Sunday, November 30, 2008

Critiquing the Bush legacy

When things head south electorally for Republicans (as they did in this most recent election,) it is important to look back critically on the ideas, political tactics, and personalities involved in the debacle.

A perspective that is often forgotten, especially when Republicans are in power, is that of the so-called "Old Right."

There is good reason why some of the self-appointed banner-carriers of the Old Right are ignored. Some are second-rate intellects, others are consumed with ancient grievances against the early neoconservatives (former leftists who jumped on board as conservatives when the Carter presidency was imploding and Reagan came to power,) while yet others border on being racist kooks.

But much of the conservative heritage is wrapped up in the intellectual work of old-time men of the right, most of which was carried out while the right was in its decades in the post-war wilderness. For an excellent primer, get a copy of The Superfluous Men.

But getting back to some modern-day voices of Old Right ideas, one can get glimpses in the pages of the American Conservative, edited by Pat Buchanan. A recent issue reviews the Bush presidency, and not favorably. Yes, we are aware of all of the dirt dished out against Buchanan, but even those on the left have to admit that he had it nailed when it came to Iraq. The costs of those wars (and we're not talking about money) have been incalculable. We say wars, because what first got Buchanan thrown under the bus was his opposition to Bush I's war in Iraq.

Those wars have cost the conservative movement any real chance at reducing the size and influence of the federal government. They have cost us, in short, our entire domestic agenda, which is now lost for a generation -- which means permanently. It has been painful to watch conservatives line up in support of the perpetual state of war we have been engaged in ever since Bush the elder took office. One wanted to shake them by the lapels and say, "don't you see that these wars are going to mean that government will only continue to grow in size and power, that the American people will tire of an unwinnable war when we finally hit one and throw Republicans out of office, and that by bankrupting the country through an LBJ-style "guns and butter" approach, it will be a long time before we are trusted fiscally as a party?

Of course, attentive students of history know that there were conservative writers and thinkers who were making exactly that same argument in the post-war era with regard to the Cold War. Many on the right believed that communism was so fatally flawed as a system of government that the best approach we could take toward it was to ignore it and to allow it to fall under the crushing weight of its myriad weaknesses.

While William F. Buckley, Jr. remains a hero around here, there is still a contradiction at the center of his project of "fusionism" that has perhaps never been resolved, and that made the modern conservative movement incapable of dealing properly with the threat of an expansionist Islam. WFB and others believed that the war against communism trumped everything else, and that if the Cold War meant the creation of a massive federal government to carry it out -- well, so be it. Sound familiar?

We can never go back and unfight a war. We can never know how an alternative path would have played itself out. We can never know what would have happened had Bush the younger just went and killed the Taliban, and maybe bombed Iraq for good measure (but skipping the occupation and nation-building part) in response to the 9/11 attacks. We certainly don't know what would have happened had Bush the elder simply let Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia work out their own differences on the battlefield by themselves during the 1990's. Would there even have been a 9/11?

But we can certainly see what is: a mind-numbing national debt, vastly expanded federal expenditures, and the prospect of complete Democratic control of the White House and Congress for the foreseeable future.

If things were really that bad, doesn't the prospect of a Democratic administration actually portend something good? It is possible, but still doubtful. For those who harbor doubts, read Alexander Cockburn's article in The American Conservative. For those who are surprised to see this old-time leftist and long-time Nation contributor in the pages of a conservative magazine, don't be. Just read the article, and you will understand:

If there’s one thing defenders of civil liberties know, it’s that assaults on constitutional freedoms are bipartisan. Just as constitutional darkness didn’t first fall with the arrival in the Oval Office of George W. Bush, the shroud will not lift with his departure and the entry of President Barack Obama.

And again:

President Bush was also a man unbound by law, launching appalling assaults on freedom, building on the sound foundation of kindred assaults in Clinton’s time, perhaps most memorably expressed in the screams of parents and children fried by U.S. government forces in the Branch Davidian compound in Waco. Clinton, too, flouted all constitutional war powers inhibitions, with his executive decision to rain bombs on the civilian population of the former Yugoslavia.

