Monday, February 27

Bush a radical conservative? I'm not so sure.

This extended piece on why President Bush is not nearly as right wing as he is commonly thought to be has been percolating for more than a year. I would find some morsel of relevant information, digest it, disgorge it onto the page (sorry for the graphic analogy, but after reading what I have to say I anticipate that many of you will agree with the comparison to expectoration) and then . . . nothing. I would forget about it until another such morsel crossed my plate. Eventually, enough time passed that what I had initially written was superseded by more recent events and I decided to shelve the project more or less permanently.

I recently found it, however, in an attachment to an email I'd sent to myself (I often do this to preserve documents when I move, as I have done so frequently in the last five years). It was (and still is) a very rough work in progress (progress might be generous), but I updated and burnished it a bit last night and here it is.

One further note: I use the term conservative in this post not as I would use it to describe myself or my idea of conservatism, but as it is generally used in popular American political discourse. One result of this usage is that much of what I say doesn't overlap neatly with the way I would describe or evalusate the substantive issues discussed. This post is not intended to be a defense of any of President Bush's policies, though I agree with many of them, or of his presidency, which only time will vindicate or condemn; it is merely a refutation of a common misconception on what I take to be its own terms. And with that said, on with the show.

"George Bush may well be the most conservative president in American history"
James Traube, New York Times.

"… the most conservative administration within living memory"
Ed Vulliamy, The Guardian (London).

“ … the most right-wing US president in living memory"
Peter Oborne, The Spectator.

It is easy to simply accept something said so often. But is it true? While almost every publication in North America, Europe, and the United Kingdom repeats this assertion like boilerplate on a gas bill, the facts are not so unequivocal. To the contrary, this has been a president who, while better than the alternatives in 2000 and 2004, has kept American conservatives on edge for five years with pronouncements like: “We have a responsibility that when somebody hurts, government has got to move.” I doubt that the platform of the Socialist Party USA goes that far!

The charges:

Unilateralism—President Bush is a cowboy, or so a favorite European criticism of him goes. Apparently, to European ears, “cowboy” is an insult, although quite which part of the cowboy’s character irks them is unclear: His strength? His self-reliance? His willingness to back up his moral code with action? Thankfully, most Americans still esteem the traits of the cowboy, but even some of his domestic critics parrot the European line that their president has left America riding alone on the range of international opinion. Hardly. As David Frum wrote in October 2004, “The ‘unilateralist’ Bush administration responded to 9/11 by requesting and winning UN resolution 1373, calling on all states to suppress terrorist financing. It requested and got a UN resolution before going into Afghanistan too … invoked NATO aid … sought Security Council approval before Iraq—twice (the first time successfully; the second time not) … [and] built a coalition that included Britain, Australia, Italy, Poland, Spain and others.” It was not America’s fault that France, Germany and Russia (three countries with traditions of unilateral warfare that should make them blush to criticize the United States’ multilateral coalition) had financial interests that were better protected by Saddam Hussein’s iron rule over his people and his country’s resources. It is easy to see why they would prefer President Bush to subordinate American foreign policy interests to the agendas of 190 other governments, most of them corrupt, tyrannical or both. Quite why so many domestic critics urge the same folly is not so clear.

The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were the product of more official international due process than American intervention in the Balkans under President Clinton. (By the way, what, exactly, were we doing there? Were we attacked? Was that an act of self-defense? Did we even seek, (I know we didn’t receive) UN approval?). United Nations resolutions, Nato approval, lengthy delays, consultations and build-ups, coalition building, working multilaterally on the North Korean nuclear threat, letting the European Union take the lead on the Iranian threat (with, to be generous, mixed results): if Bush really wants be seen as a cowboy—looking out for number one, damn the consequences—he is going to have to try much harder.

Evangelical Christianity—It is common knowledge among those who believe their knowledge exceeds that of the commoners, that George W. Bush is a religious zealot who has led a theocratic march through the Constitution to end the separation of church and state. Putting aside the far-from-settled constitutional limits on state support of religion, President Bush hardly stands out as unusually religious among American presidents. Judging him on his words and actions, he is less outwardly religious than Bill Clinton, whose ostentatious piety peaked with a bible-clutching photo op on his way to church during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and much less so than Jimmy Carter, the most openly religious president of my lifetime.

