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Archive for Sunday, April 29, 2001

Bush conservatism gains definition

April 29, 2001

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— Let's put this in perspective. Ronald Knox, the learned Catholic priest whose elegantly medieval mind converted a number of Oxford undergraduates in the 1920s and '30s, believed that airplanes, telephones and such gadgets were overrated and that the last good invention was the toast rack for the breakfast table. Now, that was a conservative.

At the 100-day mark, around George W. Bush swirl questions concerning his conservatism. It is less severe than Knox's, but more rounded than Ronald Reagan's.

Bush's conservatism is quintessentially Reaganite in several particulars. It emphasizes limiting the power to tax in order to control the power of the purse, and using tax cuts to implement long-term restraint on the growth of government promoting economic vitality, an economic value indispensable to a political one, upward mobility.

Bush's conservatism is more modest, which means more truly conservative, than Reagan's, because it is subdued by a more severe sense of possibilities: It is hard to imagine Bush ever voicing, as Reagan frequently did, Tom Paine's thought that "We have it in our power to begin the world over again." Bush's conservatism is broader than Reagan's because it has a deeper cultural dimension.

Bush's foreign policy is still embryonic, but already suggests conservative realism about the limited sway of power over events even the power of "the indispensable nation," as some conservatives in their triumphalism are too pleased to say. Bush practiced the essential conservative virtue, prudence, in selecting two advisers Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld long on the sort of experience that produces prudence. And Bush understands, better than some of his conservative critics, the very limited U.S. ability to control China's development or to engage in "nation-building" in the Balkans.

Furthermore, there are hints of sensible skepticism about using economic sanctions to shape the behavior of disagreeable nations. And skepticism about the role of referee in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Notice the encouraging fact that Bush has not appointed a special envoy whose mission is to fine-tune the fictitious "peace process."

In domestic policy, Bush's presidency is pervasively pro-choice, other than about abortion. Democrats are pro-choice about killing unborn babies but not about much else not about school choice for children who survive the abortion culture, or about giving individuals the choice of privately investing a portion of Social Security taxes, or about increasing individuals' choices by increasing disposable income through tax cuts, or about guns or smoking or ... you get the idea.

We have been warned that the vault of the heavens would crack, and the veil of the temple would be rent in twain, if "the religious right" came to power. Note the lack of cracking and renting. Bush is the religious right deeply devout as a result of a midlife reassessment of his life, and dismayed by the disdain of cultural elites for the old rules of middle America (such as those of the well-named place of his happy boyhood Midland, Tex.).

Bill Clinton, who, it was said, could cry out of one eye, suited this era of global moistening, of ostentatious weepiness and cheap commiseration. Concerning which, Bush can echo Samuel Johnson's warning to Boswell: "You will find those very feeling people not very ready to do you good. They pay you by feeling."

Bush has been splendidly brisk in undoing some of Clinton's concluding childishness Clinton's 11th-hour environmental regulations promulgated purely to provoke the incoming grown-ups to undo them. Do liberals, who are unhappy about Bush stripping the liberal-leaning American Bar Assn. of its semi-official role in evaluating judicial nominees, believe defense contractors and bankers should have such roles in selecting Defense and Treasury secretaries?

Bush's first 100 days have been an effective response to the almost lethal problem of the last 100 hours of his campaign. Usually, late-deciding voters break against the candidate of the party in power. Last November, they broke for Gore, probably because of doubts about Bush's aptitude for the office. Bush displayed such aptitude by paying no attention to those who said the closeness of the election dictated an accommodationist approach to Washington's political culture.

He has underestimated the problems of governance posed for a Republican by the media's increasing partisanship and decreasing intelligence witness the gullible and hysterical coverage of environmental matters. However, his remarkable carapace of confidence serves his executive temperament. To govern, said Churchill, is to choose. Bush makes choices, and moves on, a moving target.




George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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