Bush has forged resolutely along the path blazed by Clinton in asserting uninhibited executive power to wage war, seize, confine, and torture at will, breaching constitutional laws and international treaties and covenants concerning the treatment of combatants. The Patriot Act took up items on the Justice Department’s wish list left over from Clinton’s dreadful Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which trashed habeas corpus protections.

What is sadly predictable about all of this is that outside of the crotchety pages of rags like the American Conservative and the likes of writers like Cockburn and Buchanan, there is a consistent pattern in critiques of abuses of power -- conservatives criticize Democratic Presidents who do it, and liberals criticize Republican Presidents who do it. And as a result, not surprisingly, the tendency of each incoming administration is to grab for itself all of the power that the outgoing administration gathered for itself and to nab a little more in the process -- which then the next party's President will also consolidate.


Jim R. said...

What has hurt the GOP over the past 8 years is the out of control spending in Washington, DC. The war bill is bad enough... but the lack of GOP leadership on the current (and future) costs of social security and Medicare is embarrassing. We can not have everything we want. It's as simple as that. And if the voters do not want to listen to that, then you lead them to that conclusion.

I have issues with this paragraph:

"Of course, attentive students of history know that there were conservative writers and thinkers who were making exactly that same argument in the post-war era with regard to the Cold War. Many on the right believed that communism was so fatally flawed as a system of government that the best approach we could take toward it was to ignore it and to allow it to fall under the crushing weight of its myriad weaknesses."

Who on the right predicted that if the United States simply left the communist bloc alone, they would fall on their own? There were many on the right who called for detente with the communists. I don't remember any of them saying the communists were on the path to failure. From memory, a lot of folks on the right believed the Soviet Union would be around for all of their lifetimes. And communist China is still with us.

One more thought. The GOP has to make an example(s) of some of most blatant greedy SOB's on Wall Street. It is ridiculous that some CEO can run a company into the ground, bilk it's investors out of millions of dollars, and walk away with millions. If the "elite" will not police this kind of excessive horseshit, the argument falls into the government's lap. Where is the oversight? Where is the simple idea of doing what's right?

Sorry, I got off on a tangent there... but the GOP is not going to win anything if they act like the United States is a toy they can play with.

Montana Headlines said...

You are right that out of control spending has hurt the GOP. But the reality is that if you are going to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on a war in Iraq, today's politics require that you spend a bunch on domestic projects as well.

If the American public were truly convinced that these wars were essential to our survival as a nation, then domestic spending could actually decrease (as happened in every war prior to Vietnam.) But Congress obviously wasn't convinced of that, so they kept spending here, too.

To find conservative critics of the Cold War (or its precursors,) you have to go back to the 1920's through, say, 1950. There has been a book written about this subject: "Prophets on the Right: Profiles of Conservative Critics of American Globalism" by Ronald Radosh.

This is not to say that these conservative opponents of foreign interventions were right. We will never know. The point is that both proponents of an aggressive anti-communist strategy overseas and proponents of accommodation shared a common implied belief: that communism was an intrinsically superior system of government that would lead to them "winning."

Hawks believed this and thus promoted an aggressive Cold War strategy in order to stop it. Fellow-travelers or accommodationists on the left believed it and thought that resistance was futile -- join now and gain the benefits of socialism/communism sooner rather than later.

What is forgotten is that there were critics of communism on the right in the West who believed that the creation of a Leviathan state in America in the name of anti-communism was a greater threat to our liberty than was communism itself, which many believed was just too flawed a system to ever be able to overcome the inherent strengths of capitalism, democracy, and freedom. The quirky libertarian Murray Rothbard is an example.

The point, again, is not that these thinkers were necessarily right. And by the time later generations came along, there was a Cold War, like it or not, and it needed to be won and finished.

The point, rather, is that the devotion of Republicans over the last 20 years to an endless series of overseas interventions and wars under the Bush presidencies (and our toleration of the continuation of the policies under Clinton, who twice bombed the civilian populations of the Balkans into submission) has dealt a tremendous blow to the causes of liberty, smaller government, and lower taxes.

