We have just survived eight years of the worst American presidency in modern times. For conservatives, the reign of Bush II was far worse than anything we had to endure previously, but at least in the case of outright statists like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, we knew what we were getting into. In the case of George W. Bush, however, the reversal is far more dramatic—as are the consequences for the country.
The 2000 Bush campaign was characterized by standard conservative economic orthodoxy in the style of Jack Kemp and the “opportunity society” of the supply-siders. We could still continue to support a gigantic welfare-warfare state, according to the underlying theory of “compassionate conservatism,” as long as we continued to expand the money supply and give huge tax breaks and subsidies to the investor class, who would then create more wealth and more jobs—and “a rising tide lifts all boats.” The business cycle, according to this doctrine, was repealed: It was up, up, up all the way, all the time, and there was no need to look back, or down, or in any direction but straight ahead. We could keep spending and borrowing, and there would be no consequences, no contraction—just eternal growth and rapid “progress.”
The promise of the first Bush campaign was the prospect of “a more humble foreign policy,” as the candidate famously put it in the course of one of the presidential debates. In reacting to moderator Jim Lehrer’s suggestion that what the world needed, at that moment, was an international nation-building corps, led and financed by—of course—the United States, Bush channeled his future critics:
I think one way for us to end up being viewed as the ugly American is for us to go around the world saying, “We do it this way. So should you.” Now we trust freedom. We know freedom is a powerful, powerful—a powerful force much bigger than the United States of America, as we saw in—recently in the Balkans. But maybe I misunderstand where you’re coming from [turning to Al Gore], Mr. Vice President, but I think the United States must be humble and must be proud and confident of our values, but humble in how we treat nations that are figuring out how to chart their own course.
If anything could be said of the Bush years, it is that arrogance was woven into the style of George W. Bush’s presidency, and not just in terms of his aggressively messianic foreign policy: Hubris was the leitmotif of the Bush years, both in Washington and on Wall Street. A sense of entitlement pervaded the air, starting with the President himself, who inherited the Republican mantle from his father and treated the White House as just another family heirloom, one that would rightly come into his possession in due course.
This sense of entitlement was further strengthened by the very structure of our two-party system: The Democrats had just had eight years in the White House, and it was the GOP’s turn at the helm. When they came to Washington, the Bushies were ready, willing, and eager to reorient the country according to their prescriptions and use the power invested in the federal government—which they had just spent eight years denouncing as a pernicious and growing force—for “good.” “The adults are now in charge,” they crowed, with smug self-satisfaction. What followed was the misrule of a notoriously childish and uninformed chief executive, whose public persona resembled nothing so much as a spoiled frat boy, who not only proceeded to break each and every one of his campaign promises but accomplished the special feat of inverting them.
In the foreign-policy realm, what we were promised was more “humility”—and what we got was an administration that took hubris to heights undreamed of by Icarus. On Bush’s watch, the “ugly American” he previously disdained went beyond the merely hideous to achieve a scariness that has been perceived by much of the world as demonic. Having started out inveighing against “nation-building,” he proceeded to institute this as the foundation of a new foreign-policy architecture. Invoking the half-forgotten tradition of republican modesty, he ended up as the virtual embodiment of an overweening pride—the sort that cometh before a fall.
Speaking of falls, the economic legacy of the Bush era may be the hardest to take and the most damaging. Under the rubric of “emergency” wartime spending, a Republican administration increased nonmilitary spending by nearly 20 percent in President Bush’s first term, and by over 25 percent in his second—and that was before the big bank bailout, which may push the number upward of 50 percent.
Military spending shot through the roof, and then some. The scale of our hubris, during the Bush years, is precisely measured by the stark fact that our “defense” budget is more than the combined total of those of all other nations on earth. Nothing less than that is sufficient to enforce the infamous Bush Doctrine of preemptive war, which imparts to the U.S. president a Zeus-like power to hurl thunderbolts at will at any perceived threat to our “national security,” real or imagined.
Yet “there is no security at the top of the world,” as Garet Garrett pointed out more than half a century ago—and as September 11 proved. In the era of Bush II, we have spent ourselves into bankruptcy believing that there is—that in military hegemony lies security. As old Garrett knew in his bones, and conservatives have long since forgotten, exactly the opposite is the case.
In assessing the Bush years, one has to reckon with the neoconservatives, who played the key role in his downfall—and are now deserting his legacy and his party with the alacrity and speed of parasites who have finally finished off their host.
The one aspect that sets the Bush presidency apart from all others is the inordinate power and influence assumed by the office of the vice president, not only Dick Cheney personally but key members of his staff, including but not limited to “Scooter” Libby. Vice presidents tend to fade into the historical background rather quickly, unless they are called to carry out their chief duty, which is to assume the presidency in the event of the current occupant’s untimely demise or disability. Cheney will be long remembered, however. Indeed, in retrospect, there are ample grounds for treating the Bush presidency as the Cheney regency.
As Colin Powell told it to Bob Woodward, the neocons centered in the office of the vice president set up a “separate government” and did an end run around the mainline intelligence and national-security agencies, cutting out of whole cloth the case for war with Iraq—and relentlessly pushing for war with Iran.
The palace revolution that allowed the neocons to take over the direction of U.S. foreign policy and drag us into the dual (and related) quagmires of Iraq and economic insolvency dates from well before September 11, and yet on that day they secured their grip on power and took us for a ride that is leading to a spectacular crash landing.
The story of how these migrants from the left took over the conservative movement—National Review, the big conservative foundations and grant-givers, the youth organizations, and the Republican Party—has been told many times, including in my recently reissued book Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, and I won’t belabor the point here. Suffice it to say that these war birds are now calling for a “reformed” conservatism that accepts Big Government and retains the worst aspects of the Bush legacy: unabashed militarism and utopianism.
On the home front, we were promised “free enterprise”—and in the end, the Bushies wound up nationalizing the banks with a speed surpassing the fondest dreams of Norman Thomas, Eugene V. Debs, and the old Socialist Party of the United States.
Internationally, Bush pledged “humility”—and proceeded to put himself at the head of what he called a “global democratic revolution” destined to “liberate” Iraq and the entire Middle East.
Of course, none of this is new. In 1932, FDR campaigned on a platform of fiscal conservatism, less government spending, and the reining in of a rapidly proliferating government bureaucracy, a stance that attracted old-style liberals such as John T. Flynn to cast his vote for the Democratic ticket that year. Flynn was quickly disillusioned, however, as the new President came to personify the very vices he had once inveighed against. Lyndon Johnson, who depicted Barry Goldwater as a war-maddened maniac, was driven from office by howling mobs chanting, “Hey hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill to-daaay?”
If recent history teaches us anything, it is that we should expect the exact opposite of what we are promised at the outset. No matter who wins, then, we can project the future with a certain amount of accuracy. The candidate who promises us victory will likely preside over the most humiliating defeat, and the peace candidate is almost certain to take us into another, wider war.