Web exclusive 1/3/02
A combination of both national greatness and leave-us-alone conservatism
How has the Republican Party changed since George W. Bush was elected president? The answer can be summed up in one sentence: The Republican Party has become George W. Bush's party to a greater extent than it has been any one leader's party for a century.
This is a vivid contrast with the state of the Republican Party during the days of the first President George Bush. Then, the party's various constituencies pitched battles in presidential politics and within the administration. This was not all Bush's fault. He came to power after the retirement of a transforming political leader, and that is always a troublesome time for any party. Every disagreement over policy, every personality clash . . . raises the question of what the party's transforming leader would do. Ronald Reagan, in quiet retirement, did little to exacerbate this. In contrast, his friend Margaret Thatcher has been meddling in the politics of Britain's Conservative Party ever since her November 1990 ouster as prime minister, which has had a disastrous impact on the party's fortune. DittoRepublican Theodore Roosevelt, whose challenge of his hand-picked successor in 1912 led to eight years of a Democratic White House. There is even a problem when the transforming leader has died, as Franklin Roosevelt did in April 1945. In every party quarrel the question is raisedWhat would Reagan/Thatcher/Roosevelt do? Who is the real Reagan/Thatcher/Roosevelt? Or, from opponents of the transformational leader, how shall we undo his/her achievements?
All these questions are backward looking. They prevent a party from focusing on future problems, adapting to new conditions, and appraising the strengths and weakness of new leaders. For all the successes a party achieves thanks to a transformational leader, it tends to suffer some losses as well.
As recently as the 2000 GOP presidential primaries, many Republicans were still looking backward at their transformational leader Ronald Reagan. Candidates Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes both claimed their campaigns should be taken seriously because they best represented Reagan's ideals. The religious right and the economic right assessed candidates like George W. Bush and John McCain on how well they fit what these groups considered the relevant Reagan model. It was assumed that candidates who failed the litmus tests Reagan meton tax cuts and abortioncould not be nominated.
No more. Instead, George W. Bush has incorporated the two relatively novel models of Republican leadership that were articulatednot so much by candidates as by commentatorsin the 2000 presidential race. The first of these is the "leave us alone" coalition, long articulated by Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform. The second of these is the "national greatness" Republicanism, developed during the campaign by David Brooks and others writing mostly in the conservative Weekly Standard. During the campaign, the leave-us-alone Republicans mostly supported Bush, although they had a shaky relationship with him and were suspicious of his "compassionate conservatism." (At one point in 1999, Bush directly attacked the idea of leave-us-alone politicsmuch to the embarrassment of Norquist, who extracted from Bush strategist Karl Rove a promise that it would not happen again.) The national greatness Republicans supported John McCain, and continued to support him even after January 2001 on healthcare, campaign finance regulation, and gun control.
(Another kind of Republicanism literally disappeared during the campaign: the isolationist, protectionist, and nativist Republicanism of pre-World War II conservatives, revived by author and former Nixon and Reagan speechwriter Patrick Buchanan. This kind of Republicanism could not claim the Reagan imprimatur: Reagan, as a Democrat in the 1940s and as a Republican in the 1980s, rejected isolationism, protectionism, and nativism. The destruction of Buchanan as a force in the Republican party was, to a considerable extent, the work of radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh, whose program appeals to much of what Buchanan must have regarded as his core constituency, articulately and patiently attacked Buchanan's stands on issues for months. Buchanan left the Republican Party after his poor showing in the August 1999 Ames, Iowa, straw poll, leaving no significant successor.)
