreign war while also promising much at home. Which led some to wonder: Was this lavish spender really a conservative? Bush’s champions rushed in to explain. The president, Fred Barnes wrote approvingly in The Wall Street Journal in August 2003, was a “big government conservative.” He believed, that is, in “using what would normally be seen as liberal means—activist government—for conservative ends.”

Bush, influenced by neoconservatives inside his administration and beyond, practiced a conservatism that placed almost all its faith in the muscular powers of the executive—particularly in its aggressive prosecution of the war on terrorism. Even at the end of his presidency, as Republicans began to distance themselves from Bush, some continued to defend his style of conservatism. William Kristol, in a column published a month after Barack Obama’s victory, pleaded with conservatives to “think twice before charging into battle against Obama under the banner of ‘small-government conservatism’” when “in the real world of Republican governance, there aren’t a whole lot of small-government Republicans.”

How quaint this seems today. Like so many others, Kristol has since scampered over to the small-government side; he recently nursed dreams of a Paul Ryan-Mario Rubio ticket in 2012 and joined the starve-the-government crusade of his onetime adversary, Grover Norquist. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney is desperately fleeing the health care reform he engineered in Massachusetts, even as a once-marginal figure like Michele Bachmann now commands a loyal national following.

Today, Bush’s presidency appears to have been an anomaly. In fact it was the terminus of a completed phase—call it imperial conservatism—in which every Republican president was a big-government conservative, in action if not in words. Just as the cold war gave Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon cover for their big-government schemes, so did the war on terrorism protect Bush as he enlarged the federal bureaucracy and increased federal spending. But, as the immediacy of 9/11 recedes, an older conservative ideology—one that was eclipsed for much of the imperial age—has found new life.

THE MODERN RIGHT can be understood as a conflict between two different species of conservatism: presidential and legislative. While a Democratic president like Woodrow Wilson sought to expand the reach of his office, his Republican successors (Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover) sought to restrain it. The grand projects of Franklin Roosevelt, meant to combat the Great Depression, alarmed many on the right. To them, the growth of the executive at the expense of Congress implied the loss of America’s town-hall virtues, its ideal of a self-governing citizenry. “Subservience in legislative halls is the spot where liberty commits suicide,” Herbert Hoover declared in a speech denouncing Roosevelt’s impending third term. In those years, and even at the outset of the cold war, the dominant Republican politicians were not presidential nominees like Wendell Willkie and Thomas Dewey, but legislators like Robert Taft and Joseph McCarthy, tribunes of the party’s Midwestern “Old Guard.”...

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