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Doing What He Said He'd Do

President Bush's political philosophy - and governing philosophy.

by James Leroy Wilson
August 15, 2001

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Doing What He Said He'd Do_James Leroy Wilson-President Bush's political philosophy - and governing philosophy. This summer, Americans who paid federal income taxes last year are receiving tax rebate checks of $300-600. This is probably the only tangible benefit from the President Bush's tax cut that people will see. Although Bush's tax cut proposals were too small to begin with, let alone the compromised final legislation, these rebate checks are at the very least a politically astute maneuver. Bush made good on a promise: if you pay income taxes, you, and not just those richer than you, will get something back.

But while any tax cut is good, this one is more bitter than sweet, making one think of what could have been. Bush could have campaigned on cutting the top marginal rate to 28% at least instead of 33%; Democrats who apparently don't see taxes as government revenue but rather as a means of wealth redistribution, could not have been more severe in their criticisms.

But Bush is who he is, and nearly seven months into his Presidency we have a sense for his governing philosophy. Bush will honestly work to get his agenda passed, but his agenda is more moderate than we've been led to believe. Further, he will not waste time, effort, and political capital for fights either trivial or unwinnable. Ask Linda Chavez, his aborted nominee for Secretary of Labor. Or school voucher proponents. Or First Amendment supporters dumbfounded by his refusal to refuse to sign the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill.

If conservatism is defined solely by abortion, guns, and the death penalty, then yes, the President is a conservative. But for all of the media's labeling of the early Bush term as ultra-conservative, everything he's done - and everything he campaigned on - had been neo-conservative or moderate. A truly conservative candidate would have, among other things, called for much steeper tax cuts, may have rhetorically supported school choice at the local level but would have sought to abolish the Department of Education and many other federal programs, called for a re-examination of the War on Drugs for the sake of the Bill of Rights, and been forthright in condemning judicial imperialism of both the Left and the Right.

Bush's conservative apologists would argue that he knew these were not winning issues. I would suggest, instead, that Bush never really was all that conservative. He is definitely a Republican, a pragmatist in the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt, General Eisenhower, and Richard Nixon (whose signature established the EPA and OSHA.) He is definitely socially conservative on matters of life, family, and narcotics. But his belief that the federal government aid in achieving conservative social ends is a neo-conservative outlook; the traditional conservative position is that the best the federal government can do to help families, schools, the poor etc. is to stay out of the way. Bush is also Republican in the worst sense - foregoing free markets for the corporate welfare of tax inducements which his "energy policy" amounts to.

That's the not-so-dirty little secret within conservative politics. A truly capitalist regime would neither punish nor redistribute wealth, but it also wouldn't subsidize and favor some corporations over others. If corporations are really in control of everything, as the Leftists claim, and laissez-faire capitalism favors the corporations, as they also claim, why haven't the corporations contributed to, and used their media muscle, to support the Libertarian Party instead of the Republican Party? Because they know the Libertarian Party, founded on advancing principles rather than winning elections, would not grant them special favors and advantages.

Conservatives would leave markets alone; Republicans will intervene when they think it's popular, or when special interests persuade them with their cash. Or when, as I think Bush genuinely believes, government can be a force for good. Like Carter, Ford, and his father before him, I think he's a basically decent man who's doing the best he can. What's intriguing is that he, supposedly the least intelligent of all of them, is achieving greater legislative successes early on. Bush, like all Presidents, has made early political mistakes. He has also benefited by the gifted House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who has passed nearly everything Bush has asked for despite a slim six-vote Republican majority, and hampered by the incompetent Senate Republican leader Trent Lott, who actually lost the Senate for his party. Politically, Bush seems both more cautious and more ambitious than predecessors. He's not fighting for his agenda, he's actually "changing the tone in Washington" by avoiding fights yet seeing much of his agenda advance. I'm not surprised, but I'm not enthusiastic either.

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