Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, the pair that I criticized here for calling on the GOP to embrace big-government ‘conservatism,’ have another pro-spending article (here) where they seek to explain why President Bush is in the doghouse with conservatives. I immediately took their article with a grain of salt, as I had called their proposals “breathtakingly socialistic.” But while these champions of big government get their pro-spending digs in, they do make some very good points.
They retrace the history of how we ended up with a big spending Republican in the White House. They note that by the 1998 elections, the exuberance of the 1994 GOP takeover of Congress had given way to disillusionment, after having failed on many points of the Contract With America. As GOP actions in the House of Representatives came to look like a hard-nosed grudge match Newt Gingrich had with the White House, the GOP lost steam and lost seats.
Douthat and Salam say, “As the 2000 election approached, the GOP turned to George W. Bush, who seemed to embody all the qualities the national party so sorely needed.” They then detail some of Bush’s pro spending positions during the 2000 campaign that earned him harsh criticism from small government conservatives. I myself was not very pleased that W came out of the primaries on top because he seemed far too moderate for my tastes.
While small government activists generally oppose any spending increase, Douthat and Salam suggest that this is not so important to the GOP rank and file. What they want, the authors suggest, is spending done right. They want spending that helps Americans become self reliant, “strong, independent, and useful to themselves.” Three such successes they cite are “the Homestead Act, the G.I. Bill, and the 1996 welfare reforms.”
It is spending of that nature that George Bush promised, much of it embodied in the phrase “ownership society.” But that is exactly what the president has failed to deliver. So, claim the authors, conservatives are unhappy with the president “not because he duped small-government conservatives into voting for big government, but because he hasn't delivered on the kind of big-government reforms he promised during the 2000 and 2004 campaigns.”
Along with obvious bungling in Iraq (note that bungling commonly occurs in all wars), Douthat and Salam say that the president’s demonstrated incompetence in getting the most important features of his ownership society passed have soured his popularity among conservatives. They say this began with Social Security reform failure, which “has been the signal domestic policy failure of the Bush administration.”
While the authors admit that the blame for this squandered opportunity “lies largely with President Bush,” they say that “it also lies with a conservative movement that seems unwilling to tailor its thinking to the scope of the challenges ahead.” In other words, they are saying that small government types are unrealistic. Being a fan of small government, this claim doesn’t settle well with me.
It seems to me that Douthat and Salam are arguing that conservatives are ticked off because they have failed to make President Bush into a fiscal conservative; something he never was and never will be. I think they make a valid point. While I never harbored any delusions about Bush’s lack of fiscal conservatism, I was absolutely stunned that so many ‘conservatives’ climbed on board the president’s train to expand Medicare and federal involvement in education. I wonder how many of these people have looked in the mirror or checked their own conservative credentials lately.
What is happening with soured conservatives? People often like to be associated with a winning team. During any major sport season, you will have the diehard supporters turn out to every game. But when a team goes on a loosing streak, you see increasing numbers of empty seats in the stands. Oh, fans put up with a fair number of losses, but they don’t like to be associated with incompetence.
The GOP and President Bush are on one of those losing streaks right now. This has been obvious as they have stumbled all over themselves to appear incredibly feeble in the wake of the Foley scandal over the past few days. They still have a number of diehard supporters in the stands, but the more incompetent they look (see my post on the lack of accomplishments by this Congress), the more empty seats they will see in the stands. That will hurt them in next month’s elections — and it should. They will have to regain the people’s trust if they want to win elections.