Paul Kengor, author of “God and George Bush,” has reviewed the Presidential Documents, the official collection of every public presidential statement and found that President Clinton mentioned “Jesus,” “Jesus Christ” or “Christ” in 5.1 statements per year while President Bush only averaged 4.7 mentions per year through 2003. And these figures are somewhat skewed by the fact that in 2001, the year in which the World Trade Center was destroyed, Bush “mentioned Christ in seven statements.” In contrast, “in all of 2003, the Presidential Documents displayed only two statements in which Bush mentioned his Savior: the Easter and Christmas messages.” Professor Kengor also noted that President Clinton spoke in churches more than two and a half times more frequently than President Bush. (On this score, Hillary Clinton has outdone both Bush and her husband: as a senatorial candidate, she campaigned in no fewer than seven churches in seven hours on election day alone! And no-one should forget the repeated race-baiting in Southern black churches by divinity school drop-out Al Gore on his way to losing the 2000 presidential election.)

President Bush is a born-again Christian who does not hide the influence that Christ has had on his life. Before his mid-life conversion experience, he was an aimless, alcoholic, struggling businessman; after, he was elected Governor of Texas and then twice President of the United States. Reasonable observers will concede that he has much to thank his Christian faith for. “By the grace of God and your help, last year I was elected President.” It is easy to see why President Bush would say such a thing… only he didn’t. That was Bill Clinton addressing the Church of God in Christ, Memphis, in 1993. And Bush is considered the fire-breathing religious nut? Pardon me for thinking that there is a political double-standard operating here: Democrats can mount the pulpit and claim divine anointment or speak at torturous length about their faith, as the putative Roman Catholic John Kerry did in the third 2004 presidential debate, without fear of censure, but if even a whispered religious sentiment escapes Republican lips, it is denounced as a whirlwind of irrational, anti-Enlightenment demagoguery threatening the very foundations of modernism and progress.

Consider these concluding lines from a famous Presidential inaugural address:

“With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.” Though these words could equally sum up the current administration’s hope for its missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, George W. Bush would never get away with uttering them in an official capacity, as John F. Kennedy did in 1961.

Faith-based initiatives—A true fact divorced from its context can be as misleading as an outright lie, or as unhelpful as no information at all. The Associated Press headline “U.S. Gave $1B in Faith-Based Funds in 2003” probably confirmed the worst fears of opponents of President Bush’s much-misunderstood Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives who failed to read the article that followed. The reality is much less eye-catching.

First, many of the organizations described as “faith-based” do not consider themselves to be religious. According to the Associated Press, the reaction of the executive director of Crisis Ministries, a homeless shelter and soup kitchen in Charleston, S.C., to finding its name on the White House’s list of “faith-based” charities was that “someone has obviously designated us a faith-based organization, but we don't recognize ourselves as that.”

Second, many of the charities now designated as “faith-based” by the White House are long-time recipients of federal money. An analysis of the allocation of federal funds conducted by the Associated Press found that “[m]any are well-established, large social service providers that have received federal money for decades” and “[m]ore than 80 percent of recipients at HHS had received federal money before. At HUD, the figure was 93 percent.” Even more significantly, “[t]wo programs account for half of the $1.17 billion total: A HUD program known as Section 202 that builds housing for low-income poor people, and Head Start, a large preschool program for poor children.”

Third, the $1.17 billion awarded to “faith-based” charities was approximately 12% of the money “spent on social programs that qualify for faith-based grants in five federal departments” (namely, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Education, Labor and Justice), again according to the Associated Press. This money was awarded through competitive bids to provide social services that are open equally to religious and non-religious organizations. This is the heart of the White House’s program—that a charity should not be penalized by exclusion from access to federal funds solely because it has, or has had, a related religious mission. President Bush was elected on a platform that emphasized his belief that excellence in the provision of services should be the sole criteria for receiving taxpayer money. That 12% of eligible funds were awarded to “faith-based” organizations ( and that figure uses a very loose definition of “faith-based,”) in a country in which more than 80% of the population believes in a personal God and more than 40% are what is loosely termed fundamentalist Christians, is hardly a shocking statistic. If it is shocking at all, it is shockingly low.

