Conservatives should look back before attempting to move forward

Matthew Yglesias raises a good point here, that conservatives need to reflect on past errors before condeming Obama’s future errors — let alone offering America new solutions:

Part of the effort to pull the wagon of conservatism out of the ditch into which Bush piloted the country is going to be an effort to deny that George W. Bush was a real conservative. In reality, Bushism should be understood as the highest form of conservatism. In particular, the High Bushist years of 2001-2006 represent the only time that the post-war conservative movement has had total control over the federal government. If the practical consequences of pre-Bush conservatism were less disastrous, that’s largely because conservative political power was more constrained in those earlier eras.

Meanwhile, it’s worth recalling that at the peak of his political power, when Bush was making his most disastrous decisions, conservatives not only thought he was a good president, but a great one. There was practically a line around the block to write paens to his genius.

The dates should be 2003 – 2006 (not 2001-2006), but the concept seems valid.  As an example Yglesias cites David Gelertner’s “Bush’s Greatness” from the 13 September 2004 Weekly Standard:

IT’S OBVIOUS not only that George W. Bush has already earned his Great President badge (which might even outrank the Silver Star) but that much of the opposition to Bush has a remarkable and very special quality; one might be tempted to call it “lunacy.” But that’s too easy. The “special quality” of anti-Bush opposition tells a more significant, stranger story than that.

Bush’s greatness is often misunderstood. He is great not because he showed America how to react to 9/11 but because he showed us how to deal with a still bigger event–the end of the Cold War. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 left us facing two related problems, one moral and one practical. Neither President Clinton nor the first Bush found solutions–but it’s not surprising that the right answers took time to discover, and an event like 9/11 to bring them into focus.

In a later post he quotes from Chapter One of John Podhoretz’s book, Bush Country: How Dubya Became a Great President While Driving Liberals Insane (published February 2004):

One might conclude, from his conduct over the past three years, that George W. Bush was put on this earth to do two things:

  • First, to lead the United States into the third millennium, with all its terrifying challenges and wondrous opportunities.
  • And second, to drive liberals insane.

He’s succeeding brilliantly at both. … This would be an astonishing list of accomplishments for a president who had served all eight years in office. Bush has done it all in just three.

Other discussions of President Bush’s greatness

(1)  “Bronze for Bush as Greatest President“, ABC News, 17 February 2002

(2)  The following is perhaps the most-often quoted example paen to Bush’s greatness, but not in fact a good example IMO:  “A Stroke of Genius?“, John Hinderaker, Powerline, 25 July 2005:

It must be very strange to be President Bush. A man of extraordinary vision and brilliance approaching to genius, he can’t get anyone to notice. He is like a great painter or musician who is ahead of his time, and who unveils one masterpiece after another to a reception that, when not bored, is hostile.

… Update: The tone of the post is obviously tongue in cheek, but liberals never seem to notice.


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9 thoughts on “Conservatives should look back before attempting to move forward”

  1. Those who supported Bush enthusiastically have been labeled ‘conservatives’ but in fact are not. Either that or the word ‘conservative’ needs to junked a new one used instead. Personally, I think it’s a good word.

    The current mainstream version of a conservative in the US is more like a ‘Nationalist Capitalist’ than a conservative however. They would hate that label but I think it fits rather well in describing the over-arching vision of their general thrust. In any case, they are certainly not conservative in the traditional sense of the term.

    So the real debate is whether or not there is a place for traditional conservatives. If there is, they can begin to resurrect its underlying view and frame it in the contemporary American context. If there is not, they should first pare away the extraneous cultural issues and so forth which are mainly good for getting votes during elections, and then do a far better job of defining ‘Nationalist Capitalism’ as a working paradigm.
    Fabius Maximus replies: We call them conservatives because that is what they call themselves. It’s a label, used because its understood by most people. There are also bodies of political theory called liberal and conservative, neither of which matches what we see in the American political mainstream. The overlap of the labels causes confusion to the too-literally minded, but is I think clear to most of us.

    What I suspect you are attempting to say is that the political movement or coalition labeled as conservatives in the US should change their “platform.” It’s not a theoretical question of “is there a place for ‘traditional conservative” unless you first find a large body of politically active people with such beliefs.

    Is there a place for politicians who dye their hair green? Since we don’t have any, who cares?

  2. Because they call themselves conservatives does not make it so. There are many liberals who attempt to label themselves moderates but are not. Harry Reid comes to mind. I call them country club Republicans. Moderates who are pro life with an aggresive foreign policy who spend their behinds off are not conservatives. I really don’t see much of difference between them and liberals in practice. When the Republicans gained control of congress in 92 their agenda was conservative but I made the call that they would swing to the middle in 10 to 12 years as the country club republicans pushed the conservatives to the margins and they would try to buy their way into immortality. They assumed the label to gain political traction, plain and simple. This is one reason I think many are so unhappy with politics in this country. The people don’t see any real difference. I point to Obama as an example. Other than Mr. Volker, who’s probably more of a figurehead, how much difference is there between Bush and Obama? We will have to wait for the final result but at this point, none!

