Does anyone really remember what sort of president Bill Clinton was? Have we all forgotten his amazingly sordid character so soon?
He disgraced the Oval Office like no president before him; he was only the second to be impeached; he embarrassed America before the world; known as Slick Willie in his native Arkansas, he almost daily aggravated his own reputation for mendacity; having shunned military service, he finally found a niche he could safely occupy: commander in chief; he assembled a Cabinet (Janet Reno, Donna Shalala, Jocelyn Elders, Madeleine Albright, etc.) who “looked like America”— in a funhouse mirror; he was plausibly accused of molesting several women and even raping one; and he capped his long career of corruption with nakedly venal pardons of his criminal cronies.
No, we have not forgotten, not at all. But after five years of George W. Bush, we are perilously close to forgiving. We never thought we’d miss you, Bill! But we do!
Harold Meyerson of the Washington Post recently noted that of the three great disasters of those five years—the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina, and the fiscally demented Medicare drug plan—two were Bush’s own initiatives. Though incompetence isn’t the worst of sins, Meyer- son added, historians are likely to see it as “this president’s defining attribute.” Many Americans aren’t waiting for the historians; they’ve already reached the same conclusion.
One American who doesn’t see it this way is Fred Barnes, executive editor of the Weekly Standard. In a seven-page panegyric, he praises Bush for “redefining the American right” with a “new and different” philosophy of “strong-government conservatism.” How does this differ from the “big- government conservatism” Barnes used to tout? And is it even “philosophically coherent”? “A fair question,” Barnes concedes.
“Trying to categorize Bush conservatism,” he goes on, “is difficult but not impossible.” Actually, I think Meyerson gave it a reasonably good working definition: incompetence. Bush is not one to agonize over philosophical coherence; even syntactical coherence is a challenge for him, and he has never spent his nights poring over Burke, Oakeshott, or Russell Kirk. One glaringly obvious difference between America and France is that the French have a president who speaks fluent English.
Bush’s achievements, according to Barnes, are these:
He has thwarted terrorism, changed parts of the world forever, dominated Congress, curtailed federalism, won fundamental reforms, and treated critics as a nuisance—all of it made possible by a strong national government.
If all these count as accomplishments, one wonders, why not give him credit for Katrina, too?
Barnes finally hits pay dirt when he observes that Bush “is more the heir to Alexander Hamilton than to Thomas Jefferson.” After all, the Republican Party itself is heir to the centralizing tradition of Hamilton, the Federalists, and the Whigs, and its first president not only usurped powers of Congress, expanded executive power, and arrested critics but decisively “curtailed federalism.” Whereas Jefferson had declared the states “free and independent,” Lincoln denied this and also ignored the words “consent of the governed.”
But at least Lincoln had some sense of what he was doing; Bush appears unaware that there are any principles at stake. If he has “redefined the right,” it is only because the right is ready to forget its own slogans and follow wherever his crude political calculation leads him. Such exegetes as the neoconservative Barnes, with Rupert Murdoch’s money behind them, stand ready to explain this as a philosophical transformation of conservatism, even if it requires imputing cerebration to Bush.
Principled conservatives, therefore, are now recalling the Clinton years as a comparative golden age. They laugh at the irony of this, but they are serious. If only because of the constraints of a Congress in opposition, Clinton wasn’t free to transgress against their principles as Bush has done in both domestic and foreign policy. It has taken this Republican president to revive socialism—not only in entitlement programs but in the form of total war, complete with the foreign “nation-building” he once scorned.
Bush favors democracy as long as it can be tempered by domestic spying. After the hysteria of September 11, he lost any realistic sense of limits on American, or his own, power. As John Laughland has put it, he has adopted a quasi-Marxist cant of global revolution. Rhetorical intemperance is his hallmark. Yet he continues to call himself a conservative.
And that is what should really concern us. Lyndon Johnson gave liberalism a bad name from which it has yet to recover. Bush may be doing the same for conservatism. And here the great irony is that he has achieved this not by governing too conservatively but, on the contrary, by governing like a liberal and calling that conservatism. This has allowed liberals to tag his worst excesses as “right-wing.” His self-described conservative followers, like Barnes, have abetted the confusion.
Ubi Petrus, ibi ecclesia. If a fool in power chooses to call himself a conservative, then, in the popular mind, his follies will define conservatism. To this day, honest liberals will try to tell you that Johnson wasn’t “really” a liberal, and maybe they have a point; but they labor in vain. So I can only pity any believer in limited, constitutional government who attempts, over the next generation, to persuade people that Bush wasn’t “really” a conservative. To most people, this will sound like an evasive quibble, if not a contradiction in terms. As Samuel John- son asks, “If Pope be not poetry, where is poetry to be found?”
Not for nothing did Sam Francis call Republicans the “stupid party.” Many Republicans, such as Rush Limbaugh, suffer from the piteous delusion that they are conservatives. Is there an affordable cure for this condition, or do we need another expansion of Medicare?