A Challenge to the Free Market

George W. Bush
George W. Bush; drawing by David Levine

Is George W. Bush a conservative? Have his administration’s policies reflected conservative principles?

In both 2001 and 2003 President Bush successfully proposed large tax cuts. The President has also provided federal support for “faith-based” social programs ranging from soup kitchens to job training to prison education. And although there is no new legislation to show for it, Mr. Bush has consistently opposed both abortion and same-sex marriage.

But are lower income taxes, government funding of religious groups, and opposition to abortion and homosexuality all there is to American conservatism? What about some of Mr. Bush’s other initiatives? At home, the new Medicare prescription drug benefit is not only a large-dollar government entitlement but the first such program ever put in place without any provision for funding it. The No Child Left Behind Act mandates in exacting detail when states must test their schoolchildren, what should be on the tests, what criteria determine if a school is “failing,” and what its school board has to do when that happens. Abroad, the President has committed virtually the entire military capacity of the United States, along with approximately $1 trillion of government spending, to effecting regime change in Iraq and Afghanistan, followed up by extensive US-funded nation-building efforts of just the kind that Mr. Bush derided when he first ran for president.

Most recently, the Bush administration, armed with new authority it had requested from Congress to use taxpayer money for the purpose, took over the huge mortgage-lending firms Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. It then approved the Federal Reserve’s $85 billion rescue of insurance giant AIG. At Mr. Bush’s urgent request, Congress has also approved a further $700 billion to aid a wide variety of financial firms by taking off their hands (in exchange for cash) many of the mortgage-backed instruments and other bad credits that they had earned so much money creating.

Nor is the question of who’s a conservative limited to Mr. Bush or his administration. During his first six years as president, Republican majorities in both houses of Congress consistently supported whatever expanded spending programs, new government directives, and foreign adventures the administration proposed. Indeed, the 258 members of Congress who signed the “No New Taxes” pledge in the early years of this decade (almost all Republicans) turned out, on average, to vote for more domestic spending than those who didn’t.1

These lapses from conservative principles have not gone unnoticed. Christopher DeMuth, who is about to step down after twenty-two years as president of the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, noted in 2006:

In recent years, with the Republicans in charge of both houses of Congress, domestic expenditures (even excluding post-9/11 “homeland security” spending) have been growing faster than during the previous two decades of divided government, and the incidence of pork-barrel projects has reached an all-time high.2

According to Mr. DeMuth, the Medicare prescription drug…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.