October 9, 2005


Conservatives to discover there's life after Dubya.

By W. James Antle III

For the first time in his presidency, George W. Bush faces a
widespread conservative revolt. Nothing he has done before - not
McCain-Feingold, not steel tariffs, not his failure to veto excessive
spending, not even last year's proposed amnesty for illegal immigrants
- has provoked as hostile a reaction on the right as the nomination of
Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court.

Republicans on Capitol Hill are also beginning to assert their
independence. The occasional GOP senator questions the
administration's happy talk on Iraq. The Senate ignored a veto threat
and voted 90 to 9 in favor of standards for the humane treatment of
detainees. The legislation was advanced not just by Sen. John McCain
(R-Ariz.) but also Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). We are witnessing the
accelerated depreciation of the president's political capital.

Yet if Bush is becoming a lame duck, it signals an opportunity rather
than an ending for conservatives. It is time to contemplate life after
Bush and to rethink our movement's independent identity.

Bush has been extremely popular among conservatives, who have been
bereft of beloved national leadership since the retirement of Ronald
Reagan. Like Reagan, this president has a keen sense of Middle
American cultural sensibilities. His swagger, his perceived toughness
in the face of foreign enemies and his evangelical religious
sensibilities have won him admirers on the right.

These same characteristics have earned him the enmity of the American
left. Bush has been more thoroughly despised by liberals than any
other political figure in recent memory, including Reagan, Newt
Gingrich and perhaps even Richard Nixon. In a country closely divided
along partisan and ideological lines, this too has rallied many
conservatives to the president's side. To them, Michael Moore, Al
Franken and the New York Times editorial board are simply the right
enemies to have.

There is of course more to the story than personality and red-blue
political competition. Bush has identified, however imperfectly, with
certain broad goals of the conservative movement: a culture of life, a
constitutionalist judiciary, the ownership society versus the
redistributive state, the provision of charity by churches and civil
society rather than bureaucrats.

Unfortunately, Bush has also corrupted many of these causes. Even the
partial privatization of Social Security now appears unlikely. Other
potential free-market reforms were transformed into traditional big-
government largesse. Medicare is in even worse financial condition
following the addition of an unaffordable prescription-drug benefit.
No Child Left Behind has increased spending, but done little to
promote school choice and in the long term may prove similarly
ineffective at raising standards. The faith-based initiative
subsidizes religious charities as much as it unshackles them.

The president's failures share a common root: the belief that big-
government means can serve conservative ends. This error central to
Bush's politics. His presidential bid was being planned in Austin
during the Gingrich meltdown, when it seemed that voters had recoiled
from the most aggressive Republican assault against big government
since Barry Goldwater's 1964 campaign. Aping Bill Clinton rather than
Gingrich, Bush boosters ambitiously decided to try their own hand at a
Third Way.

John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge of the Economist call this
marriage of big government and putatively conservative values Bushism.
Yet results speak louder than theory. Most of what Reagan left undone
remains undone. Government is growing and deficits have replaced
surpluses. Bush has failed on entitlements, surrendered on racial
preferences and is on the wrong side on immigration. As the red ink
rises, even his tax cuts are at risk.

Bushism threatens to discredit conservatism by undoing its reputation
for fiscal soundness and foreign-policy realism. Many voters see
profligacy rather than budgetary discipline, secrecy rather than
accountability, cronyism and fealty to business interests rather than
a principled defense of free markets and a foreign policy that looks
more like Wilsonianism than Reaganism.

It is in this last area that Bush may have done the most damage to
conservatism, if not the country. A successful foreign policy often
pursues concrete national interests in the language of abstract
American principles. Under Bush, we have formulated policy on the
basis of abstractions and later reached for national-interest
justifications. The war in Iraq represents a shift from peace through
strength to the precautionary principle. By supporting that invasion,
conservatives have identified themselves with nation-building, armed
social engineering and occasionally even democratic utopianism.

They have also endorsed the idea that the war on terror is simply a
replay of the Cold War or World War IV, with Islamists - or, if you
prefer, Islamofascists - standing in for Communists and Nazis. This
formulation mistakenly lumps together Baathists, Wahhabists and Sunni
insurgents in Iraq as if there is no meaningful difference between the
various groups.

Bushism is not conservatism. Making this fact clear is a more
worthwhile project than reflexively defending the president. The time
has come to let the White House staff do its job and for us to do
ours, a task that will considerably outlast the Bush presidency.

Thank you, Harriet Miers.


Biography -- W. James Antle III

W. James Antle III is a writer and editor living outside Washington,
D.C. His work has been published in The American Conservative,
National Review Online, The American Spectator Online, the Washington
Examiner, Tech Central Station, FrontPage Magazine and numerous other
print and web publications. In addition to WEBCommentary.com, his
column also appears in Enter Stage Right, American Daily, Intellectual
Conservative, MensNewsDaily, The Patriotist, ConservativeTruth.org,
TheRealityCheck.org, The Conservative Voice, Political USA and The

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Copyright 2005 by W. James Antle III