I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Conservatives try to distance themselves from "Bush the liberal"

(updated below)

Yesterday, I referenced an article in National Review by Jonah Goldberg in which Goldberg argued that the two most glaring examples of failed Republican presidents -- Richard Nixon and George Bush -- weren't conservatives at all, but were actually liberals. I characterized this claim as "dishonest" because, as I pointed out, virtually no conservatives were claiming that Bush was a "liberal" when his popularity ratings were in the 60s and he was perceived as some sort of heroic, beloved political figure. It is only now that his approval ratings are reaching historically low levels, and it is becoming unavoidably apparent that his presidency is dying and failed, that conservatives are seeking to claim that Bush's failure is not a failure of conservatism because -- as it turns out -- Bush was really a liberal all along. Alas, Bush's failure is simply the latest instance of the failure of liberalism.

Both Jonah as well as Jon Henke of QandO (both on his blog and in comments here yesterday) responded to my contention (Jonah doing so without even linking to my post, always a sure sign that someone is blogging with intense resentment and anger). Jonah and Jon both claim that my argument is unfair and inaccurate because Jonah -- like many other conservatives -- has long criticized President Bush specifically and "compassionate conservatism" generally. Henke, for instance, points to Goldberg's long-standing "criticism of Bush's free-spending, 'big government' brand of conservatism," while Goldberg points out that he has "criticized compassionate conservatism for at least five years and running." I don't disagree with any of that -- to the contrary, in response to Henke's comments here, I acknowledged that -- but it is entirely besides the point. And the point I was making encompasses far more than just Goldberg, who is merely illustrative of the emerging tactic by conservatives which I was condemning.

There is a vast difference -- really a fundamental difference -- between (a) expressing criticisms of the strain of conservatism espoused by the president (compassionate conservatism, big government conservatism, etc.) or objecting to isolated, discreet policies of the president as being insufficiently conservative, and (b) claiming that the president is not a conservative at all, but is actually a liberal. Many conservatives, including Goldberg, have made statements which fall squarely in category (a) throughout the president's first term, and I never said or implied otherwise.

What is new, however -- and this was the point I made yesterday quite clearly -- is that conservatives are no longer merely criticizing isolated policies of Bush's or claiming that his conservatism isn't the right type. They are now trying to repudiate him altogether, claiming that he is not and never was one of them, because Bush actually isn't a conservative at all. Actually, like Nixon, he is a liberal. As Goldberg put it rather unambiguously:

But there is one area where we can make somewhat useful comparisons between Nixon and Bush: their status as liberal Republicans.

That newfound premise enables conservatives to argue that the collapse of the Bush presidency is not a case where a conservative failed. This is a case where a President failed because he wasn't a conservative at all, but was actually a liberal. Now that Bush's presidency is rapidly becoming an irreversible failure, the effort is underway to attribute those failures to Bush's liberalism -- something we never heard when Bush was popular and his presidency thriving.

In a very prescient post, Digby, quoting a speech from Rick Perlstein, predicted back in January that exactly this would happen. In fact, Digby and Perlstein's description of what conservatives would say once Bush's presidency irrevocably collapsed was almost verbatim what Goldberg said in his article:

My point was not that Grover and company were going to leave the Republican Party, but that they were laying the groundwork for purging others from the coalition. They will not do this while Bush is in office, for obvious reasons, but they are beginning to make the case that Bush was not a "real conservative" and therefore anything he did while in office cannot be defined as "conservatism." They do this whenever a politician becomes unpopular.

I linked to Rick Perlstein's post on HuffPo from a while back in which he tells of his speech to the conservative cabal that was meeting at Princeton late last year:

This part of my talk, I imagine, is long after the point a constitutive operation of conservative intellectual work has clicked on in your minds: the part where you argue that malefactor A or B or C, or transgression X or Y or Z, is not "really" conservative. In conservative intellectual discourse there is no such thing as a bad conservative. Conservatism never fails. It is only failed.

One guy will get up, at a conference like this, and say conservatism, in its proper conception, is 33 1/3 percent this, 33 1/3 percent that, 33 1/3 percent the other thing. Another rises to declaim that the proper admixture is 50-25-25.It is, among other things, a strategy of psychological innocence. If the first guy turns out to be someone you would not care to be associated with, you have an easy, Platonic, out: with his crazy 33-33-33 formula--well, maybe he's a Republican. Or a neocon, or a paleo. He's certainly not a conservative. The structure holds whether it's William Kristol calling out Pat Buchanan, or Pat Buchanan calling out William Kristol.

Dave Neiwert described it this way: "But he is in essence disposable, an empty suit filled by the psychological needs of the movement he leads. He's sort of like a Fraternity President on steroids: Bush's presidency is all about popularity, not policy." And this is how Atrios put it: "The interesting paradox is, as I've written before, that they'll dump Bush and transfer the cult onto the next Daddy figure that comes along."