The leave-us-alone coalition, in Norquist's view, is one of economic conservatives who want to be left alone by the Internal Revenue Service, cultural and religious conservatives who want to be left alone by secular bureaucrats, gun rights proponents who want to be left alone by gun controllers, etc. Democrats' coalitions, Norquist argues, can be split apart, because members disagree about what they want government to dosome want the government to confiscate guns, for instance, while others do not. Norquist argues that economic and religious conservatives can get along because they just want the government to do nothing. The weakness of the leave-us-alone idea is that it lacks inspiration. Absent credible threats of government intrusion, the leave-us-alone coalition can lose enthusiasm and cohesion. If the threats that taxes are going to be raised and guns are going to be seized are reduced to nothing by the election of George W. Bush, then you may cease to be an effective coalition.
Supplying inspiration is, more than anything else, the goal of the national greatness conservatives. They summon up the memory of Theodore Roosevelt and call for great national projects at home and abroad. The trouble is that, before September 11, no great national projects were apparent. So national greatness conservatives followed their favorite 2000 candidate, John McCain, into supporting such things as campaign finance regulation of a kind most Republicanseconomic conservatives and religious conservativesoppose.
In any case, it was never true that Bush's campaign was pure leave-us-alone conservatism. His call for faith-based initiatives, his insistence on accountability in public education, and his friendly attitudes toward Latinos and other immigrant groupswere all part of a compassionate conservatism that, at least implicitly, was based on a sense of duty to help out those less fortunate. Extending that help was not, Bush stressed, purely the business of government; it must also be done by individuals and by private organizations, including faith-based groups, with a helping hand or encouraging words from government and its leaders. The nation is not a set of atomized individuals; it is a set of interconnected individuals, with obligations to each other.
Since September 11, George W. Bush has exemplified both national greatness and leave-us-alone conservatism. The war against terrorism is his national greatness project, undertaken with appropriate seriousness and steeliness. Yet he has refused to back down from the previously passed tax cuts. During his father's administration, spokesmen for various forces in the Republican Party vied for public attention and political leverage. Today's George Bush overshadows all of them. Pat Robertson has left the leadership of the Christian Coalition, and Jerry Falwell embarrassed himself by his post-September 11 remarks (quickly criticized by conservatives as well as liberals) blaming gays and feminists for the terrorist attacks. The effective leader of today's religious conservative Republicans is, as Dana Milbank suggested in a perceptive Washington Post news analysis, George W. Bush. As for economic conservatives, Bush delivered his promised tax cut in the spring but prevented business lobbyists from pushing through their pet projectsas they did in the Reagan tax cut in 1981. Just as the persona of George W. Bush dominated the 2000 Republican National Convention, so the person of George W. Bush is dominating the Republican Party at all levels today.
Some may say that this is just an artifact of September 11. But, in fact, Bush presented during his 2000 campaign a platform of greater intellectual coherence than was generally recognized and has, even since September 11, stuck to it to a greater extent than almost any other president stuck to his. The common themeon education, on Medicare, on Social Security, on faith-based servicesis greater choices and greater accountability, more choices for the individual, more accountability for the individual. These are the characteristics that have made America's private sector economy more productive and creative than almost anyone anticipated 20 years ago (remember when Jimmy Carter's mandarins said Americans were being childish for yearning for low-inflation economic growth?). CEOs and workers, service employees and subcontractors, inventors and investorshave all been given greater choices (through deregulation of transportation and communications, through leveraged buyouts and junk bonds) and all have become more accountable for their own fate. Through all this, much of government has lagged behind, imposing one-size-fits-all programs on individuals, protecting employees and managers from accountability. Bush, conferring with policy wonks in Austin in 1998 and 1999, came up with a coherent program to pull large parts of the public sector in the same direction as the surging and successful private sector.
In doing so, he has come up with a Republicanism that melds salient features of leave-us-alone conservatism (more choices) and national greatness conservativism (more accountability). This is not an entirely seamless process, nor entirely one of Bush's own doing: He did not anticipate September 11, and he has allowed Social Security reform to be delayed into 2003, or perhaps 2005. Still, he personifies the Republican Party to a greater extent than his father, to a greater extent even than Ronald Reagan, to a greater extent than any Republican president since his strategist Karl Rove's historic exemplar, William McKinley.