You cannot separate our addiction to spending on war and intervening abroad from our addiction to spending at home and intervening in our lives and our economy. They are both part of the same belief that government should have big programs to accomplish big things.

And once you have convinced the American people that the business of government is big spending, then they will choose the party that is better at it -- which is what just happened in the last couple of election cycles.

Jim R. said...

Thank you for the reasoned answer(s) to my questions. After reading your reply... I think the 'less government and lower taxes' crowd is in deep trouble. I'd like to think Americans will rise to the cause and understand that sacrifice is part of the success story. I don't know if I believe that anymore. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan resulted in no cuts in domestic spending... anywhere. I don't think those wars even slowed domestic spending down.

I take it that you do not believe the United States must act as a global policeman to protect it's interests. If so, doesn't that position hurt America's role in supporting free trade?

Also, I'm not sure that anti-communists in the United States who believed in destroying the Soviet system believed the Soviet model was a better form of government. I think most of them realized the Soviets were a peer competitor who wanted the United States diminished as a competitor on the global stage (if not destroyed). And the fight was on.

Your last 5 paragraphs... agree with you 100%.

Anonymous said...

I disagreed with President Bush signing spending bills as fast as Congress could pass them -

But lets hold off this talk about the Bush legacy, until after a few terrorist attacks on American soil under a President Obamas tenure.

I still believe that when then-President Clinton watched our embassy bombed, and the WTC bombed the first time, and did nothing, that it only encouraged Bin Laden.

How different the world might have been if Clinton would have had the backbone to act, and took out Bin Laden when he was given him.

The Bush policy of taking the fight over there will look much better then.

And if President-elect Obama makes good his vow to close all the coal mines and power plants, woe to Montana.

The Bush energy plan will look much better also.

So all-in-all, I'll put it on my calendar to put up a post about the Bush legacy, on Dec 1st, 2011.

Montana Headlines said...

Jim -- I agree that critics of communism didn't think it was a better form of government. What I said, or at least meant to say, was that they believed that communism could win, and destroy democratic capitalism if we didn't go abroad to fight it.

The countering viewpoint was that while America certainly needed to protect itself militarily and to win the war of ideas here at home to prevent communist ideas and revolution taking place here, we didn't need to fight it abroad -- and in fact by fighting it abroad, we gave global communism a credibility that it wouldn't otherwise have had.

Eric -- I would agree that the final word has hardly been written on the Bush administration. We have to acknowledge 4 things about Bush:

1. We have been free of terrorist attacks since 9/11. It is unprovable whether Bush is responsible for this -- but he certainly would have been held responsible for any additional successful attacks. So he gets credit in my book.

2. He appointed solid Supreme Court justices -- his most important lasting legacy. He needed some help and encouragement, but I think that Alito was always the plan for that second seat. There was a little strategery going on.

3. He held the line on human life. A temporary hold that will now be undone by the most aggressively pro-abortion President in U.S. history -- but Bush deserves credit for never caving.

4. He lowered taxes, and didn't raise them back. He fought, unsuccessfully, to make them permanent. But he fought for them, and it will be hard for future Presidents to go back to across the board high taxes -- as Obama is already discovering.

With a Gore or a Kerry, we would have had none of the above -- and we would have had all of the bad high spending that Bush did. And more. And we would probably also have had perpetual war (although not on such a large scale, perhaps.)

So I'm not ashamed of voting for Bush. But his presidency was still the greatest missed opportunity, perhaps, of our lifetimes. Had he stayed out of wars, been fiscally responsible, and simply not mismanaged so much of the federal government, especially in his last term, the political landscape would be drastically different today.

Ed Kemmick said...

"But lets hold off this talk about the Bush legacy, until after a few terrorist attacks on American soil under a President Obamas tenure" --

Eric says, rubbing his hands in gleeful anticipation.

It almost sounds as though Eric has some information on pending terrorist attacks. A little water-boarding might be warranted here.