First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
What to Make of George W. Bush
I just finished reading Fred Barnes's book Rebel-in-Chief: Inside the Bold and Controversial Presidency of George W. Bush.
It's engaging and readable, despite a few editorial lapses -- though one must keep in mind that the author is far from impartial. Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard, a frankly conservative magazine -- though one of the best of the breed -- and he is the conservative cohost of The Beltway Boys on Fox News.
In other words, he takes it for granted that Ronald Reagan was a great president who pretty much saved the world from Communism. At the same time, however, he shows himself able to recognize faults on the Right as well as the Left, and for a conservative, he shows distinct signs of moderation.
In still other words, Barnes isn't Pat Buchanan or Pat Robertson or Jesse Helms. Though the Left calls all conservatives "hard right" or "extremist," in fact Barnes is a rational conservative, not an ideologue.
And his book reflects this. He had a chance to interview not only President Bush but also others in the administration; and he's widely connected in conservative circles.
Obviously, he's not going to write a book that tells us Bush is an idiot -- who would need a book like that, since millions of people repeat it dozens of times a day?
A President with Ideas
Barnes does a good job of proving his thesis: that W, unlike his father, is a president who does understand the "vision thing."
He entered the presidency determined to pursue important ideas, but until 9/11, it was impossible for him to get a recalcitrant Congress to follow his leadership -- after all, he was a minority president.
Though the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings provided the first impetus, he was never going to be a mere "caretaker president."
That's why he pushed for our war to be not just "against terrorism" but "for democracy" -- which is absolutely crucial if we're to have any hope of victory.
It also governs his thinking on other matters. The Left denigrates his outreach programs, like the massive funding to fight AIDS in Africa, and he gets bad press even when he does things that the Left should love -- but throughout his presidency, the evidence is there.
The Left even sneers at his migrant worker program, though it is obviously the only thing that can seriously curtail illegal immigration, and if it had been proposed by a Democrat, it would be hailed by the Left as the salvation of America.
George W. Bush wants to make the world a better place. He might fail, but it won't be for lack of trying.
Of course, many people can disagree about what "a better place" means. But when he talks about wanting to eliminate our addiction to foreign oil, he means it. And I find it amusing to watch commentators sneer at the ineffectiveness of his program -- even though they don't yet know what his program will be.
President Bush doesn't fit into any of the traditional conservative categories. He's not a country club Republican; he has no patience with racism or nativism, so he's not of the Jesse Helms or Pat Buchanan wing. Nor is he a libertarian or a small-government conservative -- quite the contrary.
What Kind of Conservative Is W?
The term Barnes uses for him is "big-government conservative." It's not a strictly accurate term, because Bush has no particular desire for government to grow.
Unlike a large number of Republicans, Bush recognizes that the American people want government to provide certain services and protections, and it's ridiculous to try to persuade them otherwise. Not directly, anyway.
So Bush's new additions to Medicare are expensive ... but they're also voluntary. This is the great secret of his view of government. When Bush talks about an "ownership society" he means it. Yes, the government will help; but the goal is to help people own things -- houses, their own pension funds -- and make their own choices, without government dictating to them.
Bush wants to shrink government, not by limiting the supply of money -- he borrows to make up the deficits -- but by seeking to shrink the demand for government services.
To President Bush, if you want to cut down on oil use, you don't make gasoline more expensive by raising taxes on it, you make alternatives cheaper and more widely available, so that the demand for gas goes down.
Instead of increasing welfare, you cut taxes to strengthen the economy -- which will grow new jobs quite naturally. Real jobs, that produce goods and services that people actually want.
In short, President Bush is a visionary, even a revolutionary; he is also a superb manager who does not waste his time trying to micromanage everything himself. He delegates; he campaigns for his programs; he gets out when a boat doesn't float, but he doesn't scuttle it, he repairs it and tries again.
The trouble is that there are significant numbers of Republicans whose brand of conservatism requires them to regard Bush as a traitor to the "conservative cause."
In my view, the "conservative cause" is every bit as incoherent as the "liberal cause." There is no compelling reason why someone who supports a strong defense department should also support assault weapons for everyone, or why someone who supports traditional marriage should also be opposed to expanding Medicare.
Fred Barnes's book is, to a large degree, an attempt to convince those Republicans that W is, in fact, a good conservative. He's just a little different.
Here's the difference: Bush is a raging moderate. He has ideas; he has, in fact, a vision; but it's not a rigid, exclusive vision. He's no fanatic. His revolution is to recover the sensible middle.
Unfortunately, he has to do it in a polarized America. He has to do it as a Republican.
It is precisely because he is an obvious moderate that the Left feared him so much and therefore vilifies him continuously as stupid and extremist, when they know perfectly well that he is neither.
It is also because he is an obvious moderate that the ideological conservatives in the Republican Party were slow to embrace him -- they kept hoping somebody else would emerge back in 2000.
What Is the Republican Future?
What we moderates worry about is quite simple: After him, who?
The secret agenda of Barnes's book is this: To persuade the rightwing groups in the Republican Party not to return to their ideological roots.
Instead, he is saying, look at how we can keep a permanent majority. Each group of ideologues may have to swallow hard on some parts of their wish list for America, but if we keep appealing to the same groups Bush has assembled into a national majority, the Republican Party can become the true majority party for years to come.
And since my party, the Democratic Party, seems grimly determined to become a monstrous caricature, wearing the faces of Ted Kennedy, Howard Dean, and Ms. Cattle Futures, I'm very much afraid that the next election will leave me with no presidential candidate I can vote for.
If the Republican Party makes the rational choice to choose a candidate who is truly in the mold of George W. Bush, then I will believe that it is a party worth joining.
But if the Republican Party repudiates Bush by nominating an ideologue of the right, I may end up having no choice but to vote for their candidate, but it will be while holding my nose, and my party affiliation will remain where it is.
Copyright © 2006 by Orson Scott Card.
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