David Greenberg: How Bush Stayed True to Conservatism

Roundup: Historians' Take

[David Greenberg, an assistant professor of history and journalism at Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, N.J., is the author of three books, “Nixon’s Shadow,” “Presidential Doodles” and, most recently, “Calvin Coolidge.” He writes the “History Lesson” column for Slate.]

... [Sen. Chuck] Hagel’s profession of unhappiness with today’s G.O.P. is not unique. Ever since the Iraq war turned sour and President Bush’s standing declined, a parade of right-wingers — journalists and intellectuals, activists and politicians — have asserted that this administration embodies neither true conservatism nor the real spirit of the Republican party. Yet these claims crumble under scrutiny, because, far from a subversion of modern American conservatism, Bush represents its fulfillment....

Republicans who grouse about Bush are forgetting two basic facts about American politics. The first is that in our two-party system, any majority party has to include factions that disagree on key points. Since the 1950s, the G.O.P. has brought together unlikely allies and allowed them to co-exist — big business together with the religious right, isolationists alongside militarists, virtuecrats next to libertarians. Certain policies, such as tax cutting and anticommunism, glued them together, but under every Republican administration — Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, Reagan and George Bush Sr.— each group also had to swallow some pet items for the sake of unity.

The second key fact was summed up more than 40 years ago by the public opinion analysts Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril: that Americans are rhetorically conservative but operationally liberal. We like the Republicans’ talk about small government, low taxes and military strength, but we also like our Social Security benefits, our federal help when disasters strike, and even our earmarks (at least when they’re our earmarks). It’s therefore impossible in practice for any Republican leader to truly govern according to a Heritage Foundation blueprint.

Still, if any president has tried to implement conservative ideals, it’s Bush. Before Reagan, the so-called conservative movement had been an insurgent force within the Republican party. But starting in the 1980s, most of the liberals in the party left it, and for the last 10 or 20 years, the party and the movement have been more or less congruent. From 2002 to 2007, moreover, the G.O.P. controlled not just the White House but both houses of Congress, the federal judiciary and a majority of state governments, as well as more media outlets than ever before. They were thus able to impose a conservative agenda with little resistance.

Indeed, so few were the obstacles that conservatism was able to run amok. The result — in the assessment of not just liberals but also other observers — has been disaster: a mess of a war, the failure to plan for Hurricane Katrina, the erosion of the church-state wall, widening inequality, the loss of civil liberties including habeas corpus, and scores of other ills that readers of this column can list as easily as I. This was the fruit of modern American conservatism.

But now Republicans are deserting Bush. Businessmen and evangelicals, libertarians and social moderates are all astir. The reason isn’t that Bush failed to espouse their causes any more than Reagan did. From the Iraq War on down, after all, his policies have also been their policies — backed by their legislators, upheld by their judges, championed by their journalists....

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