    Perhaps it’s time for conservatives to find or start a new party. I know I’m not happy with the Republicans and the Democrats are not an option at this point. Many feel like myself. It really will be interesting to see how the political system mutates to deal with the economic crisis we are in and the failure of our political leadership in general. The outcome may not be as pleasant as we’d like.
    Fabius Maximus replies: You’re more experienced with these things than almost all of us, having just run for office. Given the institutional role of the Republican Party, I suspect taking it over might be easier than the long slog of building a new party. It is in disarray now, and I about the plans of its financial backers.

    ” I point to Obama as an example. Other than Mr. Volker, who’s probably more of a figurehead, how much difference is there between Bush and Obama? We will have to wait for the final result but at this point, none!”

    Why do you believe that McCain would not have appointed Voker, or Bush if he had a 3rd term?

    As for the near-zero difference, I wrote about this several times during the campaign. It is interesting to see the leftists who supported Obama slowly realize they were conned. Just like the conservatives with Bush (e.g., limited government advocates, social conservatives, and domestic-firsters). It will be interesting to see how they react. Since to all appearances American are sheep, I suspect they will baa loudly and then support him.

  3. That some Bush supporters identity themselves as conservatives does not make it so. Political Republicanism and conservatism have had little in common during the two terms of Mr. Bush, and have been at-odds for decades. Conservatism, properly understood, is not a political ideology at all – a point well explained by William Lind and Paul Weyrich in their series “The Next Conservatism.” (Free Congress Foundation). Lind (a former colleague of yours unless I miss my guess), is a very strong critic of President Bush and his policies. I won’t attempt to review their points for reasons of space. Bush is properly defined as a neo-conservative, a Rockefeller conservative – or in the foreign policy area, as a Wilsonian.

    To name a few examples…

    1. Bush grew federal spending at stupendous levels, and didn’t balance the budget, let alone make a decent dent in the federal deficit. A real conservative lives within his means, balances the budget, and practices – at least in theory – those old-fashioned virtues of temperance, moderation, and thrift. It goes without saying that we haven’t had a conservative in Washington -by this definition – in quite some time, in either party.

    2. Bush’s evangelical foreign policy, that we will somehow transform foreign cultures utterly alien to our own into Jeffersonian democracies almost overnight, is profoundly un-conservative.
    Senator Robert Taft is surely spinning in his grave. Nation building should occur at home, not abroad. Those of other nations who desire freedom, should win it for themselves, lest they not value it highly enough. “That which we obtain too easily, we esteem too lightly,” would be a conservative’s watchword on this matter. Assist other nations, yes, but not to the exclusion of our interests or indeed common sense. The Framers feared foreign entanglements and a return to the politics of Tallyrand and the Congress of Vienna. They’d have counselled – mind your own business, and to the extent possible, allow the other fellow to mind his.

    3. President Bush favors what he euphamistically calls immigration reform, which is another way of excusing open borders, uncontrolled passage into the U.S. from Mexico, and disregard for the law of the land, which stipulates that undocumented aliens are in fact in violation of our laws. Immigrants coming to America in search of a better life should not be regarded as pariahs, but neither should they be premitted to “cut the line” ahead of those waiting to enter legally. Moreover, uncontrolled immigration threatens to erode the basis of civil society, namely shared culture, language, and values. The logical endpoint of a nation that refuses to control its borders is a balkanized society, instead of E Pluribus Unum (“From Many, One”) the reverse, “From one, many.”

    4. Mr. Bush has shown a disturbing tendency to genuflect to the politically-correct powers that be, whether explaining away the excesses of radical Islam, or waging a war with an enemy he refuses to name. You can no more wage a “War on Terror” than you can “fight” kamikazes. A conservative would not mistake the Saudis or the Pakistanis are friends. Perhaps they’d be powers whose interests would align with our own at some times, perhaps not, but this is vastly different than friendship. I won’t even remark on Mr. Bush’s friendly regard for Biejing and the PRC, whose banks effectively own us now.

    5. Conservatives know that “big-government conservatism” is an oxymoron. Small is better than bigger, and local governance is better than that from a distant city whose bureaucrats do not know and do not care about those they are supposed to serve. Moreover, checks and balances are necessary, given that imperfect humans become corrupt if unrestrained in their influence and power. We are not perfectable, and should govern our affairs with one another with that in mind.

    Can’t speak for others, but IMO Bush is far from conservative. Obama has yet to govern, but I’d be surprised if he is one, either, but we’ll see…

    One final point: one does not have to be politically conservative to believe in its principles. George Orwell was a committed socialist, but understood conservatism and practiced it well.
    Another example from the past is someone like GK Chesterton. Current or recently-past conservatives include people like Milton Friedman or Thomas Sowell.

