Should conservatives back Bush?

By W. James Antle III
web posted May 22, 2000

My previous column contained a typographical error which greatly embarrassed me, and a statement that so shocked readers that few even noticed it. I accidentally and erroneously wrote that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1945, rather than 1941. This didn't receive nearly as much attention, however, as my casual comment that I might not vote for George W. Bush in November.

As a lifelong Republican, I would not withhold my support from the ticket lightly. Rather, it would only be with great regret after reaching the unfortunate conclusion that it was the best way to serve the conservative principles the Republican Party is supposed to uphold.

Gov. Bush has been a decent chief executive for the state of Texas, though his record of accomplishment - both by objective criteria and from the perspective of conservative ideology - is far less impressive than Tommy Thompson or John Engler's, to name a couple of examples. His five years in the nation's constitutionally weakest governorship may not adequately prepare him for the presidency. But if the presidency is what he has been preparing for as governor, then conservatives should prepare to be disappointed.

Bush's vaunted tax cut reduced the average Texan's tax liability by less than 0.5 percent. Taxes rose in nearly as many districts as they fell, and much of the tax burden was shifted onto job-creating businesses. He also broke a campaign promise (read his lips?) and attempted to raise the sales tax. Bush has presided over a 36 percent increase in state spending while federal spending under Clinton-Gore rose only 21 percent over the same period. His deal-making with Democrats puts Bob Dole to shame, to the extent that he has enjoyed support from the state's teacher's unions and been called "a Texas Democrat." The Washington Post has compared him to Clinton's Democratic Leadership Council, and called him "a New Democrat."

In fact, Bush had planned to run for president essentially as a can-do centrist in the New Democrat mold. This is why he criticized social conservatives for implying America was "slouching toward Gommorah" and accused the Republican Congress of "trying to balance the budget on the backs of the poor" - a line right out of the Clinton-Gore songbook, which is downright laughable considering this Congress' increasingly spendthrift ways. Again and again, he criticized the right's skepticism about government.

For his part, Bush supported continuing the Department of Education, Jimmy Carter's unconstitutional gift to the national teacher's unions which makes more than 50 percent of the rules effecting schools while providing less than 6.5 percent of the funds. He called for Clinton-ite "investment" in education to the tune of $8 billion and national service. He was preparing to run a moderate campaign patterned after Bill Clinton against conservative Steve Forbes, when suddenly John McCain emerged as his main opponent for the nomination and forced him to veer right. This is no different than his father, who ran as a moderate against Ronald Reagan in 1980, moving right to beat Bob Dole in 1988.

In fact, in his campaign autobiography "A Charge To Keep" Bush defends his father's 1990 promise-breaking tax increase on the grounds that "many economists" credit it with today's economic recovery. This does not bode well for the governor's commitment to lower taxes, despite his tax-cut proposal - remember that his father pledged in 1988 to freeze federal spending and keep the top marginal tax rate at 28 percent.

Conservative Bush partisans often tell me that the governor is merely running to the left to broaden his popular appeal so he can win the election. Then, once elected, he will revert to his true conservative self. This is little more than the politics of wishful thinking. Did Ronald Reagan run to the left to get elected? It would also be unprecedented - Republicans, including the senior Bush and Richard Nixon have typically run to the right in elections and governed well to the left of their campaign platforms. Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Bush and even Reagan have all disappointed conservatives in office and left intact most Democratic expansions of the federal government.

Ronald Reagan was the greatest president of the 20th century and the most conservative president since Calvin Coolidge. But he still left office without abolishing a single Cabinet-level department and only one government program of any great size. The federal budget exceeded $1 trillion under his watch. We amassed more debt than was necessary to win World War II. Conservative goals remained unrealized on abortion, school prayer, the role of government, rescinding the Great Society and New Deal and numerous other areas.

Were the Democrats culpable in any of this? Yes. Was this all Reagan's fault? No. But it does illustrate that even with a successful president who is a committed conservative, the left's handiwork is difficult to undo and government still tends to grow. What has George W. Bush done to show he would make things better as opposed to slowing the rate at which they get worse?

True, he would likely have a Republican Congress. But this is the same Republican Congress that outspent Bill Clinton by $5 billion in the 1997 budget agreement and is now busily shattering the budget caps that agreement set. Federal programs that Republicans would oppose if proposed by Clinton or Gore will pass when suggested by Bush. When the elder Bush was president, some of the most conservative Republicans in Congress voted for expansions of government out of loyalty to the president.

The problem conservatives have is that they too often simply seek to block or slow down liberal initiatives rather than stop and reverse them. They make compromises with the welfare state rather than restoring our constitutional republic. This makes their Republican champions preferable to the Democrats, but insures that eventually the liberals will get what they want. Republicans are always opposing the next big liberal initiative while accepting each preceding one as irreversible. So when the Republicans are beaten on the New Deal, they just accept its legitimacy and move onto fighting the Great Society. When that battle is lost, they support the Great Society but oppose national health insurance.

Fighting on this terrain gives the liberals as much of an advantage as in a hockey game where only one team is trying to score and the other is made up entirely of goalies. Unless the Republicans can come up with an infallible goalie, the Democrats will eventually score and inevitably win.

In this election, Pat Buchanan will almost certainly be the Reform Party nominee. He is not perfect. But he invokes the Constitution, rather than the latest clever think-tank policy paper. He would oppose unconstitutional military interventions around the globe that are not in our vital national interest. He would name a pro-life Supreme Court, repeal the graduated income tax, offer a larger net tax cut than Bush, abolish unconstitutional Cabinet agencies and unapologetically defend the Second Amendment.

Most states will also have the option an even more consistent champion of constitutional government, conservative activist Howard Phillips running on the Constitution Party ticket.

Bush would be substantially better than Gore. The question remains however whether Bush would take us down an entirely different path than Gore, or simply take us on a slower walk down the same path. Both are possible, and Ramesh Ponnuru has an excellent article in National Review on Bush's Social Security reform proposal that points to the former. I however see many indications of the latter. It is up to Bush to show which way he would go.

W. James Antle III has worked for the Rhema Group, an Ohio-based political consulting firm. You can e-mail him at

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