[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]
“Big-Government Conservatism” by Matthew D. Lassiter (University of Michigan)
Midway through his presidency, when Bob Woodward asked him about how history would judge the War in Iraq, George W. Bush responded: “History. We don’t know. We’ll all be dead.” Instead, in a 2006 essay in Rolling Stone, the prominent historian Sean Wilentz argued that a substantial majority of U.S. historians already considered the Bush administration to be a “failure” (81% in a poll conducted by the History News Network). Wilentz predicted that Bush would “be remembered as the very worst president in all of American history.”
In April 2008, continuing this trend of assessing history as it unfolded, Princeton University hosted a “Conference on the Presidency of George W. Bush in Historical Perspective.” The organizer, Julian Zelizer, is a Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University and the author or coeditor of ten books about modern U.S. political history, covering topics such as the U.S. Congress, the national security state, and presidential politics (including studies of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan). The conference featured a number of leading scholars in the field of American political history, and Zelizer compiled their essays in the anthology under discussion here to offer “a first historical assessment” of the Bush administration.
The contributors to The Presidency of George W. Bush emphasize “the central quandary of conservatism in the twenty-first century: what were the challenges conservatives faced, now that they had become the governing establishment?” They cover a wide range of topics, including foreign policy and the “war on terror,” the centralization of power in the executive branch, the coexistence of tax cuts and corporate deregulation with a huge increase in federal deficit spending, and other policies promoted by the Bush administration’s hybrid philosophy of big-government conservatism.
In the opening chapter, Zelizer portrays the George W. Bush era as the culmination of the second stage in the history of modern conservatism. During the first stage, from the insurgent Goldwater campaign of 1964 to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, conservatives organized as a political movement in opposition to the liberal establishment, the expansion of the federal government, and moderate forces within the GOP. Conservative activists mobilized in the Religious Right, while Republican strategists sought to tap into racial backlash and grassroots anger about taxes. Neoconservative intellectuals formulated policies designed to undo the Great Society and reassert American power around the globe, and corporate interests simultaneously funded the think tanks and political action committees that would ultimately cohere in a powerful conservative counter-establishment.
The transition to the second stage occurred as the conservative movement’s electoral victories brought the New Right to power in Washington, most notably through the two-term Reagan presidency, the Republican takeover of Congress in the 1994 midterms, and then single-party control following George W. Bush’s inauguration in 2001. According to Zelizer, this second stage in the history of modern conservatism lasted until 2008, when voters delivered a harsh verdict on conservative governance, and the Democratic party regained control of both the executive and legislative branches. The book focuses on the politics and policies of Bush’s two terms in office, and especially the administration’s highly ideological governing strategy that built on the conservative agenda of the Reagan era through the pursuit of several primary objectives.
In domestic policy, Bush sought to empower oil companies and other extractive energy interests based largely in the Sunbelt, part of the broader favoritism toward non-unionized firms in the high-tech sector and low-wage firms in the “Wal-Mart economy.” The administration also cut income taxes in order to redistribute government benefits to wealthy Americans and pushed for “deregulation” by stacking executive branch agencies with conservative ideologues who used federal programs to promote corporate interests.
In the area of national security, the administration systematically expanded the power of the executive branch to deploy military forces abroad and implement related programs such as domestic surveillance, part of a deliberate drive to recreate the pre-Watergate “imperial presidency” of the Nixon era. And in electoral politics, Bush and his adviser Karl Rove adopted the goal of assembling a permanent Republican majority that would equal the strength of the New Deal coalition energized by Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s—based on an unstable approach that sometimes operated through “big-tent” tactics but more often reflected ideologically divisive appeals to the conservative base.
In the book’s second chapter, Zelizer demonstrates that, despite the antigovernment rhetoric of the conservative movement, the expansion and centralization of power in the executive branch is a major legacy of conservative governance from Nixon and Reagan through Bush. Key policymakers in the Bush administration, including Vice-President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, worked to restore presidential prerogatives that the Democratic Congress had weakened in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate. During the 1970s, Congress sought to restrict the autonomy of the White House through reforms such as the War Powers Act, the Church Committee’s exposure of the CIA’s extralegal activities, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (requiring warrants for domestic wiretaps), and the independent counsel statute.
During the Reagan administration, conservative intellectuals developed a theory of the “unitary executive” that radically increased presidential power, and Republicans reacted to the Iran-Contra scandal by defending White House authority to circumvent the law in its conduct of foreign policy. Republican (and Democratic) presidents have also asserted the right to send troops into combat without congressional authorization, an almost unlimited view of the constitutional power vested in the commander in chief. This climaxed following 9-11, when George W. Bush asserted vast and unilateral war-making authority as well as the right to ignore American laws banning torture and warrantless surveillance. “The war on terrorism,” Zelizer concludes, “has highlighted the reality that presidential power is integral, rather than aberrational, to modern conservatism.”
The other contributors to this volume converge in their assessments of the difficulty for conservatism in translating its political victories into an effective governing strategy, in foreign and domestic policy alike. Bush pushed through regressive tax cuts and sought to privatize many government functions while simultaneously increasing federal spending (in areas from national defense to Medicare), running up huge budget deficits, and presiding over the near-meltdown of the global financial system. Three areas in particular revealed the basic failure of conservative governance during the Bush era: the catastrophic aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, the incompetent response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and the (admittedly bipartisan) complicity in the collapse of the housing market and the deep economic recession that followed. Zelizer concludes that Bush left office “with conservatism in a state of political instability, raising serious questions about the future of the movement.”