Finally, it must be asked, is this a conservative or a right-wing policy? Only to those for whom religion, and therefore religiously-motivated actions, is automatically suspect as the tool of a right-wing agenda. President Bush’s policy is non-partisan. If taxpayers’ money is to be allocated by the government, then it should go to the best organizations irrespective of their religious affiliation; otherwise the government should let the taxpayers keep their money and allocate it to the charities of their own choice. The president’s critics should put partisan politics aside for the sake of the goal that they should all share: opening the care and support of the less-well-off to as many willing and dedicated organizations as possible, not for the good of the right or the left but for the good of those who need their help. It would be a shame if any organization with a successful record of providing social services were excluded solely because of its religious mission. After all, those crazy religious types have a pretty good record in these things, as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement showed.

Abortion—Yes, like roughly half of the American electorate, President Bush is anti-abortion. That fact alone makes him mainstream or, perhaps, center-right, but hardly a radical. The simple truth is that President Bush leads a country with one of the most permissive abortion laws in the Western World.

Based on his support for a ban on partial-birth abortion he is may be considered more anti-abortion than President Clinton, who vetoed a bill banning the practice that had been passed by large majorities in the House and the Senate. But his position does not make him any more conservative than roughly 70% of the American public who, according to an ABCNEWS/Washington Post poll, share his opposition to the practice.

In keeping with his anti-abortion position, Bush also issued an executive memorandum in March 2001 reinstating President Reagan’s “Mexico City Policy,” which prevents the use of American tax-dollars by international organizations that perform abortions or provide abortion services. Clinton had made the freeing of tax-dollars for abortions overseas one of his first executive acts; Bush’s order restored government policy as it was under George H.W. Bush and Reagan. This may have been a conservative act, but it was in support of a position no more conservative than that of the previous two Republican presidents.

Gay Marriage—To an observer in The Netherlands, President Bush’s opposition to expanding the definition of marriage beyond the union of one man and one woman might seem antediluvian. But then so would John Kerry’s and John Edwards’s positions and that of mainstream politicians across North America and Europe. Bush’s position is conservative in the sense that it seeks to “conserve” what was an unquestioned truth of western society long before the United States was founded. His defense of marriage, however, is no different than that of his predecessor in office. In fact, Bill Clinton supported and passed an act called, to avoid doubt, “The Defense of Marriage Act,” which says that “the word 'marriage' means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife” and leaves to each state to recognize or deny the marital status of persons of the same sex who have been recognized as married (or joined in a marriage-like relationship) by another state.

It was only after the constitutionality of Clinton’s law was challenged that the Republican party proposed a constitutional amendment to prevent the substance of the Defense of Marriage Act from being judicially disapproved. During the 2004 presidential election campaign, Bush supported a constitutional amendment while John Kerry opposed it, but their essential positions on gay marriage were indistinguishable: both opposed “gay marriage,” supported civil unions, and called for greater state control over the issue.

It might come as a surprise to the “Bushitler” crowd, but the most right-wing president in history has the same position on gay marriage as a leftist Senator from Massachusetts. It is worth stepping back and removing partisan blinkers for this point: no major presidential candidate has ever gone further on this issue—not even Al Gore, who described his position as being “for domestic partnerships having legal protections, but not the same sacrament, not the same name, because I favor protecting the institution of marriage as it has been understood between a man and a woman. But I think that a partner should have legal protection and contractual rights and health care and the rest.” In other words, for civil unions but against gay “marriage.” In other words, President Bush’s position—a position that would have been considered political suicide for any national politician a generation ago. The most conservative president ever? On this bellwether issue, President Bush is indisputably the least conservative president ever.

Stem cell research—It can’t be said enough: before Bush, embryonic stem cell research had never received a penny of federal funding. Since his election, a limited number of lines of embryonic stem cells (the 78 lines in existence in 2001) have been approved for federal funding. In 2003, research on these lines received $25m in federal money, in addition to the $191m that went to fund other stem cell research. And there are no limits on private research using any of the existing lines. Limitations on federal funding are not a “ban.” There is no real way to compare Bush's treatment of this novel issue to past administrations, but that treatement has been measured and cautious, as befits such a morally loaded subject. Such an approach may be conservative, but it is shared by many if not most politicians and by the American electorate.