    To the extent that once-conservative people supported Mr. Bush, and ignored their principles for political expediency, they got what they deserved… a seat on the backbenchs and a stint in the poltical wilderness. Whether they remain there is up to them. We’ll see what happens…

    All the best –

  4. A second to the notion that we do not have a real two-party system, given that the Democrats and the GOP are in all not very different. There is only the political class and the rest of us.
    Their signal triumph has been to get the voters to go at one another over ephemeral differences (i.e. the race card, the class card, etc.) instead of uniting and demanding/forcing a change in the corrupt status quo.

    If one accepts that 98% of us are sheep, amenable to being herded about w/o complaint, then the 2% who are wolves had better have some bite if things are to be better and different in the future. I almost said “Change” but that word is off-limits for a while, for obvious reasons!

    Semper Fi –
    Fabius Maximus: I agree on all points but one. I do not accept that 98% of Americans are sheep, although it looks like that. Perhaps we have just fallen asleep, and will take action upon awakening.

  5. “The dates should be 2003 – 2006 (not 2001-2006), but the concept seems valid.”

    Valid? How so? The attempt, after the 2004 election, to do something, *anything* with the pending Social Security disaster went down in flames.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Please explain. When did social security reform become a high priority — for either party? (However, both enjoyed raising the taxes to “save the system” — and spending the money)

  6. Your posts regarding economics are uniquely insightful; this political crap I can read anywhere.
    Fabius Maximus replies: You are confused; I will attempt to explain. You can complain to the Times because you are their customer. You can complain to CBS because their advertising income requires an audience. Perhaps you can bring this logical sequence to a conclusion…

  7. Here’s a link to a blog post by conservative Steve Sailer, about the conservative concept of ‘Citizenism’ (the essay itself is Americans First).

    Of the points Sailer raises, which has Bush concurred with? Which of the essay’s themes has Bush shown that he understands with the subtlety that one might expect of a national leader?

    As a debating technique, defining “conservative” as “believer in G.W. Bush’s stated policies” is a clever move. Yglesia’s effort to document the paens of Bush’s acolytes is helpful, however much those essayists wish their scribblings would find their ways to the memory hole.

    I, too, sipped some of Bush’s kool aid. Flavor wasn’t too good, the aftertaste is much worse, and the appeal of Obama’s New And Improved is negligible.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I do not believe that is what Yglesias or most folks are doing. They are talking about folks who call themselves conservatives. These people mostly supported Bush’s Administration, most very strongly.

    That these posts get so many comments attempting to obscure this clear and obvious point re-enforces my belief that
    (a) conservatives need to do some reflecting on themselves and their beliefs, and.
    (b) until then they will not play a significant role in American politics.

  8. Posts # 2 and # 3 clearly show that the term ‘conservative’ is a subject of no little interest and also that there might well be a great difference between some who identify themselves as ‘conservatives’ and others who say they are ‘Republicans and therefore conservatives’. Not the same thing according to some and therefore, despite your objection to the suggestion FM, worth the time to mull over by conservatives of both stripes.

    Changing a platform comes after you decide if ‘Republican Conservatives’ and ‘traditional conservatives’ have anything in common. If they do, I can’t see much right now.

    We might be in for a paradigm shift in political parties. For example, right now in Canada a major national tempest politically threatening to tear the country apart as the two ‘solitudes’ rear up again, namely the Quebec Sovereigntists and the Western Separatists/Reformists. Although portrayed as opponents, in fact their positions are quite similar albeit for different stated philosophies (Quebec for mainly cultural reasons, the West for mainly economic) because both of them want increased States power at the expense of reduced Central Power.

    I believe that traditional conservatives and anti-Empire ‘leftists’ might have more common ground in the US than is currently perceived. Both want a vast reduction in the Military-Industrial-Congressional empire.

    If a third party emerges, it will be along this axis and traditional conservatives will play a leading, if not dominant, role for it to gain any credible traction. Personally, I am praying for a bona fide US conservative revolution along these lines and if FxConde agrees, I wish him all the best!

  9. A 3rd Party starts locally. In response to #8….

    I’ve wanted the US to have a legitimate “swing” party to put a check on both the Dems and the GOP. It’s not an easy or short-term project.

    It also does not involve one billionaire running for President without even a broad enough base to find a credible VP. It involves setting up offices nationwide, running for local and state-level offices, and then attacking Congressional seats held by fringe idiots from either of the Big Two.

    I say this because localities are where the game gets gerrymandered first. To break the monopoly the Dems and GOP currently enjoy, a Revival Party would have to have a large enough ground presence to start changing local ordinances and undoing long-standing Congressional gerrymanders.

    Then, the next Ross Perot could have a half-way decent shot at both winning election, and actually governing the nation once in power,

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