Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
February 2, 2004
POLITICS: George W. Bush: Reform Conservative or Neoliberal?
One of the burning questions that has surrounded George W. Bush since he arrived on the national scene has been, how conservative is he, really? Four years ago, I thought I had an answer. Today, I'm not so sure.
To make sense of Bush's proper place on the Right, it's necessary to look at two significant political movements that have come to the fore in the past 15 years or so. Traditionally, the conservative movement has been driven by small-government conservatism, the idea that government is too big and intrusive and spends and regulates too much. Ever since the Reagan years, the small-government conservatives have been trapped in a sort of limbo: they've won the battle of ideas, but lost the political battle, most spectacularly with the failure of Newt Gingrich's 1994 revolution to eliminate any significant government programs.
Partially in response to this, we've seen the growth of what (at the risk of adding another sub-category) I've long liked to think of as Reform Conservatism. The central insight of Reform Conservatives has been that the most important problem with government programs is not that that they involve the government, but that they take choices away from individuals. The classic Reform Conservative solution is including privately controlled accounts within the Social Security system; rather than stage a losing battle over trying to scale back or get rid of the program, Reform Conservatives have focused on introducing within it an element of private choice to make the operation of Social Security more like a non-governmental program. The other signature issue of Reform Conservatives, school choice, operates the same way: it's still redistributing taxpayer money, but the decisionmaking authority over the use of that money is shifted to parents and away from school system bureaucrats.
As described, of course, many of the Reform Conservative ideas date back to Goldwater, but they have particularly boomed in recent years. It's clear that some of the high priests of the movement, like Jack Kemp, genuinely believe that Reform Conservative solutions are an optimal form of governance; most others more likely view it as a tactical compromise strategy to introduce at least some level of personal freedom and private choice into our system as it currently exists. In that sense, one can argue that Reform Conservatives are the truly conservative ones, trying to work with the system as it exists rather than perfect a utopian system that has no chance of adoption. (In either case, of course, most Reform Conservatives would still agree with traditional small-government conservatives that there has been plenty of spending the past four years that can't be justified under any view of conservatism, but that's another day's post).
The polar opposite of the Reform Conservative movement is the neoliberal movement, of the Pat Moynihan/New Republic/Mickey Kaus variety (Bill Clinton knew how to talk the talk of neoliberalism). The neoliberals generally agree with the conservative critique of the liberal public policies of the Great Society era -- that they erode personal responsibility and public accountability and incentives to work -- which is why they are more often quoted by their adversaries than by their allies. But neoliberals part company with the Right over the solutions to those problems, preferring instead to have government enforce standards that demand such accountability, rather than depending on individual self-interest.
The classic divide here is in education, between the Reform Conservative solution of school choice (competition! accountability to the parents!) and the neoliberal solution of requiring schools to meet standards (accountability to government!). On that score, Bush has come down firmly on the neoliberal side, abandoning all but the most tepid school choice provisions in the No Child Left Behind act in favor of federal standards. Reform Conservatives are restive.
Bush's "Compassionate Conservatism" was supposed to be a Reform Conservative movement, coopting many of the themes of the Steve Forbes '96 presidential campaign:
Even the faith-based initiative was sold this way: loosening government restrictions so that aid-dispensing groups had more autonomy to practice their faith. Ditto for opposing campaign finance "reform" while proposing additional disclosure requirements.
Anyway, one of the things I'll be looking for - and taking a look at as the campaign grinds on - is the extent to which Bush tries to reclaim some of the Reform Conservatism in his platform. We conservatives love Bush for his foreign policy, judicial appointments, and tax cuts, but on the core issues of domestic governance, there's been little to show for the past three years in the way of reform of the way government interacts with the people. If Bush runs as a neoliberal, he'll be sacrificing a big part of what made him such an attractive alternative to Shrumist populism in 2000 by offering genuine, rather than rhetorical, empowerment.