AIDS/Africa—The Bush administration’s adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq have overshadowed its other major international projects. Possibly because of Iraq, the international community, including the United Nations, has been unenthusiastic—and in some cases hostile—to Bush’s African agenda. Unlike the case of Iraq, however, this agenda has occasioned little domestic criticism. Maybe it makes them uncomfortable that this allegedly parochial and mean-spirited Republican president has committed more support to Africa and to alleviating the suffering of AIDS victims than President Clinton ever did.

In the summer of 2003, while the country was caught up in the Iraq conflict, President Bush visited Africa to mark the passage by a Republican Congress of a $15 billion AIDS bill. Though his critics largely ignored this achievement, non-partisan African aid-workers recognized its significance. Melvin Foote, the executive director of Constituency for Africa called it “unparalleled,” while noting that “Clinton offered $300 million, parking-meter money, even though he knew it was a tremendous challenge.” Bob Geldof—the onetime Boomtown Rat and founder of Live Aid known popularly as “St. Bob” in Britain and his native Ireland—admitted much the same: “You’ll think I’m off my trolley when I say this, but the Bush administration is the most radical, in a positive sense, in the approach to Africa since Kennedy,” adding, for good measure, that in contrast to President Bush’s efforts, the European Union’s record on Africa has been “pathetic and appalling” and, colorfully, that “Clinton was a good guy, but he did f-ck all.” In case the contrast between Bush and Clinton wasn’t clear, Lord Alli, the aid worker, who accompanied St. Bob on a recent UNICEF trip to Ethiopia said that “Clinton talked the talk and did diddly squat, whereas Bush doesn’t talk but does deliver.” I’m not suggesting that Bush talk more about his generous African aid program, but it wouldn’t hurt his critics to listen a little closer.

In addition to the $15 billion AIDS commitment, the Bush administration has led the international criticism of the Sudanese massacre of 50,000 and displacement of up to 1.5 million people in the Darfur region of Sudan. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate—to lead, someone has to follow, and the United Nations is still dithering over the appropriate description of the Sudanese government’s actions. Such terminological exactitudes are important to the United Nations, because if what the Sudanese have done amounts to “genocide” then it is committed by its own laws to take real steps to prevent it. If, on the other hand, the Sudanese killing fields amount only to run-of-the-mill, third-world atrocities, then the United Nations can continue to debate and issue strongly worded condemnations from the safety of Turtle Bay.

If the United Nations falters, its failure should not taint the Bush administration. Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, addressing the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee in September 2004, said that the State Department “concluded that genocide has been committed in Darfur and that the government of Sudan and the Janjaweed [Sudanese Arab militia] bear responsibility and genocide may still be occurring.” This came after an April meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva at which, according to a New Yorker article from August 2004, “European diplomats opposed a strong American denunciation of the atrocities, preferring a resolution so watered down that Sudan welcomed it. At a time when America had given twenty-eight million dollars to the U.N.’s Darfur relief program, Germany had given one million dollars, and France nothing.” A similar accusation of stinginess made by aid agencies “including Oxfam, Care International and Save the Children” was reported in September by the BBC. According to the BBC, they “accused three nations of failing to give enough aid to Darfur. The agencies criticised Japan, France and Italy for giving only $6m, $9.6m and $10.8m respectively. … The US contributed $206m in 2004-5, and the UK gave $94m.”

Although it has pushed for peace between the North and South in the decades old Sudanese civil war, the United Nations security council has still pointedly refused to echo Colin Powell’s proclamation of genocide in Darfur or to consider anything but limited humanitarian relief—the same policy that worked so well for the United Nations in Rwanda … and so bloodily for the Rwandans.

Judges—Bush has appointed solidly conservative judges to the U.S. Courts of Appeals, but who expected him to do otherwise? His picks are no more conservative than Reagan’s were, so there is no support on this front for claims of ultra-conservatism. He has also appointed two justices to the Supreme Court, one with broad bi-partisan support and one on a party-line vote, with several Democrats defecting to support the nominee and only one Republican (who didn’t even vote for Bush in 2004) voting against him. Both justices may turn out to be conservative influences on the Court, but such predictions are notoriously speculative. Democrats warned that Souter would be a disaster for progressive causes, but they would now take nine Souters in a heartbeat. Most courtwatchers predict that Roberts will be slightly less conservative than his predecessor Rehnquist, and that Alito will be somewhere between Roberts and the conservative wing of Scalia and Thomas. No one can know for sure, but these picks are not evidence that Bush is more conservative than Reagan, who nominated Scalia and Bork, or even his father, who nominated Thomas.

