The Bush “Conservative” Era Ends With A Whimper, Not A Bang

March 22, 2011

Evidently, the debate between Peter Wehner and Mark Levin on whether or not former President George W. Bush governed as a conservative isn't over. Then again, perhaps it is. Unfortunately, no one seems to have told Peter Wehner. Someone should have, as Wehner's latest does neither him, Bush, nor Reagan much good service. The poor fellow even starts out with a stutter in the first line. Never a good sign in a debate: "my post about about the Bush record". Mostly a regurgitation and faced with facts, the rest never rises much above a whimper, hence the headline to this post. But make no mistake, I still admire both Bush 41 and 43 as Presidents in their time.

However, given this debate, where American politics are today – Tea Parties, insurgent, citizen legislator-contested Republican primaries, and so forth – the GOP needs to get the message loud, clear and strong, the era of Bush's so-called Compassionate Conservatism is over. A new, more Reagan-esque era of genuine conservatism must begin for the GOP to truly prevail.

If you haven't kept up, Wehner first addressed the conservative nature, or lack thereof, of Bush's record here. Levin responded here and this below is from Mark's Facebook page as of last night.

Pete Wehner goes another round in Reagan v. Bush. I can't really say I blame him. But I have to move on, at least for now. There's only so much of this that is worthwhile, and I sense Pete wants the last word. Unless I continue to think about it and get annoyed, or am provoked, I'll leave it alone. The discerning will draw their own conclusions.

With the reasoning typical of one accustomed to living on Mount Potomac and casting pearls of political spin down before swine, Wehner foolishly continues to defend Bush as more conservative than Reagan on immigration for not having pushed an actual amnesty. I knew if I stayed in this game long enough I'd find someone who still believes every web Karl Rove spun between 2000 and 2008. 

The Bush position was that illegal immigrants who have roots in our country and want to stay should have to pay a meaningful penalty for breaking the law, including (a) paying a fine, (b) making good on back taxes, (c) learning English and (d) working in a job for a number of years.

Wehner should have checked in at Instapundit to see this link to Democrat and honest broker Mickey Kaus.

Advantage, Levin. Even if you don’t believe the seemingly apocryphal stories about Reagan regretting the 1986 bill, it clearly failed. (The amnesty part worked. The border enforcement part was blocked.) It’s one thing to say Reagan supported this policy the first time. It’s another to claim he would have supported making the same mistake a second time–and that this is the “conservative” approach. … P.S.: It’s particularly disingenuous for Wehner to claim that Bush “never supported” a Reagan-like “amnesty.” The main difference between Reagan’s approach and Bush’s is that Reagan was honest enough to call it what it was (“amnesty”). Bush and his apparatchiks preferred poll-tested confections like “path to citizenship.” … Also, Bush’s amnesty was bigger.

If that doesn't suffice, he could have consulted W. James Antle, III at the American Spectator, "Reagan didn't engage in the same semantics about what constituted "amnesty" as Bush did. Bush's "comprehensive immigration reform" would have legalized a much larger number of illegal immigrants…. And then there's Steven F. Hayward at NRO, who concludes much the same thing. Finally, there's Wehner's former boss, Bush himself via ABC in 2007 - a decidely inconvenient slip of the tongue: 'Bush Calls Immigration Bill "Amnesty"'.

Were this American Idol, we're at the point where Simon Cowell would lean forward and abuse Wehner. I'll forgo that; however, I do think he un-necessarily got a bit too personal in his response to Levin, never a positive choice simply because one is short on substance. I take it as another sign that this debate was over before Wehner's latest posting was even begun.

Notice the pattern? President Reagan’s mistakes, which were blessedly few, are always explained away. Had any other political figure committed anything like these transgressions from conservative orthodoxy, regardless of extenuating circumstances, Mark would have ripped the hide off of him and repeated those failings like an incantation. The effect of this would be to create a false, cartoon-like impression instead of a balanced, historically accurate one — rather like what Mark does with Bush, come to think of it.

A worthy, productive debate is characterized by a discussion of facts and perhaps occasionally someone's opinions. But when a participant begins questioning an opponent's motivations, it suggests it's run its course. I strongly supported Bush for many reasons throughout his Presidency and still do today. One thing I liked is that he at least appeared to have a very thick skin. I can't always say the same thing about some of those around him I've had the chance to read since 2008. But I digress.

