Film director Oliver Stone explained conservatism on HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher” this way: “I do think [Richard] Nixon is the father of [Ronald] Reagan, and I think Reagan’s the father of [George W.] Bush. There’s sort of a very strong line.”
Mr. Maher enthusiastically agreed this is the leadership continuity that defines modern conservatism. Sadly, most conservatives would agree that these three Republicans constitute the movement’s patrimony.
Until conservatives become less confused about themselves than left-wing Hollywood directors and journalists, there is no hope of rebuilding a vital and relevant conservatism. Everyone these days agrees that Ronald Reagan was the epitome of conservatism. Most would say that George W. Bush at least tried to be one. But, contrary to the ravings on the left, Mr. Bush was no liar. He specifically invented the term “compassionate conservatism” to separate himself from Mr. Reagan’s philosophy, as did his father and Richard Nixon in their different ways. When the senior Bush promised that he would be a “kinder and gentler” president, Nancy Reagan famously countered, “kinder and gentler than whom?” — recognizing that his goal was to detach himself from her husband and his legacy.
In this regard, the apple did not fall far from the tree. The younger Mr. Bush was contemptuous of what he caricatured as conservatism’s supposed hatred of government. He defined his own philosophy as “when someone hurts, government must act.” Right from the beginning, he was as clear as he could be: “I am not a small government conservative, I am efficient government conservative.” At best, he was socially conservative and stingy on taxes.
In his first inaugural address, Mr. Reagan famously differed when he said, “Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.” Our problems “parallel and are proportionate to the intervention and intrusion in our lives that result from unnecessary and excessive growth of government.” Contra Mr. Bush, he was not anti-government but against intrusive big government. Even low taxes were a means, not the goal.
As Mr. Reagan put it upon becoming president, “We’re not cutting the budget simply for the sake of sounder financial management. This is only a first step toward returning power to the states and communities, only a first step toward reordering the relationship between citizen and government. We can make government again responsive to the people by cutting its size and scope and thereby ensuring that its legitimate functions are performed efficiently and justly.”
Mr. Bush and Mr. Reagan could not differ more. One thought government was the solution and the other thought government a problem. The proof of the philosophy is what the presidents did. Mr. Bush increased nondefense discretionary spending over his eight years by more than any president in modern times (and Mr. Nixon was close) while Mr. Reagan actually decreased it - by 9.7 percent, the only president to reduce such domestic spending over his whole tenure since before the Great Depression. While Mr. Bush created the first new entitlement since the Great Society, under Mr. Reagan nondefense domestic spending including entitlements went down from 17.9 percent to 16.4 percent of gross domestic product.
While Mr. Bush threw trillions at the 2008 recession, Mr. Reagan used tax and spending cuts to deal with the 1980 stagflation. During the even larger Black Monday stock crash in 1987, he “did nothing” (in his son Michael’s expressive phrase). Mr. Bush’s recession continues and Mr. Reagan’s lasted only weeks. Mr. Bush added 200,000 more regulatory pages to the Federal Register than Mr. Reagan, who had cut them back even more from his predecessor. Even on foreign policy, while both could recognize evil, Mr. Reagan espoused the Weinberger Doctrine limiting foreign incursions while Mr. Bush supported Wilsonian idealism and nation-building.
For eight years, conservatives basically supported the policies of Mr. Bush, only a handful opposing more federal control of education, prescription drugs, energy, housing, banking, autos and the rest. The result of those Bush policies is President Obama and Democratic control of both houses of Congress, while Mr. Reagan retired with great popularity and with his party controlling the presidency under a coherent and winning philosophy of government.
Rebuilding requires first things first. Grandstanding apologies of the Obama type are not required, but unless conservatives can admit in their hearts of hearts that Mr. Bush was not a conservative and did not pursue conservative policies — and that conservatives mostly supported party over principle during his tenure, it will be impossible to revive conservatism in any sense that Mr. Reagan or the other founders of the modern conservative movement would recognize.
• Donald Devine, director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during Ronald Reagan’s first term, is a professor of political science at Bellevue University and editor of the American Conservative Union Foundation’s ConservativeBattleline.com.