Environment—Even half-hearted environmentalists have grounds for serious complaints against the current Bush administration, beginning with the plans to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. In making these complaints, however, critics should be careful not to view the previous administration through green-tinted glasses. Upset at Bush for dismissing the Kyoto protocol? Under Clinton’s watch, the Senate approved an anti-Kyoto resolution 95-0 and that administration’s attitude towards the environmental lobby were subsequently summed up by Vice-President Gore, who lectured them “Losing on impracticable proposals that are completely out of tune with what is achievable does not necessarily advance your cause at all.” In eight years, the Clinton administration failed to enact a single law to reduce carbon emissions.

Clinton should be excused, however, as his record is no worse than most countries who signed the Kyoto protocol to great fanfare and then promptly ignored it domestically. Of the 161 countries that ratified the protocol, only 34 have promised to do anything to implement it, and, according to an article by Iain Murray, “of those 24 countries, the former Communist countries of the Eastern bloc have already achieved their targeted emissions reductions only by virtue of the collapse of their old, uneconomic smokestack industries. That mean that the only countries that have undertaken to take real, active measures to rein in their greenhouse-gas emissions are the EU-15, Canada, Japan, and New Zealand.” Fair enough, one might say, forget Africa, South America, and most of Asia—nobody really expected them to do anything about greenhouse gases—it is those last countries are America’s peer group, against which it should be measured. Well, the truth is their collective grade on emissions reductions is probably somewhere between an “F” and an “Incomplete-failing.” New Zealand, Canada, and Japan are seriously reconsidering their pledges as the estimated costs of compliance have ballooned, and “the European Environment Agency’s own figures demonstrate that the EU-15 are nowhere near their targets (despite them polling their individual commitments into a burden-sharing agreement that supposedly ensured poorer countries like Spain and Greece would not have to constrain their economies).” The conclusion: it is not likely that a single Kyoto signatory will actually meet its obligations. “It should therefore come as no surprise that, at the very first Meeting of the Parties . . . to the protocol in Montreal last year, the Parties voted to remove every binding element of Kyoto’s requirement for penalties for noncompliance.”

Given this record of hype without substance, America’s decision to opt out of a treaty that is designed to avert only 0.07 degrees Celsius of projected global warming by 2050 seems principled by comparison. Nor has America has not been idle on the global-warming front. According to Murray, “America has shown leadership on the global-warming issue by actually bringing India and China, together with Japan, Australia, and South Korea, into a Clean Development Partnership, which concentrates on sharing technology that will make energy production less emission-heavy.” America’s record is not impressive, but graded on the same curve as its equally recalcitrant peers, it looks pretty good.

A direct comparison with Clinton’s record is useful. 1996 article entitled “’The Greatest Environmental President.’ Really?”, co-authored by Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn damned the Clinton administration in these blunt terms:

“To cite Clinton as a committed environmentalist is, by any objective standard, a sick joke. … The 1993-94 Congress, with Democrats controlling both houses and the White House, produced fewer pro-environment laws than any Congress since Eisenhower’s time. … By the end of that congressional session, before the Gingrich take-over, the Clinton team had engineered the resumption of logging in ancient forests, sold out the Everglades and forced through the North American Free Trade Agreement, without doubt the most destructive environmental legislation since the Green Revolution began in the Nixon era.”

In his first term, President Bush rejected the Kyoto protocol, but he also proposed an alternative plan for reducing carbon admissions. It is a tepid compromise, opposed by environmentalists as a betrayal of the commitments to lowering absolute levels of carbon emissions that his father made at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, but, if it were accepted, it alone would be more than Clinton ever achieved to reduce so-called ‘greenhouse gas’ emissions. And while Clinton signed the Kyoto protocol, as was the case with so many (probably most) of the signatories, he had no intention of actually putting it into effect. His administration never made a serious proposal to Congress to have the treaty ratified and, in 1998, his “green” vice-president Al Gore rebuffed environmental groups’ requests to mount a fight in Congress to reduce emissions from electric utilities, which account for approximately 40% of US greenhouse gas emissions. Union votes in Michigan and Pennsylvania were more important than serious environmental reform.