Sure, it's true -- as Goldberg and Henke point out -- that conservatives periodically criticized Bush throughout his first term for particular deviations from what they thought was pure conservative doctrine -- too much spending here, support for an unwarranted entitlement program there. But with very few exceptions (e.g., Pat Buchanan), they did not claim that Bush was not a conservative, and they certainly never claimed that he was a liberal. That is what is new -- glaringly new.

The argument which began as a claim that Bush the Conservative sometimes advocated un-conservative views has morphed into a claim that Bush is not and never was a conservative at all. That is the difference between, on the one hand, claiming that someone is an impure and imperfect ideologue, and on the other, excommunicating them entirely and claiming that they are not even part of your political movement.

I happen to agree that, in most areas of significance, Bush has never governed as a conservative -- to the extent conservatism is understood as being devoted to principles of restrained federal power rather than an eagerness for expanded authoritarian force -- and his policies rest on premises wholly antithetical to core conservative principles (the most notable exception being judicial appointments, which have been consistently geared towards appointing and elevating conservative jurists to the federal bench). I have written multiple posts here making exactly that point, and wrote an article published several weeks ago in The American Conservative (not available online) which was, in part, premised on that fact. As this week's excellent report from the Cato Institute documented, and as has been evident for a long time, this administration, in almost every area, seems driven by one overarching principle -- an endless expansion of its own power in almost every sphere.

Nonetheless, the reason it is "dishonest" for conservatives to now distance themselves from Bush -- not merely by criticizing isolated policies but by claiming he isn't a conservative at all -- is because conservatives have long and enthusiastically embraced Bush as one of their own and never called him a "liberal" until very recently. Bush won the Republican nomination in 2000 against John McCain as a result of the vigorous support of conservatives. Bush has called himself a conservative ever since he appeared on the national political scene and very few conservatives have -- until very recently -- ever objected to that label.

Conservatives have continuously claimed Bush as one of their own despite his big-government approach, which many have insisted is actually used by Bush as a tool to promote the conservative agenda. Here, for instance, is Christopher Wilcox in The New York Sun in an article effusively praising conservative Fred Barnes's reverent literary tribute to Bush's greatness:

One of Mr. Barnes's most important points is how unhappy many conservatives are with Mr. Bush's big-spending ways. This certainly has been reported elsewhere, but Mr. Barnes goes further, claiming that Mr. Bush is deliberately transforming the conservative movement from its small-government orientation to a more activist approach.

Conservative Fred Barnes recognized that Bush has aggressively expanded the reach of the federal government but wrote a whole book praising Bush as a grand success. Blogs for Bush echoed this view, praising Bush for expanding federal power in service of conservative policies. Conservatives have been forced to recognize that Bush has expanded the power of the federal government -- that fact is just unavoidably true -- but they never claimed that made him a liberal, until now.

What is going on here, quite transparently, is a rehabilitative project. Bush's presidency cannot be salvaged, but the reputation of conservatives/conservatism can be -- by separating the former from the latter. Had that separation been insisted upon when Bush's presidency looked to be an epic success, I would have had no objection to it; indeed, I would have agreed with that effort, since I have long believed that Bush's self-description as a "conservative" was a manipulative misnomer. But during Bush's high-flying years, most conservatives embraced Bush as one of their own, and even now, the dwindling band of Bush loyalists are self-described conservatives.

As a political reality, conservatives are responsible for Bush's presidency. They claimed him as one of their own and engineered both of his elections. The newfound recognition that -- hey, what do you know? -- Bush, after all, turns out to be a liberal, is prompted by the collapse of his presidency, the collective realization that he has been a grand failure, and a desire to shield conservatism from the fallout. If this labelling of Bush as a "liberal" were prompted by genuine and intellectually honest observations, then the claim from conservatives that Bush is really a liberal would have been made long before he tumbled to 32%. It wasn't, and that is what makes it so dishonest.

UPDATE: To underscore the point just a bit more, Digby wrote in November of last year:

There is no such thing as a bad conservative. "Conservative" is a magic word that applies to those who are in other conservatives' good graces. Until they aren't. At which point they are liberals. Get used to the hearing about how the Republicans failed because they weren't true conservatives. Conservatism can never fail. It can only be failed by weak-minded souls who refuse to properly follow its tenets. It's a lot like communism that way.

Reading Goldberg's article describing Bush as a "liberal," is it possible to imagine a more perfect embodiment of exactly what Digby is describing?

UPDATE II: Jonah replies to this post with a reasonable, mostly substantive response, including an explanation that he failed to link to my post due to an oversight, which I believe. I actually think these issues are both interesting and important, and so I will try to answer Jonah's post later today, though it may have to wait until tomorrow.

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