Regardless of how one feels about George W. Bush, that his presidency will be recognized as consequential is not in dispute. In his new book A Tragic Legacy (from which I will borrow liberally in this post), Glenn Greenwald has this to say about George Bush:
Whatever one might think of the president, it is impossible to contest the sweeping significance of his presidency. The president has not only altered the United States in long-lasting and fundamental ways, but he has altered the political landscape of the country to such an extent that there has been a significant political realignment as a result of his presidency.
This strikes me as exactly right. What drives political debate in this country is no longer “liberal vs. conservative.” In one sense, the conservatives are right when they say, ad nauseam, that “9/11 changed everything.”
Yes it did. In particular, it changed the modern face of conservatism. It is obsolete, now, to believe that one’s political orientation can be determined by your position on domestic issues such as fiscal policy, affirmative action, government regulation, gun control, welfare reform, abortion, or gay rights. To be a conservative in a post-9/11 world means that you believe, with near-religious fervor, in George W. Bush’s radical “Good vs. Evil” approach to the world. You have a rabid belief in American exceptionalism and you believe that we are destined, indeed obligated, to enforce our will on the rest of the world. You are absolutely certain that liberty is powerful and that people yearn to be free. Freedom is a gift from the Almighty to America, and because we are Good and Evil is real, we are obligated to share our gift. As president Bush proclaimed in his second inaugural address, you believe that spreading democracy should be our nation’s primary mission. “Let Freedom Ring!” as Sean Hannity’s bestseller declares. Appropriately, Hannity’s next book was titled “Deliver Us From Evil!” (To be fair, Hannity does not limit his pursuit of evil to Terrorism alone. In the book’s subtitle he also identifies Despotism and Liberalism in his personal axis of evil.)
And most importantly modern-day conservatives believe this: because president Bush’s mission is not only of the highest moral Good but also literally necessary for the preservation of our civilization, all other American “values” are secondary and there should be no limits on the president’s powers as he pursues these ends. If you’re not “with us” (the good-doers), than you’re “against us” (the evil-doers).
If there are any conservative readers out there who think I am exaggerating or over-simplifying….well they ought to listen to their own candidates. Rudy “War on Terror” Giuliani, who has used the tragedy of 9/11as his own personal ATM, declares that if a Democrat is elected “we will be hit again because we will be back to our pre- September 11 attitude.” There is no more hawkish Senator than John McCain, who reminds us that if we don’t fight them on the streets of Baghdad we’ll be seeing them in Boston. And Mitt Romney says this about terror suspects: “We ought to double Guantanamo.” That way, “they don’t get the access to lawyers that they get when they’re on our soil.” Most ominously, listen to the rhetoric that the candidates are using to heighten the threat from Iran.
It sure doesn’t sound to me like any of them plan on winning the Republican nomination by shrinking the size of the federal government because, as Ronald Reagan said, “government is the problem, not the solution.”
Now that George W. Bush’s approval rating is 26%, you hear a lot of conservatives complain that he is not a “true” conservative. Don’t believe it. George Bush, not Ronald Reagan, is the face of conservatism. This is the political realignment that Greenwald describes. Conservatives were responsible for putting Bush in office in two elections, demonizing as unpatriotic anyone who opposed his policies. Like it or not conservatives, it is the Bush policies…the Bush doctrine if you will… that defines conservatism.
All of which leads us to the hollow core of American conservatism. Conservatives would still have you believe that they stand for limited government, strong national defense, fiscal responsibility, and the supremacy of the rule of law. It is discouragingly easy to document the abuse of these principles by the conservative movement under the Bush administration.
To be sure, conservatives still have absolute reverence for unregulated free markets and there remains no scenario where tax cuts for the wealthy are not appropriate. Be it recessions, deficits, surplus, or war; tax cuts for the wealthy are the remedy. (So that they may “starve the beast” of government regulation.) In that respect, when you look into the soul of the conservative movement, you may still find conservative icon Grover Norquist trying to drown government in the bathtub. What you will not find when you examine honestly the conservative movement is respect for the Constitution of the United States. Like a frightened child, conservatives hunger for protection from an endless stream of enemies in George Bush’s world of evil-doers. Conservatives have valued security more than they do liberty, and as Ben Franklin famously observed… will get neither. Evil is real, alright… and always has been. American strength has always been derived from the freedoms enshrined in our Constitution and the Bill of Rights. When we adhere strictly to those rights we have moral legitimacy…when we waver… we do not.