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Joseph Sobran’s
Washington Watch

The Mask Is Off

(Reprinted from the issue of December 11, 2003)

Capitol BldgThe Bush administration has won a major political victory: the biggest expansion of Medicare in the 38-year history of that jewel of the Great Society. The details are complex; the cost will be staggering — ultimately, trillions of dollars.

This is not only a victory over the Democrats, but a triumph over any principled conservatives who remain in the Republican Party. The GOP leadership in Congress steamrollered those who have supported Bush in the hope and belief that he stood for a return to limited and constitutional government.

President Bush, to put it briefly, has finally removed his conservative mask. As one critic observes, he doesn’t even bother using conservative rhetoric anymore. He has joined the free-for-all of socialist entitlements, hoping to reap his reward in the 2004 election by taking the senior vote from the Democrats who until now have virtually owned it.

This may be a sound political calculation, but it throws an odd light on all those neoconservatives and nominal conservatives who have been praising Bush for having the courage of his convictions. Just what convictions have they been referring to?

Bush is a winner. Give him that. But he has defeated not only his Democratic opponents, but also those gullible Reagan Republicans who trusted him to roll back the Leviathan state, or at least halt its growth. In just three years he has already increased spending more than Bill Clinton managed to do in eight years.

Rush Limbaugh, having returned to the airwaves, accuses the Democrats of hypocrisy. After all, Bush is doing what they say they want the federal government to do, and they’re attacking him for it! Which proves that all they really want is power. Their motives are purely partisan.

Limbaugh is right, of course. But Bush and the Republicans are equally partisan, and at least as cynical. The Medicare ploy is a simple attempt to consolidate their power.

Is anyone surprised? Well, yes. I am. I never thought Bush had any real principles, but I underestimated his audacity. Just as I once thought his father would be boxed in by his “read my lips” pledge never to raise taxes, I assumed that the son would be inhibited by his conservative posture and some respect for his political base. He seemed to have learned something from his father’s defeat in 1992.

And no doubt he did. But the lesson he learned was not the one I assumed he’d learned. He has apparently decided that he won’t risk alienating his core supporters by forsaking any attachment to limited government.

Why? Because the conservative movement has also forsaken that attachment. It may not like expanding the welfare state, it may even grumble a bit about the Medicare boondoggle, but it has been captivated by Bush’s foreign policy. For such conservatives, the war on Iraq has defined Bush as a hero, once and for all. They aren’t unduly disturbed that the new Medicare entitlements, particularly prescription drugs, will remain a permanent albatross on the taxpayer long after they have served their purpose of securing Bush’s re-election. He is banking on their shortsightedness.

As president, Bush has yet to use the veto. No wonder federal spending has run amok. Once upon a time, the presidency was the chief check on Congress. The Tenth Amendment, limiting the U.S. government to its constitutionally enumerated powers, was enforced by the presidential veto. Even Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson sometimes vetoed congressional legislation.

The elder George Bush gained nothing by betraying his base; in fact it helped lose him the presidency. The younger Bush evidently reckons that his base won’t even feel betrayed by his deviation from — indeed, brazen violation of — its avowed principles. Yet even the Wall Street Journal, a leading cheerleader for the Iraq war, notes in a sour editorial that George W. Bush “has never met a spending bill he didn’t like.”
A Trusting Lot

What accounts for Bush’s deep emotional grip on conservatives? Part of it is simply that liberals hate him. He is definitely not “one of them,” no matter how much he enlarges government power. He flaunts patriotic symbols and uses military might. He is a pro-Israel Christian. He may not do much about abortion and sodomy, both of which contemporary liberalism holds sacred (so to speak), but he expresses at least mild disapproval of them, further enraging liberals. He has totally effaced his northeastern roots with a Texan swagger.

Deep in every conservative soul is the conviction that any man who drives liberals nuts can’t be all bad. Old-timers may recall how shrewdly Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew appealed to this sentiment.

Savvy Republican politicians understand well — as Nixon and Agnew did — that if you are verbally and symbolically conservative, you can get away with being operationally liberal. Only a few connoisseurs, like Howard Phillips, will notice the discrepancy.

Conservatives in general are a trusting lot, so accustomed to losing that they are grateful for even symbolic gestures. The elder Bush was too Episcopalian, for lack of a better word, to make such gestures with conviction; he took conservative support for granted to a degree that was almost openly insulting, reasoning that conservative voters had “nowhere else to go.” He forgot that they might just stay home, as many of them did in 1992 and even in 2000.

His son at least learned that he must try to generate enthusiasm and loyalty, and he has succeeded in doing so. He doesn’t want the next election to be quite as close as the last one.
A Natural Development

But is the old conservative philosophy totally passé now? Only a few congressmen, like that genuine Texan Ron Paul, are still fighting for it. Paul is warning that the Republican Party is close to making a total break with real conservatism.

But Republican conservatism has always been problematic. Even at its origins, in the days of Lincoln, it was dedicated to the Whig agenda of “internal improvements” that Jefferson had already condemned as beyond the powers granted by the Constitution. In those days it was the Democrats who resisted federal power, which grew riotously after 1865, when the Republicans enjoyed political hegemony.

The two parties began to reverse roles somewhat during the New Deal. But the Republicans soon acquiesced in the national welfare state and global interventionism. Conservatism made a partial resurgence with Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, but never renounced the entire legacy of Franklin Roosevelt. Today neither party retains any Jeffersonian roots. One might even say that the key to modern American history is the bipartisan repudiation of the old Jeffersonian consensus.

Seen in this light, George W. Bush’s aggrandizement of the federal government seems an entirely natural development.

SOBRANS, my little monthly, needs your help! And we’ll do our best to make it worth your while. Get your free copy of my pamphlet Anything Called a “Program” Is Unconstitutional: Confessions of a Reactionary Utopian. Just subscribe to SOBRANS for a year or more. Call 800-513-5053, or go to the Subscription page.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2003 by The Wanderer
Reprinted with permission.

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