Thursday, January 15, 2009

George W. Bush and Conservatives

George W. Bush is about to leave office. I've read several opinion pieces recently evaluating his presidency. You might be surprised how divided conservative opinion is on the subject. Personally, I'm divided within myself.
Just take a look at's opinion pieces, and you'll find at least two rather scathing reviews of Bush's presidency, one by Pat Buchanan, and another by Steve Chapman, which you can read here and here. On both of their lists for Bush screw-ups: the war and the economy. These are conservatives talking.
The reality is that arguably Bush isnot a conservative, nor ever was. His policy on the economy is conservative only in the sense that he has a strangely unwavering commitment to tax cuts. In every other respect, he has abandoned conservative principles by continuing to spend more and more while accumulating more and more executive power for the sake of his war on terror.
Conservatives can even wonder about his foreign policy. While conservatives are all about national defense, and traditionally believe that a strong military is the only way to deter our opponents from attacking us, Bush's war in Iraq was in many ways an innovation. The concept of "pre-emptive strike" is anything but traditional.
In the end, I think Bush is his own person--he acted according to his own particular vision in response to very unique circumstances (9/11 and so on). Call him arrogant or call him principled; in either case, he's really not traditional.
Where does that leave conservatism, I wonder? I used to consider myself a conservative, but these days I feel that the word "conservative" utterly fails to name any one particular worldview. Of course, I suppose that's what politics is all about, anyway--gathering coalitions of various interests into one party or another. Still, I used to think there was such a logical coherence tying together fiscal conservatism, pragmatic foreign policy, and traditional moral values.
That coherence has all but evaporated in my mind. Perhaps it was enough for me just to discover the diversity of conservative/libertarian thought, but the presidency of George Bush was certainly a catalyst for making me rethink the system I was used to. Bush is an enigma, a radical conservative who is not conservative, a visionary who is not progressive, and for those of us who are generous enough not to just hate him, he is quite a mystery to ponder.
Bush's character is indeed mysterious. I read a transcript of his final press conference. He does seem to have this odd contentment about him, like he's completely satisfied with what he did in office because he thought it was the right thing. You know, for most people we consider that okay, but for the President of the United States there does seem to be something wrong with it. I mean, a whole country's fate was on the line. Still, the man followed his conscience from start to finish. Such people are usually called visionaries when the majority actually agrees with them.
But Bush's approval ratings are just about the lowest they've ever been for an American president, so rather than seeing him as a visionary, many Americans have outright hatred for him. I suppose that's the risk he was willing to take, and he's paying for it. I wonder if, behind the face he wears in public, any of that hatred matters to him.
In any case, he acted on what he thought was right in a time when something had to be done. A new era of global terror has come upon us, and George Bush was the one given the task of deciding how we should approach it. Like it or not, we have to live with the consequences of his bold agenda. I'm not sure I like it.
In the meantime, Democrats will soon gain full control of the government, and conservatives are left wondering what to do next. Personally, I think this is a good thing for conservatives. Maybe this will cause them to think more about political philosophy than about retaining power. Probably not, but hey, it could happen.
As for me, I feel I'm looking at the political landscape from a bit of a distance. I wonder if there's something better on the horizon, perhaps a visionary who has all the idealism of Barack Obama with none of the gross moral errors (such as his views on abortion). I wonder if there is someone who combines a passion for justice with keen economic wisdom and political restraint.
(See, I think I'm too idealistic these days to be truly conservative.)
Anyway, goodbye George W. Bush. You've certainly made your mark.

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