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.

Monday, November 13, 2006

George Bush and GOP House Leaders: "conservatism" defined

(updated below)

Of all the dishonesty and political manipulation to which we have been subjected over the last five years, a good argument can be made that this is the most dishonest yet:

Since the election, a chorus from the right has been noisily distinguishing between conservative and Republican, blaming deviation from conservative principles for the election losses. From George Will to Rush Limbaugh, conservatives cut loose with criticisms of the Republicans for spending too much at home and getting bogged down in Iraq.

"Conservatism" -- like "communism" -- has only one real definition, only one definition that matters: "that which 'conservatives' and the leaders they support do when in power." Conservatism is a set of principles about how government ought to function and the policies which political leaders should implement. And those principles can be known not by how they exist in some Platonic form, abstractly enshrined by think tank groups or in textbooks. One knows it by how its proponents -- "conservatives" -- actually govern and by who and what they support.

And what "conservatives" have supported for the past six years -- vigorously, loyally, unambiguously -- is George W. Bush and the Republicans who have controlled the Congress. "Conservatism," in its only meaningful sense, is that which they have done. Just like Fidel Castro and Leonid Brezhnev and Pol Pot and Mao Tse-Tung and Josef Stalin and the whole array of Communist regimes can't be extricated from "Communism," George Bush and his Congressional servants can't be removed from "conservatism." They, and what they have done, are "conservatism" by definition.

There are ways for political movements to eject the leaders they chose in the event that those leaders stray from the "right beliefs." In 1976, Gerald Ford was the Republican President, but conservatives believed he was insufficiently conservative -- not a real conservative -- so they supported the primary challenge of Ronald Reagan.

In 1980, Jimmy Carter was the Democratic President, but liberals believed he was insufficiently liberal -- not a real liberal -- so they supported the primary challenge of Ted Kennedy. As The Washington Monthly recounts: "By 1980, many liberals were in open revolt against Carter, abandoning him to support Ted Kennedy's ultimately-doomed primary challenge even as the public was sending unmistakable signals that it was sick of Kennedy-style big government."

In 1992, the first George Bush was the Republican President, but conservatives believed he was insufficiently conservative -- not a real conservative -- so they supported the primary challenge of Pat Buchanan. As William Safire described it at the time: "Buchanan is using the Republican primary campaign in 1992 as the springboard for his long-range plan to wrest control of the party from hawkish neoconservatives and pragmatic moderates. Right from the start, he was a Goldwater 'true believer,' never happy with the necessary compromises of Nixon and Reagan."

But George W. Bush, with very rare exception, was enthusiastically embraced by conservatives at all times -- in his 2000 primary fight against John McCain, in the 2000 general election, and again in the 2004 general election. It was conservatives themselves who made George Bush (and the individuals who controlled Congress) the standard-bearer of their political movement for the last six years, and there was no attempt to separate them from conservatism.

Who are the supposed "real conservatives" who were repudiating George Bush and the GOP Congresional leaders? Is it Mitt Romney, who in 2004 hailed the "the courageous and compassionate leadership of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney." Is it Rick Santorum, who solemnly told us: "every generation has but a moment to carry the torch that defines who we are and what we will be," and then made clear who he thinks will do that for conservatives: "George Bush has shown his compassion by advancing his faith-based initiatives, strengthening marriage, and fighting to let the American people define marriage, not left-wing judges."

It is Rush Limbaugh, who, at the time of Reagan's 2004 death, said: "Reagan was right just as George W. Bush is today, and I really believe that if Reagan had been able he would have put his hand on Bush's shoulder and say to him, 'Stay the course, George.' I really believe that." How about James Dobson: "According to Dobson, evangelical Protestants played a major role in re-electing President George W. Bush, giving him a 'great mandate.'"

The leading "conservative" political magazine, National Review, told us this about George Bush and "conservatism" in 2004: "In his bid for reelection, George W. Bush deserves the support of conservatives." Although the NR editors acknowledged that "mistakes" were made, they said that "Bush has shown evidence of being able to learn from his mistakes. We have made political strides in Iraq." They also said, while noting the "legitimate conservative criticisms that can be made of his record," that "Bush deserves conservative support, as well, on domestic issues." Thus: "For conservatives . . . backing Bush's reelection should be an easy decision."