Politicians of all stripes echo the American people’s demand for “energy independence” and greater investment in domestic oil supplies and refineries, but the only solid proposal on either front has been Bush’s plan to produce oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), by drilling an area the size of Dulles Airport in a refuge the size of South Carolina (to use an analogy from Jonah Goldberg). This proposal has been roundly criticized by the environmental lobby, and by mainstream Democrats and some Republicans. The howls of protest can be heard as far away as the Persian Gulf, where the Emirs would no doubt have a good chuckle about it. The American people want more and cheaper oil, but they hate the oil companies who can produce it. Because of the gross caricature of companies like Halliburton that the left has propagated, any attempt by Bush to appease the cries for affordable fuel is immediately denounced as a “sop” to his “oil buddies.” On oil, Bush can’t win.

Some other Bush initiatives that have received little or no environmental support are described in this article from the Center for a Constructive Tomorrow:

It wasn't that long ago that many environmentalists were unqualified advocates of hydrogen fuel. Their support for the technology was well founded and based on the desire to both safeguard the environment and lessen our nation's dependence on foreign sources of energy. But that all changed when President Bush announced in his 2003 State of the Union his administration's commitment to fund hydrogen fuel cell research at the level of $1.2 billion. Suddenly it wasn't so "hip" to heartily support hydrogen fuel anymore, or at least not the President's plan for implementing it.

The Bush plan, said the Sierra Club's Daniel Becker, ‘serves as a shield’ to ‘protect automakers from improving fuel economy, a step that would reduce the nation's dependence on foreign energy faster than Bush's plan would.’ O.K., perhaps it might. But it's still a good proposal as far as it goes. One wonders if such nitpicking would have occurred under the previous administration which was more to the Sierra Club's liking.

Other Bush initiatives have also been given the cold shoulder. The Clear Skies Initiative is an extremely ambitious proposal to reduce the major air pollutants of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and (for the first time) mercury by 70 percent over the next 15 years. Nevertheless, environmentalists such as Frank O'Donnell of Clean Air Trust still finds room to complain: ‘The reality is that what they are proposing will still allow industry to pollute too much for too long.’ This glum assessment of the President's initiative was also shared by Michael Shore, an air policy specialist at the advocacy group Environmental Defense, who similarly grumbled that the ‘reductions ought to be deeper than being proposed.’

The Healthy Forests Initiative to thin out and remove brush and limbs which can contribute to the spread of catastrophic wildfires was another ambitious legislative effort by the President. Even though this bill received overwhelming support from many Democrats, it was considered a ‘sellout’ to timber interests and opposed by most environmental groups. This hostility perplexed even liberal Senator Diane Feinstein who quipped ‘This legislation is not a logging bill, as some [environmentalists] would typify it - I think falsely. This legislation would provide the first statutory protection for old-growth stands and large trees ever in the history of this Nation.’

There are, of course, some other Bush initiatives that are also worthy of praise: The strategy to restore and create at least one million acres of wetlands, the Administration's effort to increase the number of bobwhite quail by 750,000 birds annually, and the more than $600 million that will be spent to recover Columbia River Salmon are just some that come to mind. But it's unlikely any environmental initiative by this President will be able to prevent noses from being turned upward. Even the Administration's willingness to increase funding to environmental groups from $72 million to over $143 million annually hasn't bought it any friends.

One suspects the angst against Bush has little to do with his policies and much to do with his conservative beliefs. In any event, the depths of these hard feelings seem to lack any common sense or reason, and appear to run deeper than the roots of any old-growth Sequoia.

Taxes—It is a truism of President Bush’s critics that his tax cuts were irresponsible and benefited only the rich. But those same tax cuts took millions of the poorest Americans off the tax rolls and lowered the lowest tax bracket to 10%. And top earners now pay greater share of total tax revenue.