Back to immigration – Wehner doesn't seem to appreciate that, now well into the era of new media, we are long past any notion of, if Washington says it, it must be true. Everyone knew what would happen with all those proposed fines and limitations after Congress and this, or that agency was through. I suppose one could stand their ground and stomp their feet, insisting the facade was the real thing – but personally, I think the Bush White House was smart enough to know the truth. Continuing to deny what the entire country caught on to serves no true purpose when out of the White House now for two years.

Wehner's second point has to do with the Supreme Court. He again points out Reagan's appointments of Kennedy and O'Connor. Bush ultimately made two excellent appointments in Justices Alito and Roberts. What Wehner continues to ignore is that Robert Bork and Douglas Ginsburh were Reagan's first and second choices, respectively, for the seat now held by Kennedy. Bush first attempted to appoint Harriet Miers, not Alito. 

At some point, Reagan had to fish or cut bait. I'd take Reagan's first or second instinctual choice over Bush's first any day. And if we're going to inject the political process that surrounds a nomination, I could make the argument that Bush ultimately appointed two fine conservatives, as his actual governing philosophy had so alienated so many conservatives, you're damned right he needed to throw them a bone. Thank God it came as two large ones – with one coming only due to outrage across the conservative Republican base.

As for taxes and spending, I'll first offer Wehner's own words against him, combined with a second point.

Beyond that, he (Reagan) introduced (with the encouragement of Jack Kemp) a new theory of economics, supply side, which was a huge intellectual breakthrough and a great economic success.

I'd say it was huge, given that it changed the course of American economic history, while actually giving the GOP something for which to advocate (and that Americans still love and want btw), as opposed to the we'll tax and spend more but less than the Democrats the Republican Party had previously embraced.

Reagan changed the fabric of politics, the GOP and American economics in that way and how did Bush change it? He exited with TARP and paved the way for the era of bailouts and "too big to fail" in which we now find ourselves. I'll let the manner in which the two men changed the nature of the greater game speak for itself and just defer to Dan Mitchell, formerly of Heritage and now with CATO for the finer points. Also, please see here, as well.

The more relevant issue to address is the legacy of each President. Reagan did sign several tax increases after his 1981 Economic Recovery Tax Act, but the cumulative effect of those unfortunate compromises was relatively modest compared to the positive changes in his first year. When he left office, he bequeathed to the nation a tax code with meaningful and permanent tax rate reductions. The Bush tax cuts, by contrast, expire at the end of this year, and virtually all of the pro-growth provisions will disappear. This doesn't mean Bush's record on taxes was bad, but it certainly does not compare to the Gipper's.

Wehner's last real point of contention involves foreign policy and what he ignores truly grates. Given that he's writing at Commentary and I think it safe to say it's a voice of neo-conservatism, how is it that the Soviet Union doesn't rate a mention by Wehner on Reagan, not once? That is, after all, what birthed the movement, is it not? Point being, Lebanon was but one small, though certainly tragic point, in a vastly different and complex world circa 1983. Now, Wehner would employ 20/20 hindsight to suggest that Lebanon was a key development in the infamous career of Osama bin Laden?

If we knew that then, then what is the cover story for Bush '41 for his not doing anything about it in his four years? He had once been CIA Director, had he not? To be clear, I don't hold him the least bit accountable in that regard. But if we're going to play the Global War on Terror card against Reagan, there's a Bush, a Clinton and a second Bush ten months into his term on 9/11 to judge by that standard. Not only will I not do that, like many a conservative blogger out here, I spent years defending Bush against the foolish notion that he had, or should have had some miraculous insight into that area.

If we want to invoke 20/20 hindsight as argument, the single greatest threat to America when Reagan entered office was the Soviet Union. When he left office, that huge and dangerous enemy was destroyed – a thing of the past. Whatever his reasoning, and I've never second guessed it before this, Bush can not say the same for al Qaeda. Instead of focusing more exclusively on Afghanistan and the Pakistan border area, he widened the war to Iraq. I supported it then and still do. But this is 20/20 hindsight, right? Wehner should think twice about wanting to play that game when it comes to confronting America's enemies, or foreign policy.

