When President Bush went before the nation Wednesday evening to speak about the crisis on Wall Street, he declared that “my natural instinct is to oppose government intervention.” But his ultimate recommendation to the American people was the $700 billion bailout plan outlined by his Treasury secretary, Henry M. Paulson Jr.
That proposal is seen by some as the latest evidence that the Republican Party has embraced the “big government” ideology of the Democrats. Unsurprisingly, there has been a revolt on the right.
On Sept. 18, a 100-plus-member group of conservative House Republicans sent a letter to Mr. Paulson and the Federal Reserve chairman, Ben Bernanke, warning that “federal investment in such large amounts of private company stock has the appearance of a socialist and not a free market approach to managing our economy.” And on Thursday, House Republicans openly defied Mr. Bush in the Cabinet Room of the White House.
This reflects widespread confusion about Mr. Bush’s brand of conservatism. Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel-winning economist and former chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers (under Bill Clinton), put it most bluntly: “If this isn’t socialism,” he recently said of the bailout package, “then I don’t know what is.”
But Mr. Bush’s break with traditional conservatism is not a sudden development. Some of his most far-reaching measures — the Patriot Act, the No Child Left Behind education policy and, most emphatically, the costly Medicare prescription drug benefit — cut against the grain of that orthodoxy.
To Michael D. Tanner, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and author of “Leviathan on the Right,” Mr. Bush is not a conservative by any definition. “Anybody would be more restrained than Bush,” Mr. Tanner said. “Bill Clinton was a more conservative president than Bush” because Mr. Clinton “balanced the budget.”
Mr. Bush’s thinking, it appears, is rooted in a rival conservative vision. In this view, big government is here to stay and the job of conservatives is to convert it to the proper uses. The most articulate proponents of this idea include thinkers like Irving Kristol, who as early as the 1970s identified a new mission for conservatives — not to destroy government but rather to wrest control of it from a “new class” composed of professors, educators, environmentalists, city planners, sociologists and others trying to steer the economy toward a “system so stringently regulated in detail as to fulfill many of the traditional anticapitalist aspirations of the left.”
Mr. Kristol understood that Americans had grown accustomed to the services government provides. The conservative mission must be to transfer some of that power to private enterprise by slashing taxes while also fostering a religiously based moral vision for society.
And it is essentially this argument that has advanced throughout much of Mr. Bush’s presidency. In the recent book “Heroic Conservatism,” Michael Gerson, Mr. Bush’s former speechwriter, noted: “Republicans who feel that the ideology of Barry Goldwater — the ideology of minimal government — has been assaulted are correct.”
The change is most striking in foreign policy. Mr. Bush’s call for “the end of tyranny in our world” echoes ambitions of Democratic presidents like Woodrow Wilson and John F. Kennedy. Predictably, this mission has outraged many on the right. But the depiction of Mr. Bush as the betrayer of conservatism overlooks a salient fact: Every modern conservative presidency has more or less found itself at odds with the movement’s doctrine. Richard M. Nixon, who entered office as potentially the most conservative president since Herbert Hoover, perpetuated the big-government policies of his Democratic predecessors. He established the Environmental Protection Agency, supported affirmative action in the form of the “Philadelphia Plan” and proposed a Family Assistance Plan to give cash to the poor. Intervening in the economy, he instituted wage-and-price controls in 1971.
Even Mr. Reagan, the lodestar of postwar conservatism, strayed from its dogma. He never fulfilled his campaign promise to abolish the Department of Education. He reinstituted the sugar subsidy. And he chalked up budget deficits of $1.5 trillion over eight years. Mr. Bush has repeated this pattern almost to the letter. Like Mr. Reagan, he has delivered on tax cuts, but has not reduced the budget or the size of government. On the contrary, he has expanded it by creating a new layer of bureaucracy, the Homeland Security Department.
The rebellion of House conservatives this past week was a reminder, however, that more traditional conservatism hasn’t gone away. Now its adherents are making Mr. Bush pay. As Mr. Tanner of Cato put it: “Bush was never a conservative. He’s the guy responsible for blowing up the movement.”