Bush implemented a slight tax cut, but so have many countries in recent years, including Canada and Germany. On this issue, President Bush is actually in step with the worldwide trend. In addition to the European countries that have reduced taxes, some—particularly former Eastern Bloc countries—have actually implemented low flat taxes. Russia has a flat tax of 13%. Connoisseurs of historical irony should appreciate the fact that America’s erstwhile communist nemesis now has far less burdensome and socially intrusive income tax laws than America. To add insult to injury, Russian President Putin has slashed the corporate tax rate from 35% to 24% while American corporations are stuck with the second highest corporate tax rate in the industrialized world, trailing only Japan.

And Bush’s tax cuts are piddling in comparison to those implemented by Presidents Kennedy and Reagan. Granted, they started with much higher income tax brackets, but even after Bush’s tax cuts, the top bracket is higher than it was under Reagan. Not exactly the most conservative tax policy in recent memory.

Civil Rights—A regional politician and a foreign diplomat are kidnapped by a fringe terrorist group demanding the release of twenty-three “political prisoners,” $500,000 in gold, the dissemination of their manifesto and the publication of the names of police informants for terrorist activities. The leader of the country orders in the army: 7,500 troops and tanks patrol the streets of three cities. In an impromptu interview, the leader declares that “there are a lot of bleeding hearts around who just don’t like to see people with helmets and guns. All I can say is, go on and bleed.” He is asked how far he is willing to go to restore order. His grim response as he mounts the steps of the legislature: “Just watch me.” Two days later, martial law is declared and almost 500 people, including labor leaders, entertainers and writers, are rounded up and detained without notice or charge.

All this happened in Canada in 1970. During the so-called FLQ Crisis, leftist Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau suspended civil liberties and brought the weight of the nation’s army down on a small but murderous band of domestic terrorists. Although I am only half-hearted in my condemnation of this display of brute authoritarianism, the acts that provoked it were a trifle compared to the Oklahoma City bombing or the IRA campaign in London in the 1980s, let alone the attacks on the World Trade Centre. President Bush’s response to the far greater threat posed by radical Islamist terrorism has been … to legislate and to monitor conversations between foreign terrorists and some people located in the United States under an authority recognized by the FISA Court of Review and claimed by every president since Carter signed FISA but reserved the right to conduct national security surveillance.

Anti-Bush activists would like Americans to believe that they are living in a police state, but their claims are risible. Without any real impositions on civil liberties to point to, they resort to inflating minor changes to laws affecting anti-terrorism investigations that were, for the most part, passed during the Clinton administration.

These laws, including the much criticized Patriot Act, were bi-partisan congressional efforts, and authorize measures that are much less intrusive or expansive than those used by Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, Kennedy, or Nixon.

But to hear the Hollywood left howl, you would think that they were living in Nazi Germany. Actually, some of them have said exactly that. That they have done so as multimillionaires speaking to an audience of millions on national television does not seem to strike them as in the least incongruous. Nor does it prevent many of them from flocking to support real tyrants, like Fidel Castro, the subject of an Oliver Stone hagiography and the honored host of Steven Spielberg, Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford and others. The true nature of free speech is obviously not something they completely understand; some of Castro’s political prisoners could probably enlighten them.

Meanwhile in the “civilized” West, citizens are required to carry identity papers (France, Belgium, Germany, Spain), political parties are banned (Belgium), criticism of religion is criminalized (England, France), possession of offensive historical artifacts is illegal (Germany), quoting the Bible in opposition to homosexuality is fined (Canada) and the European Union’s authoritarian and anti-democratic project rumbles on. Whatever one thinks of George W. Bush’s administration, America remains the freest country in the world, with greater freedom of speech, movement and religion than any other country in history.

The charges from the right:

Not to be outdone by criticism from the left, and somewhat undermining their concerns, American conservatives have been increasingly critical of Bush’s lack of conservative policies. In the middle of last year, there was a spate of articles in the conservative press asking if Bush could properly be called a conservative at all. Some of their grounds for complaint were:

Spending—Only four years after President Clinton declared that “the era of big government is over,” presidential candidate Bush ran on platform of increasing the size of federal government and increasing federal spending. The era of Democratic big government may have ended, but their discarded project of utopian centralization has been picked up by President Bush who, in his first term, failed to veto a single spending bill (or any bill of any kind, for that matter) and oversaw growth in federal spending of almost 20% in real dollars—higher than in any presidential term since the early 1970s.

