Wall Street Journal editorial writer Peggy Noonan, who was once on Ronald Reagan’s speechwriting staff, minces no words when it comes to her estimation of George W. Bush. Comparing him with his father, George H.W. Bush, Noonan says, [T]he Bushes, father and son, though different in many ways, are great wasters of political inheritance."
Noonan notes that the elder Bush misunderstood that he had been elected to Ronald Reagan’s third term. He acted as if he could do anything he pleased with that political inheritance. After he "sundered a hard-won coalition, [he] found himself shocked to lose his party the presidency …."
The younger Bush styled himself as a new type of conservative and was able to eek out a victory for the GOP. The party "bonded to him" after the trauma of 9/11. But like his father before him, writes Noonan, "in time he sundered the party that rallied to him, and broke his coalition into pieces. He threw away his inheritance."
Bushies in the administration, Noonan claims, now openly disdain the GOP base, which from the administration perspective now serves little purpose in the waning months of the Bush presidency. "Leading Democrats often think their base is slightly mad but at least their heart is in the right place. This White House thinks its base is stupid and that its heart is in the wrong place."
Noonan seems to view the conservative coalition as remaining mostly intact, but alienated from the GOP leadership. She argues that the current immigration bill debate is essentially the White House’s divorce decree from its conservative base. Kevin at y-intercept has often argued that the factions of the conservative coalition came together at the time of the Reagan presidency, but that the partnership has been uneasy since then because these factions have subsequently continued on their separate paths.
Kevin asserts that the two main factions are classical liberals and traditional conservatives. Classical liberals favor limited government as well as individual and economic freedom. Traditional conservatives are more about maintaining the status quo and preserving the culture. Although there are significant points of agreement, these two schools of thought are naturally at odds on many points, so they naturally tend to part from each other.
In this view, both Presidents Bush are simply catalysts for allowing the natural separation of interests to occur. It has taken longer for the split to occur under the younger Bush because the 9/11 trauma forced a temporary unification due to overarching concerns. The immigration bill may be less a case of the White House divorcing its base than of a disagreement between the two main conservative factions.
Maintaining a coalition of parties with disparate interests is hard work. It can be done if the parties are continually focused on a common concern rather than on their differences. Like his father, the current President Bush has done much to pit the two main GOP factions against each other. Or perhaps he has simply done too little to keep the factions focused on a common issue. But arguably, it may require the convergence of the right kind of leader and the right kind of situation to consistently maintain this coalition.
Still, I’m not at all sure that Noonan’s view is incorrect. She and Kevin may simply have two ways of saying the same thing. Either way, I would suggest that there are cogent reasons that the factions of the conservative movement are ill at ease with each other and with the Bush White House.