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Among the events that doomed Howard Dean's candidacy, one that has been insufficiently parsed took place on January 11 during a question-and-answer session in Oelwein, Iowa. A Bush supporter, Dale Ungerer, got up and condemned the press and the Democratic candidates for over-the-top criticisms of the president. Ungerer invoked the biblical imperative to "love thy neighbor," telling Dean, "Please tone down the garbage. . . . You should help your neighbor and not tear him down." Dean responded, "George Bush is not my neighbor."
Ungerer protested, "Yes, he is," but Dean said, "You sit down. You had your say, and now I'm going to have my say." And he did, identifying ways Bush hadn't been "a good neighbor" to his fellow Americans. Dean added, "Under the guise of supporting your neighbor, we're all expected not to criticize the president because it's unpatriotic. I think it's unpatriotic to do some of the things that this president has done to the country. It is time not to put up [with] any of this 'love thy neighbor' stuff."
Press accounts of the exchange tended to frame it as another instance of Dean's temper flaring, while commentators wondered whether the candidate's treatment of "love thy neighbor" as mere "stuff" wasn't at odds with his recent expressions of respect for religion.
Unnoticed, however, was the fact that Dean had made a frontal attack on the Bush presidency. For if you look closely at the president's speeches and remarks and consider carefully the sweep of his policies, both domestic and foreign, it becomes clear that Bush thinks of his presidency in terms of the commandment invoked in the Oelwein exchange. Indeed, central to George W. Bush's motivation as president is the ethic of "neighbor-love," as it is called in Christian circles.
We're not accustomed to a theological reading of a presidency. Yet it's evident, as Bill Keller of the New York Times wrote last year, that Bush's faith is "the animating force of his presidency." What hasn't been recognized is that neighbor-love in particular is what moves Bush and has helped shape his presidency. His faith teaches him to "love thy neighbor as thyself," and he approaches his job with that imperative in mind.
What this means in practice may surprise supporters and critics of the president alike. Bush's neighbor-love presidency envisions not merely a more compassionate citizenry, but a more compassionate government. It sees a larger role for religion in public life. It does not seek to establish any particular religion but is friendly to all faiths and vigilant about protecting the free exercise of religion. The trademarks of this presidency are religious pluralism and religious freedom.
Overseas, the neighbor-love presidency is remarkably ambitious. It seeks to ameliorate human suffering, whatever its cause, and it is not reluctant to wage war on behalf of innocent people oppressed by the likes of Saddam Hussein. It stands for the defense and spread of freedom, because it believes that freedom is the God-given right of men and women everywhere.
The neighbor-love presidency is worth elaborating in detail, especially since we haven't seen its likes before, and because its implication for politics and policy is not a simple matter. It represents a modification, even a diminution, of American conservatism. And while its greatest triumphs have been abroad, Democrats believe it is vulnerable on the home front. The fall campaign could become an argument--like the one Dean initiated in Iowa--about what kind of neighbor Bush has been.
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