Twenty years after conservatives almost succeeded in abolishing the federal Department of Education, which would have returned educational policy to the State and local level, Bush made increasing federal spending and intervention in education a priority of his presidential campaign. If only this had turned out to be another politician’s broken campaign promise! In his first three years in office, Bush increased federal spending on education by a belt-loosening 60.8%. A Bush-Cheney ’04 website even boasted about these “record levels of Federal spending now going to K-12 public education.”

And it’s not just for education that Bush has abandoned Reagan’s Republican legacy of trim, efficient government. According to the free-market think tank Cato Institute, federal spending has increased in almost every department, with the most eye-watering increases being for the State Department (32.5%), Veteran Affairs (29.4%), Defense (27.6%), the Interior (23.4%), Energy (22.4%) and Health and Human Services (21.4%). It is enough to make conservatives nostalgic for the days when Clinton promised (and largely succeeded in his promise) to “end welfare as we know it.” Of course, if Bush proposed such a plan, it would be “the most right-wing welfare policy in history.” Sigh. A conservative can dream.

On top of all this current spending, Bush found time to enact the largest federal entitlement program in a generation, one that was, for purposes of selling the plan, budgeted to cost $400 billion over its first ten years. Soon after it was enacted, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the potential cost at closer to $1 trillion and as much as $2 trillion, if Democratic bull-elephant Senator Ted Kennedy wins his fight to fill current gaps in coverage. This decisive left turn of the socialist ratchet alone should earn the president a place in the left-liberal pantheon. Instead, a president who has inflated public spending, locked taxpayers into a profligate new social entitlement, increased the number of people working for the federal government to a thirteen-year high, created a new cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security with 170,000 employees at a cost of $40 billion, and vowed to spare no expense to ensure that “every child [is] educated to his or her full potential” is caricatured as a right-wing radical.

Immigration-- Amnesty. You won’t hear that word from the White House, but Bush’s “guest worker” plan by any other name still smells as bitterly unconservative. Waiving the rules that are patiently followed by legal immigrants for millions of who are living here illegally is a pet project of the president, who made an amnesty one of his first post-re-election priorities, “a move” the Washington Times noted “bound to anger conservatives just days after they helped re-elect him.” Thank you very much, Mr. President.

Free trade--No act by this president has caused free-market conservatives as much embarrassment as the decision to levy import tariffs on steel. European trade ministers, who know a thing or two about protectionism, were spitting mad and most Republicans were speechless in defense. What could they say? Bush was, in principle, wrong. Wrong to repudiate the Republican preference for open markets and wrong to adopt the Democratic and trade unionist policy of economic insularity to appeal to voters in swing states. I say wrong “in principle,” but the illegal tariffs also seem to have failed as a political strategy. Despite selling-out his free-market principles, Bush still lost the steel-producing state of Pennsylvania in the 2004 election.

War--War is not of itself conservative. The Soviet Union used warfare and the threat of armed force to occupy and influence Eastern Europe and neighboring states, such as Afghanistan; armies of the left have left scars across the bodies of Africa, Asia and South and Central America; and totalitarian socialists came close to conquering Europe only two generations ago. In fact war, particularly revolutionary and pre-emptive war is a radical tool of social change antithetical to traditional conservative principles. It is not surprising that many public conservatives from across the range of conservative opinion either opposed the war in Iraq or have come to conclude that it was a mistake. These critics include Pat Buchanan, Tucker Carlson, and, most recently and most cautiously, William F. Buckley, Jr. Bellicosity knows no partisan banner.

Affirmative Action--To conservatives who consider affirmative action a disastrously wrongheaded policy, this administration's tepid and limited opposition to the University of Michigan admissions plans in the Supreme Court was disheartening and, to some, a betrayal of bedrock conservative principle.

On the filp side, it doesn’t seem to (and shouldn’t) matter to the president that he has appointed the most racially diverse team of senior advisors in American political history, but it is surprising that it also doesn’t seem to matter to the Left, whose habit it is to fetishize such superficially diversity. Maybe this is progress on their part.


When the actual record is scrutinized, the white-washing of President Bush as a radical conservative can’t obscure the reality: despite the press’s univocal assertions to the contrary, on virtually every issue, the president is in step with a sizeable portion of the American electorate and no more conservative than most of the presidents that have preceded him. A commonly held misconception is not the same as the truth.