Finally, let's also look at the politics to inform. When Reagan left office, conservativism and the GOP were at high-water marks. Reagan's natural successor won the Oval Office to become Bush 41. Twelve years later, Bush 43 came to the Oval Office with a domestic agenda. He all but nationalized education with No Child Left Behind and increased entitlements. We can all concede there was at least some mishandling of the war effort. By his own admission, Rove's decision to not push back hard against the anti-war Left, while bloggers like me were out here doing that very thing everyday, proved disastrous. Conservatism and the GOP took such a beating under Bush 43, it was difficult to elect a Republican as a dog catcher in 2008, let alone as an honest conservative.

I've supported and defended G. W. Bush on just about everything over the past eight years and I suspect I mostly will continue to aside from this little exercise. But I would not be so foolish as to attempt to characterize him as all that genuine a conservative, let alone a great one.

Ultimately, this debate is about defining Republican politics as we move forward toward 2012. If the overall comparison between Reagan and Bush can teach us anything, it's that a more genuine conservatism is still popular and can still win in America. On top of that, America desperately needs it right now. Any so-called Compassionate Conservatism needs to become a thing of the past. If some number of Bush loyalists don't like it, too bad. I'm not interested in fighting for them, their reputations, or anyone's legacy.

We are, all of us, out here fighting for America's future nearly every day. Reagan and Bush are now both things of the past. But it will take a genuine conservatism, a Reagan-esque conservatism, if you will, to ensure that the GOP, America, her children, and her grandchildren all have the future we want for them – a future that they deserve. As far as I'm concernd, that is the only genuinely meaningful insight to take away from this debate.

As for bin Laden: I didn’t argue that the American withdrawal from Beirut increased his hatred for America; what I argued is that it led him to believe we were a “paper tiger” that would crumble if later attacked. And McFarlane, in summing up the lessons of our withdrawal from Beirut, wrote, “One could draw several conclusions from this episode. To me the most telling was the one reached by Middle Eastern terrorists, that the United States had neither the will nor the means to respond effectively to a terrorist attack.” It was, Reagan’s national security adviser admitted, “one of the most tragic and costly policy defeats in the brief modern history of American counterterrorism operations.”

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  1. Ragspierre says:

    Bush, like Nixon, was NOT a conservative.
    Unlike Nixon, Bush was a good man, and he had some core conservative values.

  2. jakee308 says:

    Nixon, unlike Bush, was one of the first victim’s the Media’s leftward turn.
    There are NO Bush conservatives. The entire family are liberals. They’re just not as LEFTIST as Democrats so they went with the Republicans. Their women are even MORE liberal. They may be nice people and all and patriots but they’re liberal elitists.

  3. Ragspierre says:

    So, jakee, you can’t find ANY conservative cells in the GW body?
    None? Wow.

  4. barfo says:

    “Democrat and honest broker Mickey Kaus.”
    Thank you for that.
    It’s been a long time since I’ve laughed so hard.

  5. This boils down to one of my favorite questions: what really is a “conservative”? If you ask ten random people you’ll get ten different answers. There are so many “flavors,” each with their own priorities and positions. You can’t simply make a list; the best you could do is some sort of Venn diagram.

  6. Jen Kuznicki says:

    Very well written. Long, but thorough. I give it a 9.5. LOL!! We have the same view, you have much more experience. While I was screaming at my radio during the Bush years, you were blogging. I don’t scream anymore, I blog.

  7. davisbr says:

    barfo? You are aware that Mickey Kaus mounted a primary run out here in Cali’ last cycle, right? Uh, as a liberal Democrat?
    …he’s demonstrably not a Republican. He’s surely not a conservative.
    I’d call him center-left. A moderate.
    As for his being an honest broker: he’s the only liberal I read on a consistent & regular basis (although I’ve read two posts recently introducing me to Lee Stranahan that show hopeful signs of further sanity on the left).
    Just FYI.

  8. Baraka says:

    Barfo is not self aware but when he does become self aware we’re doomed.

  9. MBA Jobs says:

    I liked this post, it was long but the ideas & concepts are great :)