Redefining ‘Conservative’

Dan Froomkin does a good job today of covering how Bush’s speech last night was rather odd, in many ways, coming from someone who is self-described as ‘conservative’. Some of the media analysis brought together in Froomkin’s column today:

Mr. Big Government

  • Michael Tackett writes in the Chicago Tribune about what he calls Bush’s “act of political contortion” last night. “Government was no longer the problem. Government was now the solution. Federal spending was not to be curtailed. Record federal spending would have his full backing…

    “Throughout his nationally broadcast address from a shattered New Orleans, it was as though the disaster of Hurricane Katrina had transformed the president from the logical heir to Ronald Reagan to some curious amalgam of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.”

  • Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: “The era of big government is back. President Bush is presiding over the most expensive government relief and reconstruction operation in U.S. history, casting aside budget discipline. Bush and his Republican allies in Congress are deferring — for now — vows to finish the Reagan revolution against big government and turning to some of the same kinds of public health, housing and job assistance programs they once criticized as legacies of the Democrats’ New Deal and Great Society.”
  • Mark Whitaker of Newsweek had this to say: “I think whatever you think of all of this I think we should all step back and appreciate the irony of a president who ran for office originally in 2000 talking about limited government and a humble foreign policy who now sounds like Woodrow Wilson wanting to spread democracy around the world and abroad and now, at least in terms of this crisis, sounds a little bit like FDR or at least Clinton in one of his State of the Union moments. So, you know, there’s a lot about the red/blue divide in America but I can tell you that being a conservative doesn’t mean anymore what it used to mean.”
  • Over on MSNBC, chatting with Chris Matthews, conservative talk show host Joe Scarborough said: “This was a speech that really could have been delivered by Lyndon Johnson or Franklin Roosevelt… This sounds like the W.P.A. on steroids.”
  • Bush spoke dramatically about race:

    “Within the Gulf region are some of the most beautiful and historic places in America. As all of us saw on television, there is also some deep, persistent poverty in this region as well.

    “That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action.

    “So let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday, and let us rise above the legacy of inequality.”

    But consider what conservative talk-show host Tucker Carlson told Matthews on MSNBC last night: “The principal that people are poor because they’re discriminated against and the federal government can set that right by social spending . . . is a liberal idea. . . . This is what liberals say — it’s not at all what conservatives say — and the conservatives watching the speech tonight who noticed that line are sitting bolt upright right now and thinking, did I just hear him say that?

Many of us have pointed out for years that Bush could possibly be called a “big-government conservative”, or a “borrow-and-spend conservative”, but not a traditional conservative. In that sense, these media revelations are a bit late. And of course, with Karl Rove in charge of the reconstruction along the Gulf Coast, it remains to be seen to what degree Bush’s pledges simply amount to a handout to big business.

However, it is striking to me that, the more unpopular Bush gets in the wake of Katrina, the more desperately he is trying to grab the rhetoric and policy prescriptions of the Democratic party of the 1960s, and drop the policy prescriptions of the Republican party of the 2000s. Even if the Bush/Rove plan is to simply use big-government rhetoric as a route to new heights of political patronage, the Republican leadership today seems to believe that espousing traditional Democratic policies, and not Republican policies, is the path to greater popularity.

It is also striking to me that Bush has so publicly agreed with the line of reasoning that much or most of the poverty faced by African Americans in the US today is directly due to past and present racism and the legacy of slavery – and that he agrees with the traditional Democractic conclusion that African Americans are therefore entitled to greater sensitivity and assistance from the government.

And it is very striking to me that Bush is no longer simply increasing government spending because it is the path of least resistance (which is what the Bush spending increases of the past 4 years might have been); rather, Bush is now explicitly and publicly agreeing with one of the central presumptions of liberals and progressives, and publicly rejecting the central tenet of traditional Republicans, by saying that he believes that the government is not the problem, but rather is the solution. Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan must be turning over in their graves.


UPDATE: Max Sawicky has more on this subject, including the following priceless prose:

However messy the use of money becomes in the hands of the Bushists, I maintain that this is a watershed moment for the limited-government movement. What we have in this Administration is an unwholesome mixture — the term toxic soup comes to mind — of Christian fundy prejudice (towards non-Christians, science, and the Enlightenment), Wilsonian jingoism, and blind anti-tax sentiment. Big, stupid government is all over your bedroom and your public schools, driving your kids further into debt, rattling an insubstantial sabre at a legion of emboldened international miscreants. These people will be the death of us all.