And here is Jonah Goldberg anointing George W. Bush as the heir of Reagan conservatism and the Republican Party as the vessel of pure Reaganism:

But it is now clear that Bush's own son takes far more after his father's old boss than he does his own father, at least politically speaking. From tax cuts (and deficits, alas), to his personal conviction on aborrtion (sic), to aligning America with the historical tide of liberty in the world, Georrge (sic) W. Bush has proved that he's a Reaganite, not a "Bushie." He may not be a natural heir to Reagan, but that's the point. The party is all Reaganite now. What better sign that this is now truly and totally the Gipper's Party than the obvious conversion of George Bush's own son?

So let us smash the ludicrous pretense that Bush and the Republicans are somehow "separate" from "conservatism" before that toxic and grossly dishonest notion can take root. Until 2005 -- when the Bush presidency irrevocably collapsed -- who were the "real conservatives" who were insisting that George Bush was not one of them? The few who did -- Pat Buchanan, Andrew Sullivan, Bob Barr, Bruce Fein -- were deemed apostates and, in any event, compose such a small group that they are merely the exception that proves the rule.

Particularly after 2004 (but almost never before), it is true that there are conservatives who dissented here and there on isolated, largely overlooked policy issues, but the vast majority of self-proclaimed "conservatives" claimed George Bush as their leader and the entire GOP Congressional leadership -- Tom DeLay, Denny Hastert, Bill First, Mitch McConnell -- as their own. That is just a matter of undisputed historical fact.

It is completely incoherent for a political movement that selected its own leaders and propped them up and supported them for years to suddenly insist -- once those leaders become wildly unpopular and are revealed as failures -- that somehow they are not "real" members of that political movement. Nobody forced George Bush on conservatives. They picked him, stuck by him, and long into his presidency, insisted that he was their leader and the face of conservatism. And so he is.

All of this is depressingly predictable. Last year, Digby famously defined "conservative" this way: "'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." And Rick Perlstein has pointed out many times that, just like Communism: "In conservative intellectual discourse there is no such thing as a bad conservative. Conservatism never fails. It is only failed." But the predictability of all this doesn't make it any less deceitful, dangerous or just wrong.

It is the responsibility of journalists and, really, everyone, to preserve the basic truth that our country has been run exclusively by conservatives for virtually all of the last six years. It is true, as many (including myself, repeatedly) have noted, the Bush movement discarded "conservative principles" as they exist in text books. But it is equally true -- and far more important -- that all that has been done to this country has been done under the banner of "conservatism" and has been done by self-proclaimed "conservatives." There should be no debate about that because it is simply fact.

UPDATE: I want to clarify one point. A commenter cited the new book by Andrew Sullivan (which I just finished reading and will review in the next day or two) as evidence that "real conservatism" does exist and that it is fundamentally different than the radicalism of the Bush administration. I agree with that in the abstract, and that was the primary point I made in the three posts of mine to which I linked in the last paragraph (namely, that there is a universe of difference between what "conservatives" have claimed are their core beliefs and what they have supported under the Bush presidency). That's just obvious.

The real point, though, is that whatever it is that Sullivan (and other genuine self-proclaimed "conservative" Bush critics like him, including George Will) is describing, it is not American political "conservatism," at least not in any real sense. Maybe it comports more faithfully to textbook conservative principles (it does). Maybe the mythical, Goldwater Conservative (the Platonic form) would be more receptive to it than he would to Bush radicalism (he would). But the vast majority of self-identified "conservatives" in real life, today, do not subscribe to those views. In most cases, they believe in the opposite. That's why they so vigorously supported the Bush movement and GOP Congressional leaders.

So operationally, in reality, in the only meaningful sense, "conservatism" has become the Bush movement and those who built it up and supported it for the last six years. The face of American conservatism is Rush Limbaugh, James Dobson, Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, National Review, and the Bush movement -- what they are has very little to do with what Sullivan and others describe as their set of political beliefs. Semantic disputes over "real conservatism" are meaningless. In the only way that matters, "conservatives" are those who are responsible for the Bush presidency and everything it brought.

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