This morning, Jonathan Chait reported on a feud that is going on in the Republican Party. One one side is the establishment George W. Bush force, represented by Peter Wehner. On the other is the Tea Party force, represented by Laura Ingraham. They’ve been going back and forth at each other. Wehner argues that Bush really was a conservative. And Ingraham argues that he wasn’t.
What’s really interesting is that most of the things that Ingraham complains make Bush not a “true” conservative—the wars, the deficits, the new prescription drug benefit—were things that she supported at the time. This is indicative of what I hate about the Tea Party movement. As long as the Republicans were in charge, no end of “big government” programs were cheered. It is only when the Democrats are in charge that these people have a problem with such “socialism.”
Now somewhat the same can be said about the left, but note: when Obama came into office with overwhelming majorities, he was still very concerned (wrongly) about the deficit. He put forth a small stimulus (wrongly) claiming that if more were needed, he would pass another. That is quite different from the way that Republicans act. What’s more, when a Republican takes the White House, we don’t hear a sudden drumbeat from the liberal base for a balanced budget.
What is the problem with Bush? Why do modern conservatives worship Reagan but not Bush? And not just that. They worship Reagan as a Conservative Hero and, as we see with Laura Ingraham, they claim that Bush is an apostate to the conservative cause. Yet Bush was far more conservative than Reagan.
It could be that Reagan was very successful in pushing conservative policy: he came out with far more conservative policies than he came in with. But that doesn’t really fit, because that is just as true of Bush. And it can’t be that conservatives are angry about all the debt Bush accumulated, because Reagan was much worse. The most plausible reason for the claim that Bush is not conservative comes from the fact that Bush was not successful when he left office.
Bush had two wars that he had failed to “win.” Bush had the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression. And relatedly, although probably not in the minds of most conservatives, his administration didn’t lead to a new Republican president. And this all means that the marketing of the Bush administration was simply not as good as the marketing of the Reagan administration.
The problem here is that Bush’s failures have nothing to do with a lack of conservatism. What Ingraham is arguing in effect is that if she doesn’t like the results of a president’s policies, those policies cannot be conservative. That’s a very dangerous position to take. It means that there is no way to disprove the effectiveness of conservative policy. “If it didn’t work, it wasn’t conservative” is the intellectual equivalent of putting your hands over your ears and screaming, “I can’t hear you!”
This goes far beyond the typical (true) complaint that conservatives have entered a post-fact realm. With Ingraham’s style of thinking, no conservative policy failure even requires looking at the facts. Failure must mean the policy was too liberal. And that is certainly where we find ourselves with the post-Bush Republican Party. I can’t even imagine where another failed conservative president would lead. But we may all find out.