The next presidential race will occur in a political context very different from that in which the last transpired.
Although it has only been slightly over two years since Barack Obama was elected president, matters have changed quite dramatically since that time. Those of us to the right of center appear to have enjoyed a decisive reversal of misfortunes, a turn of events for which we have none other than President Obama and his Democratic colleagues to thank.
Two years ago, legions of American voters converged to complete the task of divesting Republicans of power, a mission upon which they first embarked two years prior to that. Now, as last November’s mid-term elections amply demonstrate, comparable numbers of those same voters have set their sights upon the Democrats.
But unless this turn of events is read as something other than a mere change in the partisan sympathies of the electorate, its significance will be lost—as will be the winds to which the GOP has now set its sails.
The intensity of the consciousness of the threat that the federal government poses to his time-honored liberties is rivaled only by the intensity of the American voter’s resolve to resist those threats. Although its’ formal membership consists in a minority of Americans, there can be no denying that the existence of the TEA Party movement emblematizes this sentiment.
What this means is that for the first time in a long time, there is a substantial segment of the Republicans’ constituency that is no less intolerant of their abuses than it is those of Democrats. And what this in turn suggests is that the days when GOP rhetoric of “limited government,” “individual liberty,” “fiscal responsibility” and the like didn’t need to coincide with conduct are over.
Such days expired along with the completion of George W. Bush’s second term. Republicans claimed to have learned this lesson. But what voters deserve to know is, what exactly have they learned?
The Republican Party against which the American voter cast his vote in ’06 and ’08 is the party of George W. Bush, the party of “Compassionate Conservatism.” It is incumbent upon Republicans generally, and the next Republican presidential candidate specifically, to account for why a vote for the Republican presidential challenger in 2012 will not be a vote for “another four years of Bush.”
Bush’s vision of “conservatism” is by now anything but illegible. It would serve us well to revisit it at this critical juncture when the Republican Party is rising from the ashes and eyes are beginning to turn toward 2012.
First, from very early on in his first term, Bush, let us not forget, distinguished himself as the first American president to endorse federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. This was only weeks prior to 9/11, so no sooner than the controversy began did it end; but it is remarkable that it wasn’t a president in the mold of a Barack Obama that took this unprecedented step, but a self-avowed champion of “life.”
Second, Bush is the author of “No Child Left Behind.” Both the utopian aspirations of this law as well as its assignation of an ever expansive role to the federal government in the sphere of public education establish beyond a doubt that it could only be anathema to minds touched with even the faintest of conservative and/or libertarian sensibilities.
Third, if not for Bush, we wouldn’t have witnessed the largest expansion of prescription drug benefits since Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society.”
Fourth, both before and after the attacks of 9/11, Bush promoted “comprehensive immigration reform,” what many of his legions of critics—almost all of whom belonged to his own party—correctly recognized as a de facto amnesty.
Fifth, our last “conservative” president determined that the United States’ goal would be to “rid the world of evil.” To this end, he simultaneously launched two wars (or should they be understood as “battles” in “the War on Terror?”). While Bush’s defenders have argued that our excursions into Iraq and Afghanistan were necessary responses to 9/11, means by which the government fulfilled its commitment to “national security,” it doesn’t require much thought to discern the weakness of this counter-objection.
“National security” is an open-ended concept. That a course of action is undertaken in the name of “national security” no more justifies it than the fact that an action is done in the name of “love” justifies it: “national security” and “love” are compatible with unjust and foolish deeds no less so than with those that are just and wise.
I have no doubts that Bush sincerely believes that it is in the long-range interests of the United States and the planet to deliver “democracy” to the Islamic world; but it is precisely this belief that betrays his commitment to a political-philosophical orientation that is not only alien, but antithetical, to the conservative temperament. Whether the project to “democratize” Islamic peoples in Islamic lands is just, I won’t say; that it is folly, however, I expect all enemies of Utopian politics to unabashedly affirm.
Sixth, Bush promoted what he called his “Home Ownership Society.” This sounds wonderful, but to bring this order to fruition, he continued the tradition, beginning with Carter, of using the resources of the federal government to pressure lending institutions to waive standard mortgage loan criteria. This, as we now know, contributed in no small measure to “the sub-prime mortgage crisis” and “the economic crisis” that helped catapult Obama to the White House.
Seventh, when the said “crisis” became a reality, Bush threw every ounce of his support behind the unprecedented bank “bailouts,” even going so far as to make a televised appearance in which he attempted to convince Americans that unless they too provided their immediate support of this massive expenditure of their monies, their economic system would collapse within days.
These are just some of the highlights of the Bush presidency and the era of “Compassionate Conservatism.” TEA Partiers and others need to demand of these repentant Republicans and the presidential contenders in particular to inform the rest of us, in no uncertain terms, which of these positions they now reject.
Only then will we know whether they have truly amended their ways.
Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.