The Economist: American Conservatives in the DUMPS

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Broadway Legend
Broadway Legend


The most obvious cause of the implosion of the Bush presidency is the disaster in Iraq. The Republican Party's biggest advantage over the Democrats has long been on foreign and defence policy. You voted Democratic if you cared about schools and hospitals. But you voted Republican if you cared more about keeping America safe in a dangerous world. September 11th 2001 turbo-charged that advantage. The Republicans used the “war on terror” to roll over the Democrats in elections in 2002 and again in 2004.

But the war in Iraq has buried this vital advantage under a mound of discredited hype (“mission accomplished”) and mind-boggling incompetence. A CBS News/New York Times poll found that only 25% of people approved of Mr Bush's handling of the situation in Iraq. An ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 63% of respondents did not trust the Bush administration to report honestly about possible threats from other countries. The damage is not limited to the Bush administration: a Rasmussen poll on July 25th-26th found that Mrs Clinton outscores Mr Giuliani as the candidate voters trust most on national security.

Mr Bush has also presided over the biggest expansion in government spending since his fellow Texan, Lyndon Johnson, provoking fury on the right. His prescription-drug benefit was the largest expansion of government entitlements in 40 years. He has increased federal education spending by about 60% and added some 7,000 pages of new federal regulations. Pat Toomey, the head of the Club for Growth, says the conservative base feels “disgust with what appears to be a complete abandonment of limited government.”

Many conservative activists would like to pin the blame on Mr Bush alone—either because he pursued foolish policies (the paleo-conservative version) or because he pursued sensible policies in a cack-handed manner (the neoconservative version). William Buckley, the conservative movement's pope, says that, if Mr Bush were the leader of a parliamentary system, “it would be expected that he would retire or resign.” Bruce Bartlett, a former Reagan-administration economist, accuses him of “betraying” the conservative movement. Other conservatives would like to pin the blame on the Republican Party. “We have to recognise that this was a defeat for Republicans, not for conservatives,” Newt Gingrich, a former Speaker of the House, argued after the 2006 mid-term elections.

In fact, the Republican Party in Congress is just as responsible as Mr Bush for most of the recent troubles. The Republican majority routinely appropriated more spending than the president asked for. It also larded spending bills with as much extra pork as possible. The number of congressional “earmarks” for projects in members' districts increased from 1,300 in 1994, when the Republicans took over Congress, to 14,000 in 2005.

The Republican majority also cheered Mr Bush all the way to Baghdad. Add to this the corruption of congressmen like Tom DeLay, a conservative hero, and the semi-corrupt institutional relationship that the Republicans formed with lobbyists, and you see that Mr Bush was only part of a much bigger problem.

Nor can conservatives claim that Mr Bush is a country-club Republican like his father. He has devoted his energies to giving “the movement” what it wants: the invasion of Iraq for the neoconservatives (who had championed it long before September 11th); tax cuts for business and the small-government conservatives; restricting federal funding for stem-cell research for the social conservatives; and conservative judges to please every faction.

This desire to pander to the conservative movement is partly to blame for the administration's practical incompetence. Mr Bush outdid previous Republican presidents in recruiting his personnel from the conservative counter-establishment. But this often meant choosing people for their ideological purity rather than their competence or intelligence. Some 150 Bush administration officials were graduates of Pat Robertson's Regent University, including Monica Goodling, who put on such a lamentable performance before a House inquiry into the firing of nine US attorneys. A more pragmatic president would surely have sacked many of the neoconservative ideologues who have made a hash of American foreign policy

The Republicans' problems are creating a civil war on the right about how to dig themselves out of their hole. This is producing some spectacular intellectual fireworks—fireworks that prove there is still a lot of intellectual life in the right. But such internal strife tends to put off the voters. And this civil war has the added problem that, from the point of view of broadening the Republican coalition, the wrong side has won too many important battles, not least on immigration.
The American right: Under the weather