Is Jeb Bush just another ‘big government’ liberal?
You can say one thing about the Bushes: They don’t quit easily. Even when they try over and over — and fail over and over — to redesign traditional American conservatism.
Even on this date, Feb. 6, Ronald Reagan’s birthday, the fight over the meaning of American conservatism goes on: The Bush family thinking one thing, and Reagan conservatives representing another.
The Bushes’ agenda has always relied on big government. But Reagan’s agenda focused on shrinking the authority of the state and enlarging the power of the individual. This is not a nuanced difference.
Only two days before Reagan’s birthday, Jeb Bush was in Detroit calling for “reform conservatism” and “fixing government” policy rather than calling for specific cuts in the corrupt federal bureaucracy. NBC took note of the speech and reported that Bush is taking a page from the 2000 presidential campaign of his brother, former President George W. Bush. Jeb Bush’s call for a “right to rise,” NBC said, is really code for the former president’s “compassionate conservatism.”
Consider, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush trotted out “kinder and gentler” conservatism in his acceptance speech at the 1988 Republican National Convention. The conservatives who had come to New Orleans were decidedly unhappy with what they considered an open rebuke to the president — especially first lady Nancy Reagan.
Of course, Bush couldn’t make it work — expanding government, going to war in the Middle East, minimizing the victory over Soviet communism and breaking his pledge on taxes. He was turned out of office four years later, losing to Bill Clinton.
Conservatism, however, made a roaring comeback with the 1994 midterm elections. Its new leader, Representative Newt Gingrich, campaigned on his “Contract with America,” and the Republicans took control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. Gingrich became speaker and declared that the 1994 midterm elections had been a referendum on Reagan.
Bush, only two years out of office, was gone and forgotten. Gingrich and the 104th Congress had Clinton over a barrel and were able to implement one conservative reform after another. Congress passed welfare reform, the Freedom to Farm Act, free-trade agreements and far-reaching reforms of Congress. Capitol Hill continued the successful policies of Reagan through the 1990s.
Then President George W. Bush took office and rolled out compassionate conservatism, viewed by conservatives as yet another rebuke of Reagan’s brand of conservatism. Because compassionate conservatism also meant “big government Republicanism.”
Bush’s varied programs included No Child Left Behind, nation-building in faraway lands and unnecessary wars, bloated farm and transportation bills, and the explosive growth of medical welfare for senior citizens. Combined, they were a vehicle to blow a hole in the budget, squandering the $280-billion surplus left by Clinton. (The Clinton administration had projected this surplus would increase to close to $5 trillion within a decade.) The GOP Congress — at Bush’s bidding — greatly expanded government and increased the national debt by trillions.
The Bush administration did not institute or call for one cut in the federal budget over its eight years. Bush didn’t even use his veto power until his second term — and then over a stem-cell issue as a belated effort to appease the GOP’s evangelical voters.
Conservatives sent Bush and his team a message in the 2006 midterms. They punished the Republicans by voting for Democrats. The Republicans lost control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 12 years.
Two years later, the Republicans nominated for president a Wilsonian establishment figure, Senator John McCain. In 2012, the GOP backed another major establishment domo, Mitt Romney. Conservatives looked for cover.
They powered back up in 2010 and 2014, however. But the evidence has never disabused the GOP establishment from trying to remake conservatism into what some former neo-cons and the Bush contingent now call “reformicons” — the reform conservatism that Jeb Bush is now pushing.
For real conservatives, all this is a ruse for growing government and defending “bigness.” Invariably, the so-called reforms of the big-government Republicans call for bigger and more government, bigger and more dodgy banks, more and more power acquired for the political establishment and less and less power for the individual. The Bush family — those whom I know — are good people. But as Michael Corleone tells his brother in The Godfather, “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.”
The fight between the big-government Republican establishment and the conservative populists is not new, nor is the attempt to redefine conservatism.
Senator Barry Goldwater rejected qualified conservatism in his influential 1960 book, The Conscience of a Conservative. It ignited the modern conservative movement, and the Arizona senator emerged as the Republican presidential nominee in 1964. Goldwater saw GOP establishment Republicans as a ruse to denigrate true American conservatism, while boosting the power of the state. He battled the Republican Party’s country-club elites and corporate-boardroom types in an attempt to prevent their seizure of true conservatism.
What Jeb Bush has never understood is that American conservatism is always about reform because it is always about revolution. It seeks to challenge conventional wisdom and upset the status quo.
Jeb Bush can’t upset the status quo because he is the status quo.