Big spender Bush

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Today, Antle and Continetti open their weeklong debate with a discussion of the president's fiscal policy. Later in the week, they'll discuss foreign interventionism, the religious right and more.

The $3-trillion presidentBy W. James Antle III
Matthew,

Bob Dylan sang to an ex-lover, "I ain't sayin' you treated me unkind/You could have done better but I don't mind/You just kinda wasted my precious time." The poet laureate of the right's least favorite decade could have written similar words about conservatives' unrequited love for George W. Bush. The president's second term has been a domestic-policy bust.

At least in the first term we got tax cuts (set to expire in 2011, by which time we'll either have a president who voted against them or has campaigned on repealing them) and some modest but real pro-life achievements, especially the ethically defensible line Bush drew on taxpayer-funded embryonic stem cell research (which the next president will likely favor crossing). That gave us something to balance against the largest new entitlement since the Great Society, a bigger increase in discretionary spending than LBJ, No Child Left Behind, Sarbanes-Oxley, the highway bill, the farm bill and the earmarks explosion.

The second term has been even worse. Social Security reform, which would have more than made up for Bush's spending sins, was last seen on the bridge to nowhere. Tax reform didn't even make it that far. Bush blew his vaunted political capital on "comprehensive" immigration legislation and Harriet Miers. Thus, conservatives scored two victories fighting against Bush.

Bush deserves credit for putting John G. Roberts Jr. and Samuel A. Alito Jr. on the Supreme Court (even if he might have preferred Miers and former U.S. Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales). Most of his lower-court appointments have also been stellar. Conservatives can look back wistfully and say, "At least we'll always have judges."

Having finally discovered his veto pen, Bush could have picked a big fight with the Democrats on spending. Instead, he proposed the first $3-trillion federal budget just five years after submitting the first $2-trillion budget. He has no more space for recess appointments that will excite the right. There isn't much left to do besides beat the Democrats in their FISA game of chicken and run out the clock. We can't even look forward to the end of his presidency, because his successor will likely be worse.

Things could have been different. The idea behind big government conservatism was supposed to be that we'd get some reforms in exchange for all this new spending. But school choice mostly dropped out of No Child Left Behind. We got a limited expansion of health savings accounts to wash down that huge prescription drug benefit. Now we're a day late and trillions of dollars short.

We got the big government. So where's the conservatism?

The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind.

Jim

W. James Antle III is associate editor of the American Spectator.


Is anyone a 'real' conservative?By Matthew Continetti
James,

For the sake of argument, I am going to try to defend the Bush administration's domestic record from a conservative standpoint. As your post makes clear, this is no easy task. But why not try anyway?

First, let's stipulate that those policies on which Bush collaborated with Sen. Edward Kennedy — No Child Left Behind and the two immigration bills, primarily — were flawed and not "conservative." (One could still argue, though, that the increased standards, accountability and programs emphasizing phonics embedded in No Child Left Behind, inasmuch as they made the teachers unions angry, were conservative. The problem is that these will be the first things to go once a Democrat becomes president.) Let's further stipulate that many of the increases in non-defense discretionary spending, along with tariffs, campaign finance reform and Sarbanes-Oxley are not the sort of policies associated with conservatism and its ideologues. Bush isn't the perfect conservative, in other words.

And that may be the point. No American president is a "perfect" anything. This is true regardless of ideological affinity. Presidents exist in the real world of politics, where one must deal constantly with the opposition and either compromise with, co-opt or defeat it. In a large, complex society such as ours, where the American political landscape is divided into two roughly equal partisan and ideological camps, it is hard to outright defeat the opposition on any given issue. So politicians work along the margins.

This makes Bush's achievements all the more impressive. As you point out, Bush has appointed two conservative judges to the Supreme Court. He has scored some pro-life victories. His stem cell policy has been vindicated with the recent discovery of ways to conduct research using adult stem cells. Bush has consistently promoted free trade. He has found ways to cut taxes throughout his presidency. His two major tax cuts, in 2001 and 2003, lowered the tax burden for all taxpayers and increased the amount of capital available for investment. This helped contribute to economic growth and job creation. Yes, it looks like the business cycle is taking a recent turn for the worse. But if we follow the right policies, it will recover. That is why it is called the business cycle.

Even Medicare Part D, the 2003 prescription drug benefit, is not quite the disaster conservatives make it out to be. It is true that Medicare Part D was the largest expansion of the welfare state since Lyndon Johnson's presidency. It is true that conservatives are not typically in the business of handing out "free" things — subsidized at the taxpayers' expense, of course — to people who probably could otherwise pay for them. By almost any measure, however, Medicare Part D has been a success. It comes in under budget. Seniors express a high degree of satisfaction with the program. The legislation included free-market mechanisms such as health savings accounts and introduced price competition into Medicare. Again, to the degree that liberals dislike such things, these are conservative victories.

The fact is that there was going to be a prescription drug benefit, whether conservatives liked it or not. Americans, as columnist George Will likes to say, are rhetorically conservative and operationally liberal. The country is moving left on every issue except guns and abortion. Democrats are resurgent. There is no one cause — certainly no one political cause — behind this trend. It would be facile to blame Bush, the Republican Congress or even the Iraq war for it.

Given the circumstances, then, Bush has made some real, conservative contributions to public policy. This is especially true when you consider the policies a President Gore or a President Kerry would have adopted in Bush's place. The trouble with conservatives is that they measure any putatively "conservative" politician against an unattainable ideal. But man is imperfect, and history teaches us to lower our expectations. That is what conservatives say, anyway.

Best,
Matt

Matthew Continetti is associate editor at the Weekly Standard and author of "The K Street Gang: The Rise and Fall of the Republican Machine."

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